“ The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.”

-Edwin Way Teale

crabapples along driveway route 85 May 7 2017

Crabapples along a fence highlight a driveway on Route 85 – May 2017

 

May is usually the time of warmer weather and sunny days that brighten the landscape again with flushes of green leaves and splashes of color from flowers. We look forward to another season of gardening and other outdoor activities, and the encounters with nature that are unavoidable as one ventures outside.

This May has been colder than I would prefer, but at least it has seen more rainfall than last spring. The reason this is especially good news is that the gypsy moth caterpillars have recently hatched, and the rains bring hope that the fungal pathogen, Entomophaga maimaiga, will help diminish populations of this pest. Last year they went unchecked for most of their caterpillar stage as drought conditions kept fungal spores from germinating.

wilsons warbler May 12, 2014

A Wilson’s warbler stopped by on its way north

Ferns are opening up now and their graceful forms are a welcome decoration wherever they appear. My personal favorites are the scented fern, cinnamon fern and the diminutive polypody which are often found growing together on rocks with mosses. Polypody work well in dish gardens coupled with moss and partridgeberry, and can be brought indoors for the winter, or left outside if that works better.

sensitive ferns

Sensitive ferns in a wetland area

 

Most trees have leafed out by now, with the pokey sycamores and hickories lagging behind, as usual. With the flush of leaves come the migrating warblers. Caterpillars are now found eating leaves in the tree canopies, and this is where many of the warblers find some protein for their return to northern breeding grounds. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, orioles, and thrushes are all back and they have transformed the woodlands to a symphony of birdsong. Also, barred and great horned owls born in late winter and early spring have left their nests, and parents can often be heard calling to their young. Many robins have already hatched their first brood as of two weeks ago, so it must be true that the early bird gets the worm…

mother and two baby great horned owls Pamm Cooper photo 2017

These young great horned owls left the nest days after this picture was taken.

 

Dogwoods have had spectacular blooms this year, and crabapples and viburnums as well. Yellow water lilies, Nuphar lutea, are beginning to bloom. This plant closes its flower late in the day, trapping beetles or flies overnight who will pollinate it as they try to escape.

Yellow pond lilies Nuphar luteum Airline 5-14-16

Limber honeysuckle, Lonicera dioica, a native vine-like shrub that is infrequently encountered, is also starting to bloom. The tubular red flowers have distinctive yellow stamens and attract hummingbirds and native bumblebees. Fringed polygala, a small, pink native wildflower with flowers that make me think of Mickey Mouse with an airplane propeller, are just beginning to bloom and are often found together with stands of the native Canada Mayflower. Native columbine are also blooming now and native Pinxter azalea should be following shortly.

limber honeysuckle May 7 2017

limber honeysuckle

fringed polygala May 13, 2015 Pamm Cooper photo

Fringed polygala

Interesting galls are forming on the young leaves on wild cherry. Spindle galls, caused by the mite Eriophyes emarginatae, are red spindle-like structures of leaf materialcaused by the mites feeding within. These tiny mites begin feeding as soon as cherry leaves expand in the spring. Although they can occur in large numbers, the galls will not stop leaves from photosynthesizing, and the trees will put out new leaves after mites are inactive.

spindle galls on cherry

Spindle galls on a small black cherry

Giant silkworm moths such as Cecropia, Polyphemus and Luna have been overwintering in cocoons and should be eclosing any time from mid- May to June. These spectacular moths usually fly during the night, but are often attracted to lights. Since they cannot feed, if you find any lingering about in the daytime, don’t worry about what to feed them- just enjoy their company!

cecropia female 9p.m. same day as emrged from cocoon 5-31-13

Female Cecropia moth

Swallowtail, Painted Lady, American coppers, Juvenal’s duskywing and many other butterflies are out and about. Wherever you see them, check out larval host plants for caterpillars. Sometimes they are as close as your own backyard.

striped jack-in-the-pulpit for web site

Jack-in-the-pulpit

Here’s hoping for timely rains during the summer, warmer days to get our blood moving and an abundance of fruits, flowers and birds that to follow May’s fore-running to summer.

 

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

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red- winged blackbird male Photo fcps.edu

Here we are on the first day of April and snow from yesterday is just melting away. I am  certain that we all hope that is the last of that stuff until next winter. But as March ends and April has arrived, so have some of the early birds of spring.

Every year the male red- winged blackbirds and the grackles arrive first- sometimes as early as February, like this year. Because of hard snow cover, they turn up at bird feeders until normal food supplies become available as the snow melts. This year there were horned larks again in February in the fields at Horse Barn Hill in Storrs, but snow cover pushed them out, probably to the shoreline. These birds are regulars in March in the fields around Meig’s Point at Hammonasset  State Park. They come and go early, so I time my visits accordingly.

Another early bird is the Eastern Phoebe, a flycatcher that I consider the true harbinger of spring. Once you see one, they seem to appear everywhere. They have a sweet “ peep “ call  and a raspy song that sounds like it is saying its name. I wonder if the bird was named for its call… These birds nest early and like flat sheltered spots like building eaves and bridge supports. These brownish gray birds have white undersides and  have a rather large head that may appear flat on top. They also wag their tails when perched. They are extremely active birds, darting from one small tree to another as they fly-catch. They often return to the exact same nesting site every year, so it can be easy to find out when they arrive.

Another bird making its appearance last week was the yellow- rumped warbler. This colorful bird has its more dapper plumage for the spring breeding season. Named for a splash of yellow on the rump, they also have a yellow and black patch on the

shoulder and a yellow crown. Upperparts are dark gray with black striping on the breast and back. The face sports a black mask and the chin is white. These birds usually travel in groups and can be discovered by observing birds that are foraging on the outer areas of the tree canopy or darting out from the canopy to capture insects on the fly. Listen for their sharp “ pick “ calls, coming from many birds moving through the trees.

In the fall, these birds lose their breeding plumage, but can still be identified by their flycatcing behavior, contact calls, and the yellow splashes on the rump and shoulders.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring plumage Matthew Studebaker photo

 Palm and pine warblers are also among the earliest warblers to pass through our area on their way to northern breeding grounds. As the name suggest, the pine warblers are most often found where there is an abundance of pines. They can be easier heard than seen, so listen for a musical trill ( similar to a chipping sparrow or junco ) as they forage for insects and seed high up in pines. Palm warblers come in about the time when wild honeysuckle is leafing out and skunk cabbage is about eight to ten inches high. Listen for their weak trill and soft “ pick “ as they forage for food in swamps and bogs as well as in moist woods and areas of woodland ponds. They are dull brown on top with a rusty cap and yellow on the face and throat. Like the phoebe, the palm warbler also wags its tail revealing a splash of yellow under the tail.

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Palm warber in spring. Photo Kelly Azar.

I save the best for last- the American Woodcock a peculiar bird that is not soon to be forgotten when seen for the first time. It has a globular head with bill like a long, pointed straw and a plump oblong body. This woodland bird is superbly camouflaged in brown, black, buff and gray tones, and lying on the forest floor, it is virtually invisible. Twice I have almost stepped on one that was sitting on a nest, and only was aware of it as it flew away. Also found in scrubby fields, its diet consists largely of earthworms, which are found by probing the ground with their long, stout bill. Males can be heard in early morning or dusk as they use  a distinctive “ peent “ or “ beep “ call to attract females.

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American Woodcock John Ascher photo

They also have an acrobatic courting flight display that can be seen at dusk and dawn in the spring. After calling for a few minutes, the male takes off to a height a 100- 300 feet and then spirals down to the ground. In our area these birds have the nickname “ timberdoodles “. Some nature centers and birding clubs sponsor yearly outings to observe the male flight displays. The wood line on Horse Barn Hill Road in Storrs is one place to see these birds.

So spring is here at last, and the birds are coming in right on time. And the greener it gets, the more birds we will see. Enjoy!

 

Pamm Cooper