Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Birds are Back!

Wow!  That didn't take them long.

My son and I went out at lunchtime today to hang up our bird feeders (we take them down in the Spring because of bears) and within an hour, the birds had found them and were having their lunch.

The Tufted Titmice found the feeders first followed by Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Downy Woodpecker.  Seriously, all within an hour of putting them up!

Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch

Female Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

Continued Mammal Study - Deer

The night I submitted my last Outdoor Hour post for our mammal study, my husband was awakened by a sound that he at first thought might be a squirrel running across the roof.  Then he decided maybe it was an animal scratching on a tree outside.  He went downstairs to see if he could figure out what it was.

What he saw in our neighbor's yard were two white-tailed deer bucks locking antlers!  He watched as they fought for a bit and then one ran off with the other in pursuit.  The next morning, he took us outside to see the signs they had left behind.

Markings from deer hooves on new pavement.

Area of neighbor's lawn dug up by fighting.
I know it is really hard to tell anything from the pictures, but it's all I have.

This event prompted some research on white-tailed deer.  We first read from the CT DEEP's wildlife fact sheets and then from the State of Wisconsin's Critter Corner page.

Here are a few interesting facts:
  • Deer are ungulates, meaning they have hooves.
  • White-tailed deer are the smallest deer in North America.
  • The underside of their tail is white and is raised as a flag when they leap away in alarm.
  • Their coat color varies with the season, a more red-brown in the summer and gray-brown in the winter.
  • The peak rutting or mating season in CT is the last two weeks in November.
  • Male deer, called bucks, grow a new set of antlers each year.  The antlers are covered with a soft tissue called velvet that they will rub off in the fall. While the antlers are still covered with velvet, they are very sensitive and the bucks will not use them to fight.  Instead, they will stand on their hind legs and use their forefeet.
  • The size of antlers depends on a couple of things, including maturity, but most significantly, nutrition.
  • The bucks use their antlers for sparring and they are usually shed from the middle of December to late January in CT.  Deer in more southerly states shed their antlers later.
  • Female deer, called does, depending on their diet and health, can have between one and four fawns at a time.

Seeing deer in our neighborhood is not that uncommon.  We have often seen several in the woody area behind our house, but I have never seen a buck.  Next time I hope my husband will wake me up!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Beaver - America's Largest Rodent

Where did November go?

At the beginning of the month, I had all of these wonderful plans for our mammal studies.  However, a weekend in Boston and five days visiting family in Pennsylvania - while great fun - made the month zip by.  Barb's nature study plans came to the rescue again.  They served to remind me to get outdoors, even for a short time.  They also allowed me to focus on just one thing, which is what I needed this month.

I asked my son which mammal in our area he wanted to learn more about.  Right away, he said, "Beavers."  He was remembering our exciting encounter with a beaver during an afternoon of kayaking at a nearby pond. We had inadvertently come too close to a beaver lodge and were able to witness the warning slap of a beaver's tail.

So this is how we introduced ourselves to beavers.  At the beginning of the month, I organized a hike with our homeschool group at a local park that has a nature center.  During our hike, we saw a pond with a beaver lodge.  At the end of the hike, we visited the nature center where we were able to view a pond diorama containing a stuffed beaver.

We did a little reading about beavers including this section from my Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife by Henry Hill Collins, Jr.:
Hardly another mammal has played so romantic a part in our history. Demand for its beautiful and useful pelt first lured trappers into the North American wilderness, helped found the Hudson's Bay Company, and established the Astor fortune. Excessive trapping extirpated the species over wide areas. Now it is being restocked and creating ponds and wet lands of great value to fishing, wildlife, vegetation, aesthetics, and the water table. For these it is probably worth far more to men each year now than its pelts ever were, even in the best year of their price and popularity in the heyday of Jim Bridger and the Mountain Men of the early West.

Other interesting facts we learned about the beaver:
  • It is the largest rodent in North America.
  • It can weigh up to 60 lbs.
  • It is most active at dawn, dusk, and at night.
  • Their ears and nose are sealed and a membrane covers their eyes when they are underwater.
  • They have a double-layer coat which they waterproof with an oily substance called castoreum that is secreted from scent glands.
  • They can remain underwater for up to 15 minutes.
  • The largest beaver dam is over 1/2 a mile long.

We also learned a new vocabulary word:  fossorial.  Fossorial means the animal is adapted to digging and living underground.

Beavers build dams to raise the water level near their lodges.  Raising the water level serves several purposes one of which is to ensure that the water is deep enough that it does not freeze all the way to the bottom.  The deeper water also extends the waterways into the forest giving the beaver safer access to food and building materials.  It is no wonder, that beavers are often used as mascots at engineering schools.  Had I been thinking about that, I would have searched out the statue of the MIT mascot while we were there for the Splash! program this month.

This week, B and I went on a hike by ourselves around a pond where we had previously seen beaver activity.  It had snowed lightly the day before, so I was hoping we might see some tracks, but no luck there.  We did see the stumps of a few saplings and a large area on a bigger tree that had been gnawed.  As we learned in the videos that Barb had linked to on one of her pages, beavers are active all winter, so I'd like to go back in the winter and see if we have any luck with the tracks then.  Or, since beaver are pretty skittish, see if we can see vapor coming from their lodges.

Picture taken in October.

Picture taken in November.  Definitely more activity.

Beaver lodge on right.

Here are some videos we watched, some of which Barb had linked to on her blog.  They are from the BBC and are hosted by Richard Attenborough:
Beaver Lodge Construction Squad
How Beavers Build a Lodge
Beaver Facts
Beavers in  the Snow

The beaver is a fascinating animal.  I think reading more about how they affected the history of North America would be interesting.

While we didn't do all that I had hoped we would do this month, we did learn a bit more about one specific animal and that is good enough for me.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Outdoor Hour: Focusing on Trees

Can I just say... I love trees!  I love to take pictures of them, try to identify them, touch them, sit under them.  Trees just make me happy!  So, it is no wonder I was eagerly anticipating this month's Outdoor Hour Challenge.

How did we focus on trees this month?
  • We used Tree Study Grid from the October Newsletter to focus on specific aspects of trees we were looking at.
  • We kept a list of the trees we identified.
  • We went on a hike to find a specific kind of tree.  Read about that in my post about Great Pond.
  • We went looking for a couple of state and national champion trees.  Read about that in my post about Large Trees.
  • We looked up information on what trees were the oldest, tallest, heaviest, and had the largest trunk circumference and added that information to our nature notebooks.
  • We did artistic activities related to trees.  We made a leaf "rainbow" by skewering different colored leaves on a stick.  We also did leaf rubbings in our nature notebooks and identified the trees the leaves were from.

B's leaf rainbow.

In identifying trees, I found that the trees like oak, maple, and birch, which I would expect to be the easiest to identify, were the hardest.  I think I expect them to be easy because they are common, but there seem to be many that are similar.  This is especially true when all you have to go on is the bark.

Trees identified and comments:
Common Witch-hazel - unusual in that it flowers at this time of year
Eastern Sycamore - love the mottles bark on the upper trunk and branches
Sassafras - three different kind of leaves on the same tree - "live long and prosper", mitten, single lobe
Cottonwood - very large shiny buds, cotton fluff everywhere when the seed capsules split open
Tuliptree - interesting, distinctive leaf and beautiful flower
Big-tooth Aspen - the name says it all, aspen leaf with large teeth
Quaking Aspen - always thought of this as a western tree
Black Birch - aka sweet birch, wintergreen smell
Paper Birch - white, peeling bark
Yellow Birch - wintergreen smell
White Oak - leaves have rounded lobes
Chestnut Oak - part of white oak family, lobes rounded, but not deeply cut
Black Oak - leaves have pointed lobes
Scarlet Oak - part of black oak family, but with more deeply cut leaves
American Chestnut - almost entirely wiped out by blight, shoots grow to several feet before dying back
Shagbark Hickory - fabulous shaggy bark that looks like it is about to come off tree
American Beech - beautiful smooth grey bark
Striped Maple - very large leaves and green striped bark
Red Maple - beautiful fall color
Silver Maple - leaves are distinctive, deeply cut
White Pine - needles in bundles of 5
Red Pine - lovely, flaky, red-grey bark, needles long in clusters of two
Pitch Pine - needles in bundles of 3
Eastern Hemlock - short, flat needles, very small cone
Eastern Redcedar - fibrous bark

Beautiful beech tree.
We never got around to the oak and acorn study this month, but I did note that acorn production seems to be way down this year.  We have two large white oaks in our front yard and nary an acorn.  I suspect it is the lack of rain.

This was a fun month of nature study.  There were several activities I would have liked to have done that we just didn't get to, so I will save them for a later date.

Favorite tree resources on the web:
Virginia Tech's Tree ID Guide - I especially like their Fact Sheets and their Leaf Key (under tools).
Arbor Day Foundation: What Tree Is That?

Favorite Tree Field Guides:

This is my new favorite field guide, but I need more practice using it. 

Another book that looks interesting, but that I do not own is Identifying Trees: An All-Season Guide to Eastern North America by Michael D. Williams.

See my disclosure policy on the bar at the top of the page.  These books were purchased by me for my own use and I do not receive any compensation for mentioning them or from Amazon if you decide to purchase them.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Visiting Large Trees

As part of our tree study for the month of October, I thought it would be fun to visit some of the large trees nearby. 

On Columbus Day, the family took a hike at Bartholomew's Cobble in Sheffield, MA.  There are two notable trees here.  One, is a huge cottonwood that is hollow at the bottom.  I have read that this is the second largest cottonwood in Massachusetts.  (I found a website that indicated the largest is in Pittsfield, MA.)

B inside the cottonwood.  The record is 12 people.

The other tree that I saw, that the guys completely missed as they hiked on ahead, was a large tulip poplar.  I like tulip trees because of the beautiful flower they have in the spring and the interesting shape of their leaf.

Tulip Tree - October 2012

Tulip Tree flower and leaves - June 2009

Largest Tree in CT
A little closer to home, we visited the locally famous Pinchot Sycamore in Simsbury, CT.  Named for Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest Service, this tree is the largest tree in the state.

October 2012

More information on the Pinchot Sycamore:
CT Museum Quest

Coolest Tree in CT
A little reluctantly, we made a visit to the Dewey-Granby Oak.  The Granby Oak is a white oak and is believed to be the oldest oak tree in the state (and possibly the nation) at between 400 to 500 years old.  Last October, Storm Alfred dumped a foot of snow on the area.  Most trees still had their leaves, which resulted in widespread devastation (and eight days without power for much of the state).  The Granby Oak was not spared and some of its huge limbs had to be removed and others were cabled up in the hopes of saving the tree.  I had driven by the oak in the month after the storm and was saddened to see how much damage it had suffered.  On this visit, we got out and walked around the tree.  I was relieved to see that the tree actually looks pretty good.  Though Storm Alfred may ultimately be linked with the death of the tree, it looks like it will be with us for the near future.

October 2012

Information on the Granby Oak:
Salmon Brook Historical Society
CTMuseum Quest  - At the bottom of Steve's post is a picture of what the tree looked like shortly after the storm.  It was crushing to see the great tree in this condition.  This tree is a huge part of Granby (it is on the town seal).  After going back this fall, nearly a year after the storm, I feel much better about its chances to live a little longer.
Granby Land Trust

National Champion Black Oak
And finally, we paid a visit to the national champion black oak in East Granby.  It is certainly large, but I would never have figured it for a national champion.

More about the National Champion Black Oak:
Connecticut's Notable Trees
CTMuseum Quest - Watch the first minute or so of the video Steve has linked to at the top of his post.  It is a video someone took during and after last year's October snowstorm.  You will get a real sense of what it was like sitting in the dark listening to trees and branches fall all around you.

I just love trees, especially really old, big trees.  This month's Outdoor Hour Challenge at the Handbook of Nature Study blog was a great reminder to get out and enjoy them.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Caterpillar Field Guide

This summer, I have come across a number of caterpillars that I haven't seen before.  Fortunately, with my new book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, I am able to identify what I have found.

I don't know about you, but I am far more likely to find caterpillars than butterflies (or moths).  Maybe it's just that I have a better chance of capturing the sedately wandering caterpillar than the zigzagging butterfly with my camera.  In the past, I would struggle to identify what I had found.  That was because I had only a butterfly book to work with. The problem with the butterfly book is that it is a book to identify the adult butterfly, not the larval caterpillar.  It contains only a small section with plates of caterpillars, and it is limited to butterfly caterpillars only.

Then I bought Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner.  This guide has been invaluable.  The introductory section, which in my zest to identify a particular caterpillar, I will admit, has largely gone unread, is full of interesting information.  Topics covered include not only morphology and life cycle, but also where and when to search for caterpillars, how to rear and feed them, how to photograph them and projects for schools, nature centers and universities.  What I have read from the introduction is very informative and I do plan to go back and read through all of it.

The pages for the caterpillars themselves are fantastic!  At the top of the page is a large picture of the caterpillar.  Below that is a smaller picture of the adult butterfly or moth and then information that includes how to recognize the caterpillar, where it occurs (in what type of habitat and where in North America), common foodplants, and remarks.  Here are some remarks for a Wooly Bear:

According to "rural legend," the width of the orange band can be used as a predictor of the severity of the coming winter, with narrower bands forecasting colder winters.  In fact, the width is quite variable in character.  At each molt, a portion of the black setae is replaced by orange, and hence the orange band is broadest in the last instar.

I think identifying caterpillars is fun.  It is almost like opening a present, because you can't tell from the caterpillar what the butterfly or moth is going to look like.  I'm always filled with hope that I will have found the caterpillar of some rare or beautiful butterfly.  Unfortunately, that tends not to be the case, but the anticipation is there each time.

And look at these guys!  Even though the moths that they will eventually become are rather plain, in their youth, they were rock stars!

Milkweed Tussock Caterpillar (Northern CT - August, 2012)

Banded Tussock Moth  (Mid-coast Maine - August, 2012)

Mottled Prominent (Mid-coast Maine - August, 2012)

Red-humped Oakworm (Mid-coast Maine - August, 2012)
Yellow Bear (Virginia Tiger Moth) (Mid-coast Maine - August, 2012)

See my disclosure policy on the bar at the top of the page.  This book was purchased by me for my own use and I do not receive any compensation for reviewing it or from Amazon if you decide to purchase it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Simsbury - Great Pond

I am trying to make sure we get outside to enjoy these nice fall days because I know it won't be too long before things take a decidedly colder turn.  Today, we ventured over to Great Pond, part of Massacoe State Forest in Simsbury, CT.  My motivation for heading to Great Pond today was to check out some trees as part of the Outdoor Hour Challenge.  I knew we would be able to find a pretty good stand of red pine and I wanted to compare the bark to pitch pine.

The walk around the pond is just a bit over a mile.  We took our time, taking pictures and trying to identify trees.  The tree identification wasn't wholly successful because many of the trees had already lost their leaves.  I did have some success with my new book, Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast, but I need a lot more practice.

Nice fall color.
Early on in our walk, B spotted a tree that a beaver had started work on.  We'll have to come back next month and check it out when the Outdoor Hour Challenge focuses on mammals.  One question I have about the beaver lodge is whether the entrance is always under water even when the water level is very low like it is now.

Busy as a ...
...beaver.  Must need it for his lodge.
Great Pond is known to be a bird watcher's paradise.  Today, we saw a lot of Canada geese and some mallards, but not much else.  I was kicking myself for not bringing my binoculars.

A lot of Canada geese on a pretty shallow pond.

Seems like we are past peak foliage.
Almost half way around the pond, we came to the stand of red pine.  Red pine is identifiable from its needles.  They are quite long and come in bundles of two.  I love the bark of the red pine - flaky, with a redish-grayish color.  In my Bark book, the range map indicates that this pine is native to northern New England, but there is a small area shown in this part of Connecticut, I assume specifically for Great Pond.  About 20 acres of red pine were planted here in the 1930's.

I still have a hard time identifying red pine from pitch pine just by looking at the bark.  If I had two trees next to each other, maybe it wouldn't be as difficult.  I think the red pine is a bit flakier and the flakes of the pitch pine curl away from the trunk.  More study to be done.

Red pine.

Red pine grove.
Before we left the house, I had said to B that I hoped we would find some witch-hazel.  I had recently seen a post on Along the New England Trail where Teresa had found some witch-hazel in bloom.  To me, this makes witch-hazel kind of unique, blooming in the fall and even winter.  I did find some witch-hazel, but the first few had no flowers.  We came to another area with several trees and my son spotted the blooms.  They are kind of bizarre looking.  My Eastern Trees guide indicates that seedpods can be found at any time of year.  I didn't notice any, but I didn't look either.  I was focused on the flowers.

Witch-hazel blossom.
We wrapped our hike with a walk through a very nice white pine grove.  Towering trees, but then large areas of young trees, so it is like you are going through a green walkway.

This was a very enjoyable hike and it was nice to get out of the house.  The next couple of days look like they are going to be rainy, so I am glad we took advantage of the nice weather today.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Granby - McLean & The Eastern Barndoor Hill

I had such an enjoyable hike in the Game Refuge yesterday, I decided to repeat it today.  This time I decided to hike up to the top of the eastern Barndoor Hill for views of the foliage.  It was another great day - sunny and cool, but not cold.

This time I hiked from Canton Road, down past Spring Pond, up to the field and down to Kettle Pond before turning on to the woods road that leads to the peak.

Spring Pond.
Along the way, I found some puffballs and I was taken back to my childhood.  I can remember running around the woods with the other kids from the neighborhood and using puffballs as "bombs".  Today, I had to give them a squeeze to see the "smoke" blow out.

Pear-shaped? or Gem-studded? puffballs.

I just love this old tree.

Marginal Woodfern?

When I reached the peak, I went out on to one of the rocks that allows you to see quite a way to the north.  It was magnificent.  Unfortunately, my pictures don't do it justice.

View to the north from the Barndoor Hill lookout.
One thing I hadn't realized until recently is that if you keep walking south along the ridge, you will come to another lookout that is almost directly across from the other Barndoor Hill.

Looking across at the western Barndoor Hill.
After spending a few minutes checking out the views, I took my time wandering back to the trail that would take me down.  I don't have any pictures of the area at the peak, but I just love it.  There is a different feel here than in the rest of the Refuge.  There are a lot of cedar trees and exposed rock.  There is a more open feel.  Just very peaceful and a great place to enjoy a nice fall day.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Granby - McLean Game Refuge

Beautiful fall days should not go to waste, so once my chauffeuring duties were over for the day, I took myself over to the McLean Game Refuge for a little hike.  In addition to the gorgeous array of fall foliage, it also ended up being a good day for finding interesting fungi.

Bissell Brook.

White Coral mushroom?
The next three pictures I have all labeled as Angel's Wing fungi, but I am not sure if the first picture is the same as the other two.  The second two pictures are the same mushroom taken from two different views.  Isn't it beautiful?

Angel's Wing?

Angel Wing?

When I got to Kettle Pond, I took advantage of the fact that there is hardly any water.  I like walking around to vantage points I normally can't get to.  The only drawback was that my socks and hiking shoes were completely covered with beggar-ticks (I think from Bidens frondosa, but I'm not sure).

Kettle Pond.
After leaving the pond, I walked up the hill to the field where I sat on a log and removed as many of the beggar-ticks as possible.  The colors around the field were pretty nice.

I walked through the woods around the field and then down the hill to Spring Pond.  Along the way, I found another fungus that I think is Orange Jelly.  I am still amazed at the variety of colors produced by fungi.

Orange Jelly?

Spring Pond.
A perfect fall day.