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

– William C. Bryant


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

willow started to bloom February 28 2017.jpg

Pussy willow

Pamm Cooper                                                  all photos © 2017 Pamm Cooper








sunset Henry Park Vernon Autumn 2015 copyright Pamm Cooper

Sunset at Henry Park

“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house”   Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Autumn seemed to last forever this year. Colors were especially vibrant on many species because the conditions that are clear, dry and cool but above freezing result in the best fall colors. Coupled with dry conditions this spring, plants produced chemicals that would result in more colorful leaves later in the year. Trees kept their leaves in color longer than usual and warm temperatures were somewhat responsible for this. Many oaks whose leaves are brown to yellowish brown in the fall were brilliant shades of red instead.


Scarlet red oak leaves November 2015

A sudden, severe drop in temperature during an abnormally warm October resulted in sudden leaf drop on some species of trees. In particular, gingkoes and black walnut had most of their leaves drop like stones while they were still green. Others had the leaves turn brown and shrivel up without falling to the ground. Especially hit this way were Japanese maples, locusts, chestnuts and some hickories. This anomaly happened because when the leaves on these species were about to turn color and finish the transition into late autumn dormancy, the leaf abscission process was interrupted or bypassed. Trees and shrubs that turned color before or after the cold snap completed the natural abscission process, while leaves are still clinging to some that could not.

Japanese maple leaves after major cold snap and frost October 2015

Japanese maple leaves shriveled and remaining on tree November 2015

New England experienced mast crops of acorns and hickory nuts this year and apples and crabapples were loaded for bear. Because of the great acorn supply, deer and turkeys are keeping a low profile so far, staying in the woods where the acorns are abundant. Some people that have chronic deer issues on their evergreens rake up acorns and deposit them within a wood line where deer can easily find them and stay off the rest of the property (maybe!).


Fully loaded crabapple tree

Birds that were eating winterberry and crabapples at this time last year- robins and cedar waxwings, among others- have left these fruits untouched. Part of the reason is because cedar berries and many seeds have also been available in large numbers. Worms were still near the surface of the ground recently and robins could snap them up. Moles have been troublesome this fall because of the worms and other insects that have remained high in the soil profile, but the weather has taken a turn as of mid- November, so that will change.

red breasted nuthatch copyright Pamm Cooper

Red-breasted nuthatch- a visitor from the north

Look and listen when outside this fall and winter. Many birds such woodpeckers, chickadees, brown creepers and nuthatches are very vocal in the fall and winter. Pileated woodpeckers have a notable clarion call and can be seen easier while the leaves are off the trees. Red-breasted nuthatches sometimes remain this far north for the winter and may appear at suet feeders. Look for bluebirds where there is plenty of open ground or old orchards. While some migrate, many are still here in the winter. Along the Connecticut shoreline it can make for an interesting day of birding as many coastal birds arrive for the winter. Look for a stray snow goose among flocks of Canada geese.

Female pileated copyright 2015

Female pileated woodpecker

If horseradish, radishes, as kale, Brussels sprouts or other brassica vegetables are still flourishing, be on the lookout for the imported cabbage worm caterpillars. They are still feeding and should be in the final caterpillar instar. Look for chewed leaves with veins remaining. Swiss chard and other leafy vegetables may also be under attack by armyworms and cutworms, which will feed on foliage this time of year before finding overwintering spots.

cabbage worm on horseradish November 14, 2015

Imported cabbage worm on horseradish November 2015

Bagworm alerts are in order. Check out arborvitae, junipers and other ornamental evergreens for the bags fashioned from pieces of the host plant’s foliage. Remove by hand if this is practical as the eggs are laid inside the bags and will hatch out next year and begin a new feeding frenzy of the caterpillars. When they finish eating the foliage of one plant, they will move off that plant and proceed to the next. In this way, they sometimes defoliate an entire hedge or other planting. This is not a surprise attack- a little vigilance will reveal the onset of this pest.

bagworms on ornamental evergreen copyright

Atlas blue cedar with bagworms

Check out the sky at dusk and dawn as spectacular reds, pinks and lavenders rule the northeast during the cold months. Extended dry conditions made leaves that much lighter and easy to rake, but Connecticut is about 5-6 inches below normal rainfall. Maybe winter will provide enough snow to make up the difference, but I opt for autumn rains to accomplish that job.

turkey in the snow


Pamm Cooper                                     All photos © 2015 Pamm Cooper

Along the lovely and historic Route 5 in Enfield, Connecticut is a home that was built in 1782 by John Meacham and was originally intended for use by the church parsons in Enfield. It was called Sycamore Hall for the row of sycamore trees that stood between the house front and Route 5. If you were to drive by today you would see one large, majestic sycamore that still remains. It is quite a tall specimen, well above 60 feet in height although many sycamores may grow to 100 feet or more.

The beautiful view of the front of the Parsons House

The beautiful view of the front of the Martha A. Parsons House Museum, formerly known as Sycamore Hall

In fact, there is a sycamore in Simsbury, CT, known as the Pinchot Sycamore that stands 112 feet tall and has a circumference of 234 inches. Known for its spreading, crooked branches the Pinchot Sycamore has a diameter of 147 feet. It is at least 200 years old and may be even closer to 300. It was dedicated to Gifford Pinchot, a Connecticut native and conservationist, in 1965.

Meanwhile, back in Enfield, several sycamore saplings were planted in 2010 to replicate the original view of the Parsons House along Route 5. The trees are known as The Gettysburg Sycamores as they are said to be the descendants of the sycamore tree in Pennsylvania that President Abraham Lincoln passed under on his way to and from his delivery of the Gettysburg address.

The Gettysburg Sycamore saplings

The Gettysburg Sycamore saplings

The commemorative plaque

The commemorative plaque

The American Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, is one of the most easily identifiable shade trees due to its very unique bark. The tan-gray bark starts off smooth and pale but then begins to peel away in large flakes in mid-Summer. The now-exposed underlying surface can be brown, green or gray and gives the tree an appearance of camouflage.

The distinctive sycamore bark

The distinctive sycamore bark

The sycamore is a deciduous tree with simple alternate leaves that are palmate with three or five lobes. The leaves of the sycamore can often be mistaken for maple leaves but they do not have any of the beautiful fall color that maples have. The foliage of the sycamore may turn yellow but often goes directly to an unattractive brown before dropping. This abscission exposes the buds that have formed within the base of the petiole and that will be next year’s leaves. It is a very unusual arrangement as most buds are formed in the axil (the angle between the leaf and the stem).

Sycamore leaf on the left, maple leaf on the right

Sycamore leaf on the left, maple leaf on the right

My second favorite thing about the sycamore (after its very cool camouflage appearance) is the seed structure. The flowers themselves are tiny and are grouped in crowded ball-shaped structures. The fruit that form next are one-inch balls that go from green to brown and give the sycamore its alternate name of ‘Buttonball Tree’. These brown balls are covered with achenes which are actually individual fruits that each contains a single seed. The achenes that cover the outside of a strawberry are often mistaken for seeds. Other plants that exhibit this tendency are buttercup, buckwheat, cannabis, and maple. The maple tree achene is winged and called a samara. Roses also produce achenes and although the rose hip is considered the fruit it actually contains a few achenes. But unlike the edible strawberries or rose hips, the achene of the sycamore can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems for humans.

The different stages of the button ball

The different stages of the buttonball

The achene of the sycamore has a hair-like structure that allows them to be broadcast in a manner that is referred to as a tumble or diaspora. They can travel very far on the wind or even by floating on water. And like so many other seeds they can also be dispersed by birds and animals which eat them and then pass them out in a new location. Some species that are fond of the sycamore achenes are American Goldfinches, Carolina Chickadees, Purple Finches, Mallards, Beavers, Muskrats, and Gray Squirrels. The beaver also eats the bark of the sycamore and many animals make use of the tree as shelter.

A sycamore devoid of leaves but still bearing its many buttonballs

A sycamore devoid of leaves but still bearing its many buttonballs

The American Sycamore, as one of the most common shade trees planted in the United States, is a strong and durable specimen that brings much interest to any landscape.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

I look forward to filling the window boxes with pansies each spring for the Easter holiday. However, that did not happen this year as my daughter Hannah discovered that a bird had laid a 1” white egg in the flower box outside of her window! The next day there was another egg in the same nest and then a Mourning Dove took up residency.



Since that time the female and male doves have been taking it in turn to sit on the eggs. This is quite admirable as there is no overhead protection and we have had a few very cold and rainy days and nights. Also, she sometimes appeared larger and more fluffed out than at other times and I assumed that this was related to the ambient temperature.


A bit of research taught me that the male and female actually take it in turn to sit on the nest, the male during the day and the female at night. So it is more likely that I was looking at two different birds!


I found that Mourning Doves raise three or more broods in a single breeding season so it will be interesting to see if they have chosen our window box as a permanent location. Mourning dove nests are usually a flimsy platform nest of twigs located from 5 to 25 feet up in a tree or bush so the current location seems to fit their needs as it is outside a second story window. The nest itself appears to be lined with dried White Pine needles. Each brood consists of two nestlings. One egg is laid in the evening, and the second on the next morning which is what we observed. The incubation period is 14-16 days and it was 16 days after we spied the first egg that I looked out and saw the two nestlings had hatched! They picked a pretty cold and rainy morning to make their appearance.

IMG_20150420_071233722 - Copy


Nestlings, cared for by both parents in the same day/night pattern as incubation, fledge (learn to fly) in about 12-14 days. It seems incredible that they can achieve that so quickly. The parents continue to care for the fledglings until they are 25 to 27 days old. One parent or another is on the nest continually from the time that the eggs are laid until the young are well grown.

Mourning doves are found across most of North America. They are smaller and lighter colored than the common city-dwelling Rock pigeon. They are grayish-olive above, lighter underneath, have black spots on their wings and a black cheek spot. Mourning doves have a long, tapered tail that comes to a point. Mourning doves are present in our yard in northern Connecticut all winter, feeding on the ground from seeds that have been dropped by other birds at the feeders. They are actually known to become tamer during the breeding season which can explain why they are not bothered by our presence as we look out of the window at them and marvel at the sight of them.

Susan Pelton

The Return of the Grackles

This has been a very cold and snowy winter but spring is right around the corner. There is nothing better than a walk around the yard looking for the first signs of the crocus pushing up through the sometimes still snow-covered ground. Or cutting forsythia branches to bring inside where the warmth of our home will force the buds into blooms of yellow sunshine. And each year we look forward to the return of the grackles, a sure sign to us that winter is losing its grip.

image 1         Since 1996, when they arrived on March 6th, my daughter Hannah has been tracking the reappearance of the grackles each spring. Her journal entries document this harbinger in a way that only a child could. Her entry in 1998 at the age of 8, complete with a drawing, is priceless.

diary 1

diary 2

diary 3

The dates have fluctuated from the earliest sighting on February 20, 2005 to the latest on March 21, 1999. The temperatures also have ranged from 33 degrees on that same day in February in 2005 (although it had been close to 50 degrees in the days prior) to 68 degrees on March 17, 2003. There have been years where snow still covered the ground.

diary 4diary 6

Everyone may not be as happy to see the grackles as we are. Although primarily ground feeders they will clean out a bird feeder in no time at all if there is still snow cover. Between them and the starlings it can be a chore to keep the suet and feeders full for the other birds that have been feeding all winter. The grackles move into this area as their breeding grounds after wintering just a bit to our south in Pennsylvania and all the way to Florida. They forage and roost in large communal flocks of up to a million individuals and can therefore have a huge impact in an area. Grackles will eat ripening corn as well as corn sprouts and are the #1 threat to the corn crop causing damage in the multimillion dollar range.

Hannah went off to college in 2008 but we still look for the grackles to return and I send her a picture at the first sighting each year.

image 2

image 3

image 4

If you are interested in tracking birds or other species in your area there are a couple of great options. The USA national Phenology Network is an organization that collects such data from researchers, students, and volunteers as a tool to understanding and adapting to variable and changing climates and environments. Please visit their site for more information: USA-NPN. Also, mark your calendars for February 12-15, 2016 for the next Great Backyard Bird Count as another way to help track bird species in your area.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

This has certainly been a very cold winter and so many of the feathered species that remain in Connecticut rely on backyard feeders for a good amount of their nourishment. If you are providing for the birds in your yard (as we are) you are probably going through quite a bit of bird food. Have you ever noticed the variety and attractiveness of the seed bags? The images on the bags are quite lovely and so colorful. And the bags themselves are both waterproof and durable as they need to keep the seed dry and contained during the storage time.


In 2010 my fellow Master Gardener, Ellen Bender, showed me instructions that she had found on-line that would recycle empty birdseed bags into durable tote bags. I made several of the tote bags that were sold as fundraisers for the UConn Tolland County Extension Office. These bags are great for carrying damp gardening gloves and boots or bathing suits and towels. If you have a sturdy sewing machine, an empty birdseed bag, and about an hour’s time you can construct one for yourself. I use a #16 needle (such as you would use to sew denim) and heavyweight thread. The instructions are as follows:

Step 1: Depending on the size of the bag you may want to trim material horizontally from the top, bottom or both. This will be used to construct the handles so you want a piece that is at least 3″ wide. Try to keep as much of the image as possible.

Step 1

Step 2: On the top edge, fold it over twice (as if you are hemming jeans) and sew it.

Step 3

Steps #2 & #3

Step 3: On the bottom edge cut 1″ notches from the corners. Sew the bottom seam and then zigzag stitch it to finish it.

Step 4: Fold the bag at the notches so that the bottom seam is against where a side seam would be then stitch and zigzag.

Step #4

Step #4

Step 5: Using the trimmings, cut two strips to be used as handles. Fold in the edges and stitch down both long sides.

Step 5

Step #5

Step 6: Fold the ends of the strips under an inch. Evenly space the handles and sew them on the outside of the front and back of the bag.

Completed bag   101_0324

101_0327 (2)

Please check our archives for the blog posting from January 16, 2014 entitled ‘Eating Like a Bird’ for information on caring for our feathered friends during these cold winter months.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

Red-Breasted Nuthatch near a suet feeder

Red-Breasted Nuthatch near a suet feeder

In what I consider the generally bleak winter landscape here in New England, there are still things of interest to be found when we tramp around outdoors. Whether in your own backyard, the woods, on nature trails, in open fields or on the side on the road, there will be something of interest to find.

Because most leaves have been shed by woody plants, we can see where birds have nested earlier in the year. Northern Orioles attach their unique hanging nests to slender, drooping, tree branches. Often their nests incorporate a piece a colorful ribbon or yarn, especially purple ones. Some birds’ nests are very durable, but others are constructed to last only until the nestlings get to the fledgling stage and not much longer. Of note this year are the abundance of paper wasp nests as well.

Many birds do not migrate south and can be found year- round wherever there are food sources available. Crabapple trees can be an important source of food during hard winters with a lot of snow cover. Crabapples, whether still on the trees or fallen on the snow are eaten by many birds, but Robins and Cedar Waxwings are especially found feeding on the fruit. Bluebirds, Starlings, White-throated and Song Sparrows often join them. Waxwings in particular may be found in large numbers, and they can be identified even before you see them by their high pitched whistle. Later in the winter, fruit of winterberry and cedar may be eaten by these same birds. Sumac berries are usually at the end of the list, but after a long, cold winter with little else available until spring, sumac is better than nothing. Suet feeders may draw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or even a Red-breasted Nuthatch, both birds living far to our north during the breeding season.

Yellow- bellied sapsucker on suet during a blizzard

Yellow- bellied sapsucker on suet during a blizzard

Hawks are much more visible during the winter, especially as they fly by day and perch in the leafless trees looking for their next meal to show itself. Hawk identification gets easier as many hawks, such as the Broad- winged, migrate in the fall. Red- tailed hawks are easy to spot, especially if seen from the back when they are perching. Power line right- of ways are good spots to see many hawks as the open areas provide them a good field of vision. Red-shouldered hawks also may remain, but tend to be found more in the southern part of Connecticut.

Check out woodland areas where there are good stands of white pines and hemlocks and there might be evidence of the behemoth Pileated Woodpecker. Deep rectangular holes hammered in the trunks of pines are signs of a Pileated searching for carpenter ants or other insects. Often they return to re-tap these holes on a regular basis so a stake- out may be in order if you want to see one of these magnificent birds. They have a distinctive call, as well, and will often be very vocal when they land on a tree. Given their size, it is singular that they are seldom seen by many people. Barred owls are a good find any time of year, but winter jaunts into the woods can be rewarded with a sighting. Look for them on lower branches of evergreens, and listen for raucous calls of blue jays or crows to lead you to roosting owls.

Signs of recent Pileated Woodpecker activity

Signs of recent Pileated Woodpecker activity

One of the most distinctive fruits seen in the landscape or the wild is that of the Winterberry- Ilex verticillata. The bright red berries are often so numerous that snow easily collects on the clusters and makes for a stunning display. This year turkeys were feeding early on winterberries within reach, although the berries are usually a late winter food for most birds. As with the crabapples, birds will eat these during the winter or sometimes even late fall if food supplies are short. Cranberry viburnum is also a shrub that that provides a splash of color in the dull winter scenery, while not an important food source for too many bird species.


Insects may be far from our minds during the winter, but their presence is really not far away. Some overwinter as eggs and egg cases of some are easy to find. Mantis egg cases are laid on stems of many plants and are readily found on plant stems and stalks in fields or other open areas. Also gypsy moth eggs can be found on lower parts of tree trunks. Cocoons of the Promethea and Cecropia giant silkworm moths can be found by checking for a rolled leaf tied by the petiole and dangling from a stem or branch (Promethea) or looking for leaves tied along a branch (Cecropia). Also, if the weather warms up for a few days, lightning bugs may appear on the sunny side of tree trunks where they overwinter in bark crevasses and cracks.

Fireflies on a sunny trunk on a warm January day

Fireflies on a sunny trunk on a warm January day

Winter is an ideal time to check out the form and growth habit of deciduous trees. Catalpas, Black Gum, Dawn redwoods and Pin Oaks have distinctive branching that is especially evident after the leaf fall. Beeches and sycamores have distinctive bark all season, but coupled with the growth habit made evident in winter, the bark is enough to add interest in any landscape. Both Gingko and beech trees have distinctive growth buds that make winter identification all the easier.


Classic White Oak growth habit at maturity


I get out of the winter doldrums by getting attuned to whatever presents itself as a point of interest in an otherwise cinereal landscape. Sights and sounds still can provide an interesting addition to a winter walk and give a sense of vitality still evident in nature.

Pamm Cooper                              All photos © 2014 by Pamm Cooper