Spiffy Viola

“A gush of bird-song, a patter of dew / A cloud, and a rainbow’s warning / Suddenly sunshine and perfect blue / An April day in the morning.” – Harriet Prescott Spofford

Woodland fern frond underside loaded with spores

This April has been slow to warm up, but finally we are getting some warm days, and spring flowers and returning or migrating birds are beginning to make themselves known. Many birds, like Carolina wrens and bluebirds, have probably laid eggs already, or they will soon. Chickadees and some woodpeckers are tapping holes in trees to use as nesting chambers for rearing their young. A few early flowers are brightening up the landscape, and soon many others will follow.

A pair of chickadees made a hole in this dead tree trunk for a nest
Black and white warbler

On Horsebarn Hill, UConn’s pastureland, there are many birdhouses that serve as nesting sites for Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and sparrows. Early in the morning, birds can be seen sitting on top of the houses they have chosen.

Male and female bluebirds near their nest box on an April morning
The same pair after the male gave the female an insect as a gift

On Horsebarn hill, there are also young horses, cows and sheep that were born this spring. One is a friendly little colt I call Little Blaze- a friendly little chap with stellar markings.

Little blaze

Forsythias are nearing full bloom, and the early blooming Rhododendron mucronulatum ‘Cornell Pink’ have a profusion of pink flowers, being the first of its species to bloom here in the Northeast. Bees are visiting its flowers, as well as those of Cornus mas, another early blooming landscape shrub.

Forsythia used as a hedge
‘Cornell Pink’

Migrating birds that are passing through in early spring are just now arriving. Palm warblers, sweet little rusty brown warblers with a yellow chest with brown splashes can be found in wet arears like bogs that have a lot of trees and shrubs. They flit around looking for insects, wagging their tails when at rest.

Palm Warbler in boggy woodland area

Spring flowers like Coltsfoot, an introduced species, flowers as early as March, with yellow flowers appearing before their leaves open. Flower stalks have unusual scales. Seed heads are similar to those of dandelions, and silk plumes allow the wind to carry the seeds a distance. Birds use this silk for nesting material.


Twinleaf and bloodroot bloom very early. Twinleaf has an unusual leaf that is divided in half lengthwise. Bloodroot has a single leaf that appears after the flower and is wrapped around the flower stalk before opening. Both plants have similar bright-white flowers that stand out in the otherwise dismal landscape.


Turtles are enjoying basking on sunny days, and toads are around as egg- laying will begin soon. Spotted salamander eggs and wood frog eggs can be seen in some vernal pools already. The spotted salamander eggs differ from wood frog eggs in that the egg masses are covered with a clear or cloudy gel.

These painted turtles need a bigger log
Spotted salamander eggs

The Connecticut River is at flood stage, blueberries are just showing flower buds, and native willows are in full bloom, providing food for our early native bees. A few cabbage white butterflies can be seen floating by, and spring is about to go into full throttle.

A doughnut cloud…

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


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

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

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.


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.


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 on a sunny tree trunk during January


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-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

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

Marsh Marigolds blooming in a stream in early April 2015

Marsh Marigolds blooming in a stream in early April 2015

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!

Sitting Bull

I always look for marsh marigolds Caltha palustris L., also known as cowslip, along boggy woodland streams, in early April, and they were certainly blooming within the normal time period this year. Last spring they were late arriving, perhaps because of a snowfall in mid- April. Who knows? I am just glad to see them as they are a limpid herald of spring. Bloodroot is also an early bird, and I have some in my garden. But flowers have not opened fully or they close without good sun, so maybe soon we will have less gloomy gray days and I can see the flowers.

bloodroot 2011

Well, spring is trying to get started here in Connecticut and we seem to be on average ten to fifteen days behind normal plant development so far, according to the UMass Landscape Message report for April 24, 2015. After a winter that saw high snowfall over frozen ground, and topped off by continual cold temperatures after a two- day tease of high 60’s a couple of weeks ago, we all need a break from cold, gray days. That should happen soon. Maybe.

Lawns took a big hit this winter and spring from snow molds, voles and soggy soils causing the death of some areas of the lawn. Green up and recovery has been slow as soil temperatures are only in the upper 40’s. Regrowth is spotty at the moment. Of course, grubs are up and at ‘em and have been for a few weeks. Worms are near the surface and so are the moles that eat them. Robins are always a good indicator of the presence of earthworms near the soil surface, and so is mole activity. Vole damage may have killed large areas of lawns, readily seen where they clipped off the tops of the grass while under the protection of snow cover. If crowns were eaten, then raking up the dead material and reseeding will be needed.


Vole-and-snow-mold-damage-in April from 2015  winter snow cover


The time frame between forsythia full bloom and lilac bloom is typically when pre- emergent crabgrass control is applied. Be careful not to be too late or too early. Last year older forsythia cultivars were late and were in full bloom at the same time as lilacs. This year may prove to be similar. Hardy forsythia cultivars are already in full bloom, while the older ones are in sparse to no bloom as of today (April 28, 2015). If that is the case, make sure to apply pre-emergent products before lilacs bloom and some already have leaves and flower buds appearing.

As for the birds- I participate in the Audubon Spring Bird Count every year, which takes place from the last week of April through the first two weeks of May. The idea is to count species during this time frame, so many migratory birds make the count interesting as they pass through on their way north. So far even the birds that breed here are slow in arriving. Got one wood thrush, the first I saw this year, on Saturday. Savannah Sparrows are just arriving here in Storrs, so Bob-o-links and Meadowlarks should arrive soon as well. Pileated Woodpeckers, the Holy Cow! Behemoths that are here all year, are regular visitors to my backyard woods. Last week I was able to get a shot of a male and female on the same tree. How often does that happen?

Savannah Sparrow on Horsebarn Hill, Storrs April 28, 2015

Savannah Sparrow on Horsebarn Hill, Storrs April 28, 2015

Male and female Pileated Woodpeckers in my backyard woods

Male and female Pileated Woodpeckers in my backyard woods

Hummingbirds have been spotted in southern areas of Connecticut, so get ready with hummingbird feeders. Usually they arrive as apples are blooming or the early Azalea cultivars. Keep in mind that hummingbirds eat insects as well, and often can be seen in the woods, especially around oaks because these trees attract many insects. So the hummers will not starve if you are late with your feeders.

Bluebirds have built their nests already, or at least have picked out a good nesting spot. If you have a large open area near woods where you know bluebirds live, but have trouble with sparrows consistently taking over any house you may put up, consider putting up two or three houses 25- 30 feet apart.  At my golf course, and here on campus on Horse Barn Hill we put up three birdhouse in the same area and every year we have a tree swallow, a bluebird and an English sparrow in each box. Clean them out by early to late March as bluebirds select nesting sites early even though nest building may not occur yet.

Male Bluebird on this year's selected nesting box

Male Bluebird on this year’s selected nesting box

Insects are slowly but surely making their presence known. Butterflies seen so far are Mourning Cloaks, Spring Azure hairstreaks, Commas and Question Marks, and Cabbage Whites are migrating in this week. Bees and wasps are now common where flowers are blooming, and so are many flies. Lily leaf Beetles will appear as lily host plants start to grow, so be prepared to deal with that pest. Boxwood leaf miners should be in the pupal state soon, and adults should fly by mid May. Look for pupal cases that are exposed on leaves as the adults emerge to gauge when egg- laying may occur. Fireflies are also in flight, but are not in flashing mode yet. Six- spotted tiger beetles should be out and about. Check for these along open dirt roads or woodland paths- their brilliant green metallic elytra make them easy to spot. And tent caterpillars are emerging from their egg masses and using silk to make their tents at forks in cherry branches.

Tent caterpillars just hatched and in daytime shelter
Tent caterpillars just hatched and in daytime shelter

There is too much else going on to even think about, but I am glad that  green and other colors are on the landscape palette again. Here’s hoping we have a great growing season with lots of rewards for our hard labors.

Pamm Cooper                                    All photos copyright 2015 by Pamm Cooper

“Gonna find me a bluebird, let him  sing me a song
‘Cause my heart’s been broken much too long.”

– Marvin Rainwater, Gonna Find Me a Bluebird Lyrics, 1955

I have worked at two golf courses, both in Hartford County, and on both properties and in the areas surrounding the courses, bluebirds are found in abundance. having large, open areas and woodland edges, undisturbed waste areas, abundant numbers of fruiting shrubs and trees, and sources of open water, the golf course is an ideal environment for many birds, including bluebirds. While they  seemed to disappear from New England as farmland and other large open areas were lost to development or reforestation, bluebirds have made a dramatic comeback in recent years. Virtually unseen at our golf course, in the 1990’s, we saw our first mating pair in 1995. Since that time, we have put up numerous bluebird specific nesting boxes, and if tree swallows, house sparrows, or flying squirrels don’t get to them first, the bluebirds are in at least half of them. We sometimes see as many as 30 birds at a time flocking together as they have successful broods year after year.


Above: photo of male and female bluebirds- credit FNAL Fermi Lab

Eastern bluebirds are very social, and often large groups of them are seen flying from tree to tree or from tree trunk to the ground as they hunt for insects and fruit. They are adept at clinging to the trunks of trees, often perching there until they spot an insect to eat on the ground nearby. If you see a bird fly to the trunk of a tree, check it out. It may be a nuthatch, but perhaps you will discover it is a bluebird. I have found that, where there is one, there is often at least one more nearby. In the fall they are often seen together eating berries together with groups of cedar waxwings on cedars, Virginia creeper, and black gums, which are all naturally occurring native plants on our golf course. As both species of bird are social in nature, they don’t seem to mind each other’s presence on the same food plants.

During the summer, almost 70% of their diet consists of insects. They were a welcome addition to orchards in the past as they consumed many pests of fruit trees. This is why they are often found in old, neglected orchards as the insects are more abubdant because control measures for these pests have been abandoned along with the orchards themselves. Eastern bluebirds also eat fruits, including those of fruit of blackberry, elderberry, honeysuckle, dogwood, raspberry, mountain ash, pokeweed, Bradford pear, wild grapes and many other plants. In the fall they find berries of black gum, buckthorn, Eastern red cedar, Virginia creeper, and other trees and shrubs. Many bluebirds remain all winter, surviving on American holly, inkberry, winterberry, sumac, and other berries that remain throughout the winter monthes. Power lines can be a good place to find bluebirds during any season, as many food sources are available year- round.

This year many people reported seeing them on their suet feeders for the first time, perhaps due to the blizzard in february that covered many of the smaller trees and shrubs that would have provided some food. Every year can bring different conditions that may be extremely difficult for birds to survive, or perhaps make it much easier if fruit is especially abundant. As a side note to that- this year acorns were practically unavailable for squirrels, oaks having produced little because of cold weather during the flowering period. So squirrels were reduced to eating crabapples in the fall, leaving few for the birds that normally would eat them toward the end of winter.


Above: photo of male bluebird perched on tree trunk.  Photo credit:www.biosurvey.ou.edu

Males bluebirds will select holes for nesting purposes that have been excavated by flickers, woodpeckers or chickadees, as well as properly constructed and mounted nest boxes. If your property has large open areas bordered by an area of woods with a rather open understory, place a bluebird house on a post or the remains of a broken tree trunk of a size similar to a fence post. Be sure the box is near the edge of the woods where it will get some sun during the day. Or place it out in the open, especially along fence lines in open fields. If possible, face the opening toward a perching spot, such as the next fencepost or a nearby tree with open, low branches. Avoid facing the hole toward the afternoon sun if the box is out in the open- face the hole to the north or east if possible. Also, keep the opening from facing prevailing winds. The ideal situation is to face the opening toward a tree or shrub that is within 100 feet of the box. This will provide the fledglings with a safe destination for their first flight. The first time I saw a nesting pair, they had selected a rotten trunk of a tree about 6 feet high and 5 inches in diameter about twenty feet inside the woods. The entrance hole was at least four inches in diameter.  So you can see that nesting preferences are not necessarily ”  by the book”.

Bluebirds do not need a perching post under the nest box hole to enter or leave the box and may avoid nesting in boxes that have such perches. Leave the inside surface rough so birds will be able toget a grip to exit the house. Drill a few vent holes on the upper sides, and drain holes on the bottom. Insert a hardware wire support to keep the nest  about 1 ½- 2 inches off the bottom of the box. This may help keep blow fly larvae from crawling back on the nestling birds.


Photo above left: hiltonpond.org                               Photo above right: laspilitas.com

After the bluebirds have successfully fledged the first brood, clean out the old nest. The birds will build another if they have a second brood. If you forget, do not worry. I have actually opened a box in the early spring to clean it out only to find a female sitting on eggs in a second nest she had built on top of the old one. But is certainly best to keep the box clean. If other undesirable birds start to build their nests in the boxes, keep pulling the stuff out. We put three nest boxes within thirty yards of each other and get a family of tree swallows, one of house sparrows, and one of bluebirds every year. After cleaning them out, the birds select their nesting sites, and all are satisfied.

If you want to see bluebirds, check out the area along Horse Barn Hill Road where they usually can be found year- round. Another spot is the little cemetery on Bone Mill Road in Mansfield where they often perch on top of the old gravestones, especially from late March on through summer. Or just keep your ears tuned in for their distinctive ” wheedle wheedle ” as you are out and about. Happy hunting!

Pamm Cooper  UConn Home & Garden Education Center

This past Monday night, the featured speaker at my Garden Club was Bet Zimmerman who gave a really great presentation on Helping Bluebirds Survive and Thrive. Many of us are aware that bluebirds are making a comeback after years of decline due to habitat loss and from predation and competition by highly aggressive invasive bird species especially English sparrows and European starlings.  Both of these pest birds, by the way, were intentionally introduced to this country.

Key factors to helping our Eastern Bluebirds nest successfully include putting up the right nest boxes, monitoring these nest boxes so that only desirable native wild bird species are allowed to populate them, being able to recognize nests and eggs of both native and invasive cavity nesting bird species, controlling predators including English sparrows, and supplying birds with fresh water and sometimes food. While many species of birds build nests in trees, shrubs, under eaves and in other more open situations, bluebirds are cavity dwellers. In undisturbed wild areas they would build nests in the holes of trees that resulted from decay or that were created by other species. As wild areas are developed, trees are cut, especially these wonderful old, often dead, snags that make up such a perfect habitat for cavity dwellers like bluebirds, nuthatches, swallows, woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees and tufted titmice.

Bluebird at UConn Soil Lab, Photo by Deborah Tyser

Before hearing Bet’s talk, I didn’t quite realize the toll that English sparrows take on bluebird populations. I thought they just competed for nest boxes but these nasty little birds will crack bluebird eggs, kill the young fledglings and even decapitate adults. I learned that it is better to not put up a nest box than to put one up and let English sparrows nest in it. At the Soil Testing Lab on the UConn Mansfield Depot campus there are a number of bluebirds and I had put up a bluebird box. The first year I was so delighted when a pair of bluebirds set up housekeeping, laid a clutch of eggs and I could hear the young birds peeping when the parents were bringing them food. Then I came back after the weekend and found baby bluebirds dead on the walkway. I didn’t know how this would happen but turns out deeds like this are characteristics of English sparrows. I will start monitoring more closely and also setting up sparrow deterrents. For all the information you need about attracting and helping bluebirds make it in your neck of the woods (fields actually) check out Bet’s website, www.sialis.org.

Pair of Bluebirds, Photo by Deborah Tyser

Not only has the Soil Testing Lab been getting a considerable increase in samples sent in for vegetable gardens but also for small fruits like blueberries, strawberries, brambles and grapes. Growing one’s own food is a great trend. Imagine fresh, quality produce from your own backyard! It also really makes one appreciate some of the trials and tribulations that farmers have to contend with when growing the food that many of us have come to expect to find on grocery store shelves.

American grape varieties prefer acidic soils

In general, any of the small fruits are fairly easy to grow. They each do have some specific cultural considerations that should be explored before purchasing the plants. One such item would be their soil pH requirements. Both blueberries and American grape varieties, like the Concord, need acidic soils. This would explain, in part, why they are found growing wild in New England where acidic soils prevail. Strawberries, brambles and European grape varieties are happy if the soil pH is somewhere in the mid 6’s. Changing the soil pH is not difficult with limestone being added to raise it up or make it less acidic and sulfur or aluminum sulfate used to lower the soil pH. The bottom line is that plants do best when grown under the right conditions. Whether you check the soil pH with a home testing kit or send it to our lab (www.soiltest.uconn.edu),  it is important for plant health and well worth your time.

Blue pulmonaria in my white garden

And now a question I have been asking myself for years – why did all the pulmonaria seedlings (lungwort) that came from the white flowering cultivar, ‘Sissinghurst White’ in my white garden end up having blue flowers and all the seedlings from the blue flowering ‘Mrs. Moon’ in my birdhouse garden bloom white?

 Enjoy the spring!