Wildlife


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Groundhog in field. pcooper photo

February brings groundhog day at its beginning and some longer day-length and light at the month’s end. It is always a little exciting to watch silly weather-men and women  with a groundhog waiting to see if it will cast a shadow on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it is believed he will go back to sleep for we will have six more weeks of winter.  We in Connecticut should know it is still too early for this hibernating animal to wake from its winter slumber deep underground if it were left to its own in a natural environment. Thankfully we have a few nature centers caring for rescued animals that would otherwise not survive in the wild. Some have a groundhog or two to share with the public on this most ceremonious day of weather prediction. And the annual tradition continues with much lightheartedness bringing needed smiles and community, and a 50 50 chance of accuracy.

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Punxsutawney Phil (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

How they get the groundhog to participate is a great feat, because after all, it is a wild animal most people encounter feeding on lawn and gardens, or on sides of highways in open land. They are those brown, ground hugging mounds moving in the grassy areas along the roads.

Other names for groundhog are woodchuck and whistle pig. They do make a whistling sound when alarmed and a ‘chuck chuck’ sound both inspiring their common names. Their Latin name is Marmota monax and are a rodent in the squirrel family. These ground dwelling rodents dig tunnels two to five feet deep and up to 30 feet long. They usually produce one generation per year in litter numbers of two to six born in April or May. At six weeks of age, young are free to forage for themselves and leave the den on their own. That is a lot of woodchucks for one small, suburban lawn!

I personally have a running summer battle with a family of groundhogs determined to scale the fence surrounding my vegetable garden and eat just about everything I grow.  Fencing should be left loose and angled out and away from the garden so the climbing animal will fall out rather than into the garden. Bury the bottom of the fence 1 1/2 to  2 feet deep to prevent digging under the fence. Stringing an electric fence wire four to six inches above the ground in addition to the fence will give the animal a shock, providing it with a lesson not to return. Animal repellents of hot pepper, garlic, sulfur and predator urine can all be sprayed around areas you want to protect. These usually need to be reapplied after hard rain. It is illegal to put out any poison which targets woodchuck. Trapping is allowed according to the Connecticut DEEP, with relocation onto State managed wildlife areas or forests. However, DEEP does not recommend relocating nuisance animals as it is very stressful for the animal. It will not have housing, food or water and usually ends in death of the animal. DEEP recommends humane euthanization.

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Woodchuck in trap. Pamm Cooper photo

Groundhog, woodchuck or whistle pig, whatever you call them, they can do a lot of damage. Below is a picture of a pretty old weeping cherry tree on the great lawn of the UConn campus in Storrs. I have been watching the steady decline and eventual death of this specimen tree due to the extensive tunneling and den building, excavating under the roots. There are large soil mounds and a wide hole giving access and  protection. UConn has many such areas providing shelter to the ever-growing population of these animals, which can be common place to see all over campus. Stepping in one of holes can also be a danger. Farmers have long battled with woodchucks making holes in pasture and field, especially dangerous for horses and cows which could break a leg.

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Death of weeping cherry due to woodchuck tunneling under root system. Pamm Cooper photo.

If control measures of fences, repellents and traps still leave you with a groundhog problem, there is always the option of hiring a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator licensed by the State. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nwco/nwcodir.pdf

-Carol Quish

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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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Cedar waxwings in a Hawthorn tree, an important food source for birds in the winter

I love the outdoors and have spent a lot of time off the beaten track exploring since I was a young adult growing up in the Chenango River valley in New York. The way to get acquainted with nature is to get out in it. And I have done so all my life. This year was a good one for me personally as far as observing nature in all its glory. Even though the weather was colder in the spring and hotter and drier in the summer, and perhaps was the hottest year on record, there was a lot going on, both on a typical and uncommon level.

The first surprise was a pleasant one- a larger than average number of foxes spotted in all kinds of places. Innumerable times I saw foxes in the wee hours of morning returning with prey for their young. Whether in rural or residential areas, these animals were having a great year. The ones I saw had healthy skin and fur, and certainly had no trouble finding food. On the golf course where I work, there was a pair of foxes that had a den of kits just inside the woods by a tee. Every day like clockwork, they had a specific route they traveled going from the den to hunt, and they had a specific, different, route returning to the den with their quarry. The good news was they killed a lot of troublesome landscape troublers- mice, voles and even several woodchucks.  Later on, the parents would be accompanied by the kits as they learned to hunt.

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Cooper’s hawk patrolling near a bird feeder

Although a dry year, the two or three thunderstorms we had brought out a few creatures the next day. One of my favorites is the eft form of the red- spotted newt. These tiny, bright orange amphibians sometimes  venture out of the woods after a rainy night and sometimes can’t seem to find their way back. Several fairways tend to have these guys on them in the mornings, so I am on the alert for them as I mow. Box turtles are also known to put in a similar appearance on days after summer rains. This year I was able to help a granddaddy of a box turtle get across a very busy road safely. This particular turtle  was one of the most ornately marked ones I have ever seen.

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Eft form of the red- spotted newt happily returns to the woods

Another creature that had an exceptional year was the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. The previous year, they were few and far between, but in 2016 they had a banner year. The host plants of the caterpillars are spicebush and sassafras and careful examination inside leaves  folded lengthwise reveal the larvae of this butterfly. It seemed like whenever you came across  a host plant, at least one of these caterpillars was somewhere on it. On one small spicebush in a butterfly garden there were six caterpillars from eggs laid by six different females.

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Two spicebush swallowtail caterpillars found on the same sassafras sapling

Fall leaf color wasn’t great at first- perhaps because of the drought- and some red maples that turned early were actually yellow or brown in color. But there was a snap of cold in early October and a day later the leaves were at peak color, a sudden surprise after a drab start. Oaks were also beautiful this year- not dominated by the browns of last year. Red and white oaks had striking reds, and some red oaks produced yellow or tan. Acorns were not particularly abundant, but enough were around to keep deer, turkeys, squirrels and chipmunks in good supply. This was actually good for the squirrels and chipmunks because in late September and early October they were not able to find many maple seeds to eat because of the sudden freeze in April that caused many maple flowers to drop early.

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Willow leafing out in the snow on April 3, 2016

While insect populations, especially caterpillars, seemed low this year, bumblebees and other native bees abounded. Late season bloomers like mums, asters and goldenrods provided many insects with a good source of pollen and nectar. I found a small goldenrod in full bloom after Thanksgiving, which was very unusual. Bumblebees, some small native bees and honeybees were active up until Thanksgiving week, at least here on the UConn campus and in my backyard garden because alyssum, some hydrangeas and a few obedient plants were still in flower. And the caterpillars of the imported cabbage worm butterfly abounded late this season- even into December- especially on certain ornamental cabbages. A good find this year was a scarlet malachite beetle- on a blade of grass near my front step. This was only the second one I have ever seen, so it was a noteworthy event. The excitement never ends…

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scarlet malachite beetle

This year there was a pair of barred owls that had a nest inside a standing dead tree trunk on the side of a country road I travel on every day. In the pre-dawn when I passed by on my way to work, the parent owls would often be bringing the last protein nuggets of the night’s hunts back to their young. In the afternoon, both parents would be guarding the nest from perches nearby. In the pre-dusk twilight, the young owls would appear at the entrance of the nest hole and let it be known that they were hungry. And so the hunts would begin, to continue until the following dawn. I missed them all when they fledged and went off into the wild blue to learn to be on their own.

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Barred owl guarding her nest during the day

Wild blueberries were especially abundant this year, as were huckleberries. Noticeably fewer were dewberries, which are produced by plants that creep along the ground. Late in the season, migrating birds had few cedar berries to eat (unlike the bumper crop of last year), but at least black gum, poison ivy and Virginia creeper were loaded with fruit. Migrating warblers such as the yellow- rumped warblers are especially fond of these fruits. And if you have a bird feeder and some woods nearby, keep on the lookout for small raptors like the Cooper’s or the sharp-shinned hawks which prey on other birds. If birds around the feeder scatter suddenly, there may be a good reason, apart from a cat. During the winter, check out any hawthorn or crabapple trees that still have fruit. Robins and cedar waxwings are common winter visitors to these trees.

And as a final note, enjoy what is left of the year. And have a Merry Christmas! Or whatever you may celebrate at this time of year…

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Highland Park Springs Manchester, Ct.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s that time of year again when the Asian Lady Beetles are seeking a place to spend the winter. They are congregating on the sun-warmed sides of buildings and homes looking for a protected site or tiny opening to crawl inside to a warm and dry place, out of the coming cold. They overwinter as adults in a dormant state, not eating, drinking, mating or laying eggs. They are not doing any damage to the house, just using it like a bear uses a cave for the winter.  Once they are inside, some are fooled by the artificial environment we create by lighting our home during the night hours and heating when it is cold outside, to come out of their winter rest early, becoming a nuisance inside.

Their spots and coloring will vary, but they will also have the same ‘M’ mark in black on their head.

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A gathering of Asian Lady Beetles.

They are annoying to share living space with them. Keep them out of your house by keeping screens in screen doors in good repair. Caulk or seal up any cracks or crevices allowing access for them to crawl inside. Screen attic vents and fan covers to exclude lady beetles from attics and air inlets. Pesticides are not warranted for them as they are considered beneficial. Vacuum up any that do make their way into the home.

Other insects that have the same habit of trying to get enter buildings to overwinter in their adult stage are stinkbugs, boxelder bugs and leaf-footed bugs. Control measures are the same as for the lady beetles.

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Boxelder bug

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Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

 

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Leaf-footed Bug

-Carol Quish

 

 I love insects. They are amazing.”  Andrea Arnold  

The UConn Bug Week programs were held over the last week of July this year and for our particular Bug Week event on July 30, we started early on in the season acquainting ourselves with the world of insects and searching high and low for specimens we could find and then bring home with us to raise. While rearing insects, you learn a lot about what they do, what they eat, how they behave and what their life cycles are.

Some of the fabulous volunteers -Bug Week 2016 Amy Estabrook photo

Some of our Master Gardener Volunteers- Amy Estabrook photo

We had several bug hunts from early June on and went to specific areas searching for specific insects and any surprises that might turn up. Volunteers from the Master Gardener program spent two months looking for and raising insects in the hope that they would be available as live specimens for our event on July 30. Of course, many pupated and that was that. But we still had a lot of wonderful specimens to show all the people that attended our program. We had display boards that our volunteers made for their particular insects, and with the live specimens, people got to see insects up close and personal.

Bug Week 2016 Suzi Zitser photo of Debbi Wright's display board

Debbi Wright’s fabulous display for the Virginia Creeper sphinx moth- Suzi Zitser photo

Our event was held at the Tolland County Agricultural Center, home to the Tolland County UConn Extension Office. There are over 35 acres of woodland, wetland and open environments, plus pollinator and butterfly- friendly plantings all over the property, so we were able to go outdoors and take advantage of all the gardens and wood lines to search for insects.

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Volunteers show visitors our insects. Photo by Earl Parent

Among the insects we had for specimens and displays caterpillars of the clear dagger moth, mottled prominent, Virginia creeper sphinx, milkweed tussock moth, Monarch butterfly, stink bugs of all kinds, Imperial moth caterpillars (just hatching that day), tobacco hornworms on their favorite tomato host, beetles, John Suhr’s moth and butterfly collection plus the UConn Natural History Museum brought some specimens from their fabulous collection. Other specimens included red-lined panapoda caterpillars and orange-striped oak worm caterpillars. We also had two walking sticks which were found in early June when they were the size of a thumbnail.

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One of our walking sticks out for a walk- Earl Parent photo

AMy Estabrook photo of Leslie and friends and a walking stick Amy Estabrook photo

Amy Estabrook took this photo of Leslie showing our walking stick to two small guests

We had three bug walks as well, and found interesting insects of all kinds- a Buffalo treehopper, leaf-footed bug nymph, silver-spotted skipper caterpillar, an apple maggot fly, a salt marsh tiger moth and a chickweed geometer moth just to name just a few. Many butterflies were also floating by  as we did our walks and we ended up seeing them again  when we got to the butterfly garden.

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Jean Laughman finds some good insects on her beating sheet

 

The TAC Center has one of the best butterfly gardens going, and has been well maintained by Tina Forsberg and Jean Laughman. It has a spicebush in the center of one side and on it we found 6 spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, one of which was only a couple of days old. Hummingbird moths, swallowtail, crescent, skipper and, brush foot butterflies were there, and we even found a tiger swallowtail egg on a small black cherry.

chickweed geometer moth Bug Week insect hunt Pamm Cooper photo

Chickweed geometer moth Pamm Cooper photo

Butterfly garden walk with Tina Forsberg

looking for bugs in the butterfly garden

saltmarsh tiger moth Estigmene acrea found resting in the butterfly garden

Salt Marsh Tiger moth found in the butterfly garden- Pamm Cooper photo

Thanks are in order for all our Master Gardeners and Master Gardener interns for a job well done. Without your efforts, this would not have been a success, nor as interesting an event as it was. Also, thank you Joan Allen, for your talk on vegetable insect pests, and Dave Colbert for bringing terrific specimens from the UConn Museum of Natural History.

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Leaf- footed bug nymph found on a bug walk- Pamm Cooper photo

 

After all our hard work raising insects and running around finding host plant material to feed them, and after many long insect hunts in 90 degree weather, I guess we were all happy, in a way, to see Bug Week draw to a close. My dining room table is no longer a laboratory and that is how it should be. And yet, I do miss the pitter-patter of tiny little feet…

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

“In summer the empire of insects spreads.”
― Adam Zagajewski

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Elderberry borer

 

Toward the end of spring and the beginning of summer, I find that the most interesting insects are to be found. While spring offers some really good forester caterpillars and their attractive moths, among other things, nature seems to me to save the best for last, it seems to me. From beetles to butterflies, moths and their caterpillars, from June on there are some fabulous finds out there.

I have to admit to being a caterpillar enthusiast, and am partial to the sphinx, dagger, slug and prominent caterpillars and then the butterfly cats as well. Last year the swallowtail butterflies were few and far between, but this year our three main species- black, spicebush and tiger- are clearly more numerous. If you know where to look, you can find them.

I like to turn over elm leaves and search for two really spectacular caterpillars. The first is the double-toothed prominent, whose projections along its back resemble those of a stegosaurus. Along with its striking coloration and patterns, this is a truly remarkable find for anyone who takes the time to look and see. The second one is the elm sphinx, sometimes called the four- horned sphinx. This caterpillar has both a brown and a green form, and has little ridges running along its back. It is a behemoth, as well, like many sphinx caterpillars- robust and heavy.

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Caterpillar of the Double-toothed prominent moth

 

Long-horned beetles are out and about. Impressive because of their long antennae, these members of the Cerambycidae family of beetles can be impressive both in color and size. The larvae are round-headed borers, and are often plant specific as in the case of the pine sawyer. One of my favorites (but not because I love the larvae) is the elderberry borer. A pest of elderberries, the beetle is a brilliant metallic blue with orange bands on the elytra. This impressive beetle was featured on a postage stamp once upon a time, probably promoted by someone who did not have any elderberries in their garden.

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Eyed click beetle- a beneficial click beetle

Tussock moth caterpillars are in a class by themselves. Some here in Connecticut are a sight to behold, with the tussocks of hairs on their backs, long pencils front and rear (sometimes) and long setae along the body. The white- marked tussock moth caterpillar is a favorite among insect enthusiasts, resembling Bozo the clown in a way with its red head and wild hair. Found on many plants, both woody and herbaceous, these guys can be pests if enough of them are on the same plant. Blueberries are a favorite, but they can appear on almost anything. The yellow- based tussock is especially interesting because the final instar has hairs that appear frosted. Some of the tussock moths have pretty markings, the hickory tussock moth and banded, for example, and many are attracted to lights.

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White-marked tussock caterpillar

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Yellow-based tussock moth caterpillar

white furcula caterpillar Pamm Cooper photo 2016

Walking sticks and mantids can be found resting on vegetation during the summer. Right now, walking sticks are small- one inch to two inches, and they develop slowly. Mantids develop slowly as well, and are especially found on goldenrods as the season progresses, as insect life abounds on these plants.

milkweed beetle taking off copyright Pamm Cooper

Milkweed beetle

Other insects of note are the hoppers, of which the tree hoppers are especially interesting. The buffalo tree hopper is easy to identify- look at its head to see how it got its common name- and many tree hoppers have interesting projections on their pronotums. Assassin bugs can be found along with their insect prey on the milkweeds, which are just starting to bloom now. The common milkweeds abound with the color of butterflies and milkweed beetles, the activity of bees, and the scent of the flowers themselves.

Buffalo hopper

Aptly named buffalo tree hopper

Get out now and discover the fascinating world of insects. You may need only venture as far as your own backyard.

 

Pamm Cooper                   All photos copyright 2016 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.

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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.

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Blueberry flowers

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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.

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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

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