bloodroot (2)

Bloodroot

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still…”

Robert Frost

After an extremely dry 2016, spring is already bringing abundant showers here in Connecticut. Vernal pools in most areas have reached their full capacity of rainwater and snow melt. Streams are running strong and ponds that were so low last year are filling up. The warm February weather almost tricked some plants into budding out too early, but the snow and cold that came in early March nipped that process in the bud. Phoebes who had returned in early March were greeted with a foot of snow and freezing temperatures. But they survived. Now we are seeing April return once again, and with it should follow the heralds of warmer weather and longer days.

trout lilies Pamm Cooper photo

Trout lilies in open woods in April

Native willows and maples, such as the red maples, are blooming now and early native bees are availing themselves of the pollen and nectar they provide. Colletes inaequalis– small, handsome ground-nesting bees- are emerging from their winter pupation homes in the soil, where they have lived all their pre-adult lives. They are important pollinators of many early- flowering native plants and often form large colonies in open areas of lawns with sandy soils. They seldom sting, and by the time grass is mowed for the first time, these bees are usually no longer flying in lawn areas. Females dug holes, bring in pollen and nectar they put in a “cellophane “ bag they make, and lay an egg on top. The larva feed on that supply until they pupate, and will emerge as adults the next spring. Queen bumblebees should be out and about any time now as well.

Colletes inaequalis bee covered in pollen- willow 4-3-2017

Native Colletes inaequalis bee foraging on a willow flower

Spring peepers, out in late February for about a day just prior to a snow and freeze, have been giving a nightly chorus now for a couple of weeks. Wood frogs are singing and should be laying eggs any time now, along with spotted salamanders and the American toads.  Check out vernal pools for the floating egg masses of the wood frogs and the rounded masses of the salamander eggs stuck to twigs, stems and leaves under the water surface.

vernal pool reflections in April Pamm Cooper photo copyright 2017

Reflections on a vernal pool- with wood frog and spotted salamander eggs and young spotted salamander larvae swimming on right

Red trillium, Trillium erectum, should bloom around mid- April, if not before.  Tiny bluets, bloodroot and trout lilies also bloom April to May here. Bluets are also an important source of pollen and nectar for many pollinators and spring- flying butterflies such as the spring azure and tiger swallowtail. Dead nettles bloom by late April and receive visits from nay pollinators including honeybees, bumble bees and other native bees, syrphid and other flies and some butterflies.

Red trillium April Pamm Cooper photo

Red trillium

Birds have been singing their morning and evening songs for a while, and the one that sings the most- all day- is the song sparrow. Males sit on the tops of small trees and shrubs, singing to announce their territory and to find a mate. The wood ducks are here now. Look for them in woodland ponds where there is good cover from shrubs and small trees along the water’s edge. These are very shy ducks and often take flight at the tiniest snap of a twig, so stealthy moves and quiet are the way to see them. Check out the trail behind the Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset State Park in late April. You may get to see small flocks of glossy ibis in the salt marsh area as they migrate through on their way north.

song sparrow april 13 2016

Song sparrow with its rusty breast patch

Mourning cloak butterflies may been seen now, especially where trees have sap flows from splits or wounds to the bark. They are seldom seen on flowers, but will obtain nutrients from dung, sap, mud and fermenting fruits. Eggs are laid in rings around twigs of willow, elm and poplars among other woody trees.

Mourning cloak on sap flow from freshly cut tree stump in early April

Mourning cloak butterfly obtaining sap in April from a freshly cut tree stump

bumblebee on purple deadnettle

Bumblebee on dead nettle flower

When you go out, listen for the raucous calls of pileated woodpeckers as they find mates and establish territories. Don’t forget to look down occasionally and you can find all sorts of insects and plants that might be missed otherwise. And check out the flowers of skunk cabbages for the insects that pollinate them. Stop, look and listen whenever and wherever you go, even if it is in your own backyard. Maybe you will agree with Albert Einstein-

“ Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift.”

 
Pamm Cooper                                 All photos copyrighted by 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.

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

A monarch caterpillar safely eating milkweed after  stopping the flow of gummy sap by clipping the midrib

A monarch caterpillar safely eating milkweed after stopping the flow of gummy sap by clipping the midrib

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historically, insects have been the most important bane of the plant kingdom. The fatal attraction that exists between plants and insects has woven an intricate balance between good and evil, survival and devastation, and benefits versus harm. While insects play a significant role in pollination, and while over 90% of insects are not a problem, the few that are plant pests can wreak destruction.

Some insects are vectors of disease, especially those that feed by piercing plant tissue. Aphids, plant hoppers and the familiar cucumber beetle may pass along viruses even though feeding damage is not significant. Introduced insects seem to have a field day and may prove to be more damaging than native insects in the long run.

But in all the dramas that occurs in nature, the ones that may be overlooked are the strategies plants can use to defend themselves against insects. Whether it is simply structural impediments such as thorns, prickles, thick bark, waxy cuticles and objectionable chemical compounds, plants are not helpless against attacks. While some defenses are always present, like the above physical qualities, there are other means by which plants can release substances as needed that either repel the feeding insects, or attract predators of the same.

One plant of interest is the geranium that produces a chemical in its petals that can temporarily paralyze the Japanese beetle while it is feeding. This may provide a window for any predator that happens by. Native wild tobacco plants change the time of day that flower buds open in response to caterpillar feeding. This discourages certain sphinx moths that pollinate by night as they are attracted to the scent and color of the flowers, and lay eggs on the plant, which doubles as both an adult and larval food plant. Pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds will visit by day and the plant loses no ground in reproduction and survival. Other caterpillars like the tobacco budworm have no problem feeding on geraniums, petunias, snapdragons and other tobacco relatives. Their saliva counteracts the production of induced defenses in the plants.

Some plants release hormones or other substances upon feeding injury that attract predatory insects or even birds. It is like a silent alarm calling in the troops. Many caterpillars may be parasitized because their feeding releases chemicals in the plants that attract predatory insects such as brachonid wasps. Grass releases a strong aroma when cut, either when cut when insects are feeding on it. Perhaps this is why starlings and other birds flock into a yard or pasture that is under attack from cutworms or other grass pests.

Starlings feeding on cutworms in a lawn

   Starlings feeding on cutworms in a lawn

Fawn sphinx with cocoons of exited brachonid wasps

Fawn sphinx with cocoons of exited brachonid wasps

Milkweeds contain strong chemical defenses that are passed along to insects that feed on leaves but are unaffected by them themselves. The monarch caterpillar and others avoid much predation because of the absorption of these chemicals which make them bitter to the taste of hungry birds. The latex released by milkweed as insects begin chewing hardens quickly when exposed to the air and may cause mouthparts to stick together so the insect starves. Monarch cats avoid this by clipping off the base of the midrib first which reduces sap flow to the leaf.

Some plants have high lignin or tannin content that makes them unattractive to insects later in the season. Window feeding is a way some caterpillars avoid higher concentrations of toxins in leaves or high lignin content that is difficult to ingest, such as leaf veins and midribs. Many beetles avoid ingesting high concentrations of toxins by feeding in large groups, thereby “sharing in the load”.

"Window feeding" helps a dagger caterpillar avoid high lignin in the leaf veins

“Window feeding” helps a dagger caterpillar avoid high lignin in the leaf veins

Pyrethrins are ester compounds produced by chrysanthemum plants which act as insect neurotoxins. Some commercially available insecticides are actually synthetic copies of pyrethrins, called pyrethroids. Tansy is a non-native escapee that has toxins repelling many insects. It has been used with some success as a companion plant with cucurbits, squash, roses and other plants to repel cucumber beetles, ants, Japanese beetles and other insect pests. Sprigs were used at windowsills to repel flies.

Tansy in full bloom in the wild

Tansy in full bloom in the wild

Trillium actually reproduces effectively by myrmecochory- using ants to carry away its seeds and thus protecting them from becoming consumed by various animals. Ants are attracted to eliaosomes attached to the seeds and bring them back to their nests. After consuming the eliaosomes, the seeds are discarded by the ants and they are still viable. Survival of the species is helped along by the little ant.

Red Trillium

Red Trillium

While we may be blissfully ignorant of all the events taking place among the plants surrounding us, at least where fending off insects is involved, there is at least as much drama as any to be found in the entertainment industry.

 

Pamm Cooper                        All photos copyrighted 2014 by Pamm Cooper

bluets

Bluets- Houstonia caerulea

Well, it appears as though spring is warming up at last and some common early bloomers in the wild landscape are finally starting to show themselves. And I say, better late than never…

I always look for Marsh Marigolds ( Calthus palustris ) to appear in April before most other flowering plants have even broken through with new growth. They are a nice cushiony dark green with golden yellow flowers, and they are often the only green to be found in an otherwise bleak and brown landsc??????????ape. Look for them in open marshy areas, or in stream beds from April- June in Connecticut. They are in the Buttercup  family, ( Ranunculaceae ), and have similar flowers to the field buttercups.

Second on my list of favorite spring wildflowers are the Trout Lilies, or Dogtooth Violets, named for their mottled leaves that mimic brown trout markings, and the edible corms that resemble a dog’s tooth. Found in rich woods, these native low- growing plants have nodding yellow flowers, and sometimes grow in large colonies that may be over one hundred years old. Petals and sepals are bent backwards revealing the six brown stamens. Only mature plants having two leaves will produce a flower.

trout lilyjpg

Another April bloomer is dwarf ginseng, Panax trifolius, which is only 3- 8 inches tall, and can often be found with wood anemones. Look for these in rich, moist woods especially at the base of trees on the edge of woods or along woodland trails and in clearings that are damp. They flower April- June and have a small umbel of tiny white flowers and three sessile leaflets, and its tubers can be eaten raw or boiled, according to the USDA Forest Service.

Bloodroot,Sanguinaria canadensis, is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in New England, form March- May. Although small in stature, they are definitely a plant that gets noticed. Flowers are a magnificent white and have a stately form  that can provide a wonderful herald to the arrival of spring. This is a member of the Poppy family of plants. Its two large, distinctive leaves are large and completely enwraps the flower bud at first. Flowers open in the sun and close at night. The Latin name, Sanguinaria, means “ bleeding’, and refers to the red juice that was extracted from the roots by Native Americans and used as a dye for clothing and baskets and also as an insect repellent.

bloodroot 4-15-13

My last inclusion in the spring wildflower list of favorites is purple trillium,Trillium erectum, a member of the Lily family that blooms from  April- June. This is also a native that is found in rich, damp, shady woods, and its name is derived from the plant parts, which are arranged in threes.purple trillium2010 Flowers are commonly a deep red- purple, but sometimes are green, white, or pink. They smell like rotting meat and are pollinated by flies. The fruit is a reddish berry having a threefold symmetry and containing seeds in a reddish , juicy pulp, and continues development into the fall. Seeds are attractive to ants, so if you want to try to start trillium from seed, you have to compete with them for the seeds. Seeds require two winter periods before they will germinate, so patience is required before the reward of new plants.

There are other wildflowers of spring- bird’s foot violet, wood anemones, starflower, wild sarsaparilla, and, of course, violets, but those are for another time.

Pamm Cooper                           All photos copyright  2014 Cooper