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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.

 

 

 

 

reflections in a vernal pool showing spotted salamander eggs left, wood frog eggs top, and spotted salamander larva to the right. April 10, 2013 Photo Pamm Cooper

reflections in a vernal pool showing spotted salamander eggs left, wood frog eggs top, and spotted salamander larva to the right. April 10, 2013 Photo Pamm Cooper

Vernal pools are seasonally fresh- water flooded depressions, usually filling with water in the spring as water tables rise in the spring. Although some depressions are filled in the fall, and may be referred to as “ autumnal pools “, the vernal pool in Connecticut contains water for about two months during the growing season. It typically has no outlet stream, and no fish populations are found in them. Most years, vernal pools dry out completely by late summer.

Vernal pools are rich breeding areas for many amphibians. Some of these amphibians need to complete at least part of their life cycle in the pools before reaching adulthood. Look for eggs of the various amphibians that will be born there starting in late March through early April. Among them are wood frogs, spotted salamanders, marbled salamanders and gray tree frogs, and to some extent spring peepers, American toads and red-spotted newts.

Spotted salamanders and wood frogs lay their eggs in vernal pools in the spring, and the nymphs need time to develop into air- breathing amphibians before the pools dry up. A droughty spring can mean disaster if the early stages of the amphibians still have gills and the pool dries up. This spring started off droughty, but recent rains may have helped prolong the length of water retention in Connecticut pools.

If you are adventurous, spend some time looking under logs and leaves in areas surrounding vernal pools, even after the pools have dried up. You may be rewarded with some good finds. On one recent log rolling venture, my sister and I uncovered many red- backed salamanders. The day after a rain you may find red- spotted newt efts and box turtles, especially near woodland vernal pools.

The red- spotted newt has a complicated life- cycle. It hatches from an egg laid in the spring under decaying leaves in a pond, then lives as a carnivorous larvae with a finned tail and gills, much like the spotted salamander. But the red-spot undergoes metamorphosis into an eft form later in the summer where it has lungs and lives outside the water for several years. Then it undergoes a second metamorphosis into its final adult form where it finishes its life in the water.

Eft stage of the red- spotted newt photo by Pamm Cooper may 13, 2013

Eft stage of the red- spotted newt photo by Pamm Cooper may 13, 2013

Spotted salamanders on the other hand spend little of their time in the water. Eggs are laid in large clumps in vernal pools after adults migrate from burrows in the wood during winter rains. The aquatic form of this salamander can sometimes be mistaken for polliwogs by the casual observer. Their development into terrestrial forms depends upon the water temperature. The warmer it is, the faster these salamanders develop into the land- dwelling form. After they move to land, they are seldom seen as they are of a nocturnal habit, dwelling in hardwood forests and swamps. This salamander depends upon vernal pools or wetlands where no fish are found that would feed on the eggs and larvae.

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Wood frogs are among the first breeding animals to arrive at the vernal pool. Listen for their loud quacking and shortly after look for their Wood frogs lay eggs prolifically in vernal pools. The egg masses of wood frogs are usually attached to vegetation near the surface of the water and may-cover the surface of the pool if wood frogs are in abundance. They can survive in pools that dry up by August as the tadpole stage typically is completed by mid- June to mid-July in Connecticut.

Egg string of the American Toad Picture taken April 20, 2013 by Pamm Cooper

Egg string of the American Toad Picture taken April 20, 2013 by Pamm Cooper

There are many other things found in and around vernal pools that we can observe and appreciate. The next time you here incessant quacking in the woods in early spring, remember the wood frog. And think about all the drama about to unfold as the melting snow and rising water table provide the perfect environment for the unheralded amphibians of the woodlands.

Pamm Cooper

All pictures Copyrighted 2013 by Pamm Cooper