Tiny spring azure butterfly on a bluet flower

“April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”

― William Shakespeare

April is the time of Hyacinth, tulips, apple and cherry blossoms, and, usually, April showers. Although we caught up from the drought of last year, this spring has been dry and we clearly need rain. Waking up on April 16, it was really no surprise to find it snowing as weather guessers reported it would get cold enough to turn last night’s rain to snow by this morning (but not in our area- ha!). In recent years there seem to be late snow events that have coincided with various trees and shrubs bloom time. Hopefully, this snow will not damage their flowers and buds.

Hyacinth under the snow

Bloodroot flowers have mostly come and gone and bluets have just started blooming heralding the expected return of some of our thrushes, such as the veery. Tiger swallowtail butterflies often visit bluet flowers, as do many native bee species.

Returning veery among some bluets

The six-spotted tiger beetles are out running along woodland trails. This small, predatory beetle is a brilliant metallic green, so it is hard to miss against a brown background of a woodland trail.

Six-spotted tiger beetle

The other day while walking up a woodland hill trying to find a barred owl family, I came upon a really nice surprise. Just poking above the leaf litter were these tiny purple-blue flowers that were new to me. The plants each had unusual leaves with three rounded lobes. Flower and leaf stems were hairy, and this small area was the only place they could be found. They are Hepatica americana, round-lobed Hepatica. A native buttercup family member, they can bloom March-May and are found on leafy woodland slopes with higher calcium content than most of our Connecticut woodlands

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Round-lobed Hepatica flower and leaf

Walking along the banks of a woodland double pond, there was evidence of recent beaver activity. A nice dam was getting some restructuring by the beaver, plus there were tree felling operations along the edges of the pond. Some nice moss was at the base of some  trees that so far are not in this beaver’s line of fire.

Moss under trees in a woodland pond
Beaver toothmarks and gnawed bark

I found what I thought were clam shells along this woodland pond’s banks, but found out they are really the shells of freshwater mussels that were eaten by a river otter, muskrat or some other animal and left behind for people like me to find. Freshwater mussels spend the first part of their life as a tiny glochidium on a host fish. Afterward, they fall off and drop to the bottom of the lake, pond, stream or river bed where they remain partially buried. They help keep water clean by filtering it as they eat algae and other small water organisms.

Freshwater mussel shell

Bee activity has been somewhat slow this spring, but recently a small Andrena nasonii ground-nesting bee was just emerging from under a landscape shrub where it had overwintered underground. This species often emerges when snow is melting and sometimes days before their foraging plants have flowered.. Most of our solitary native bee species are not aggressive, and this female rested on my finger for a while.

Native Andrena bee

Native eastern red cedar Juniperus virginiana is in flower along the shoreline in Connecticut. Male and female flowers are cone like structures called strobili, borne on separate trees. Male cones are oval to egg shaped, with yellowish brown scales that hold the pollen, and they are located at the tips of 2nd year branches.

Male flowers of eastern red cedar

Turkeys are still stomping, hissing and fanning their tails, mourning doves have just fledged their first brood, kit foxes are playing around their dens and spring azure, mourning cloak and comma butterflies are flying around, so April has succeeded in its modest enterprise of pushing new life out of its winter slumber.

Kit fox near its den

I agree with the sentiment of Hans Christian Andersen- “Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower. “

Pamm Cooper

Round- lobed Hepatica flower

“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