Monday, February 26, 2018

Deep Winter at the House

OK, time's running out for winter -- I'm starting to see signs of spring! -- so I guess I'd better hurry up and share these various deep-winter sights that have been piling up on my camera for the past couple of months. :)

It's been a very wintry winter, with plenty of persistent snow and cold temperatures. Occasional thaws have meant that we've only had about a foot of snow (at most) on the ground at any one time, but still, the nearly constant blanket of white on trees, hills, and meadow has made for some really beautiful views around our house. Here's the scene looking down our hill and across the valley on January 17 (with bonus blue skies, a rarity):

And here's the view looking up the hill on January 2 (toward the ridge across the street from our house, which I've recently learned is not only protected now, but is slated to become part of a corridor connecting two nearby state forests):

I feel incredibly lucky to be living here and taking care of our modest patch of land within this amazing and expansive landscape. This winter has given us a wonderful variety of views, too. During a walk in our woods on January 17, thick fluffy snow made almost the entire scene white:

The next morning (January 18) added a layer of frost to twigs and branches, which was then illuminated by the early morning light:

I wonder if this Blue Jay was feeling especially cold as it perched on frosted apple branches later that morning:

This hillside across the valley from our house looked very stark with its wintry cross-hatched pattern (the result of trees and their shadows on snow):

Birds foraging on the ground near the feeders left intricate interlocking tracks; I especially like the spiral in the lower left-hand corner of this picture:

And a Virginia Opossum has left its strangely splayed-toed tracks in our snowy yard a few times this winter:

So the snow has been beautiful and awesome, and only a little inconvenient (there has been a lot of shoveling). We've also had plenty of animal activity here over the past couple of months, albeit at winter-appropriate levels (nothing like the hectic activity of other seasons). Eastern Cottontail rabbits and Gray Squirrels have appeared in brief glimpses. Voles and/or mice made extensive networks of tunnels in the snow covering our yard and meadow. White-footed Mice (or Deer Mice -- I'm not quite sure of the species, I just know they're adorable) have shown up in our house a few times, presenting us with the puzzle of figuring out how these little creatures are getting into our living space. We haven't solved the puzzle conclusively yet, but we've at least settled on some temporary measures that will last us until warmer temperatures arrive and the mice (hopefully) go looking elsewhere for food and shelter. I found a dead shrew in the yard in January, with a wound on its back but the exact cause of death unknown. We've heard Coyotes yipping and howling at night -- and at some distance away -- in recent weeks. White-tailed deer continue to be common, and we see them crossing our meadow occasionally (although we more often see the prints and droppings they leave behind).

Red Squirrels have been the strongest and most obvious mammalian presence on the property over the past couple of months. These little creatures are almost always chittering at each other (or me) from various trees around the yard, or else scampering around. The Red Squirrel who cached a bunch of Black Walnuts in the hollow base of one of our apple trees seems to have an especially good setup. Here's the tree in question, a wonderful, twisted old thing (with delicious apples) that grows at the edge of our driveway:

This is such a great tree. And the Red Squirrel has it really good. This past Thursday, I heard the sounds of squirrel teeth scratching away at a nut shell (I've heard this sound quite a lot this winter), and, walking over to the apple tree, I startled the squirrel in the midst of its work:

The little squirrel darted into one of the holes in the tree's hollow trunk, and a second later it reappeared out of another hole higher up, where it proceeded to yell at me around the nut in its mouth:

A multi-story apartment with a central stairwell and a full winter's supply of nuts in the basement? Sounds pretty good to me. (Incidentally, this leaves me with something of a dilemma, because we have been talking about removing the Black Walnut tree that produced these nuts... but now I don't want to mess up this squirrel's wonderful setup. This will require some more thinking.)

The bird activity over the past couple of months has been similarly impressive. Now that we have the feeders up, there are pretty much always birds around, and I've very much enjoyed seeing so many of our winter residents. Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Blue Jays are the most common visitors in our yard, along with Dark-eyed Juncos:

Among the more occasional visitors are flocks of Mourning Doves, American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and a few American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, and House Finches. A persistent Carolina Wren is often hanging around, and Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers show up fairly regularly to work over the trees in our yard. Our house seems to be in the territory of at least one Pileated Woodpecker, who comes over to chisel away at a few assorted trees and stumps on the property:

I am so happy to have Pileated Woodpeckers as neighbords. Here's a video of this guy at work; he's very industrious (and strong!), but I also love that he took brief breaks to groom himself and to peer around behind the tree:

Finally, winter has given me a great opportunity to get to know the dormant guises of some of the plants on our property. On January 20 and 21, I wandered in our woods and yard with my camera to see what interesting plants I could find. An extremely fuzzy, moss-covered branch across the entrance to our forest path was a good start:

The portion of our woods close to the meadow is relatively open and -- I suspect -- fairly young. Most of the tallest trees here are Black Cherry trees, and the trees near the edge of the woods are wrapped almost to capacity with Virginia Creeper vines:

The Black Cherry trees a little further into the woods are pretty much all trunk, with very little in the way of branching until the very top (and some interesting wavering along the way):

Along with young White Ash trees and a few White Pines, the other most common trees in this more open area of the woods are -- strangely enough -- apple and hawthorn trees. These trees have clearly been here for a while (perhaps they were here first?), but they're now totally overshadowed by the cherry, ash, and pine. Even so, the apples and hawthorns did produce fruit last fall, and I'll be very curious to see what these woods look like when blossoms appear in the spring. I love, too, that the path we cut through the woods passes between two of these trees (apple on the left, hawthorn on the right):

These hawthorns are so incredibly spiny:

The deeper portion of our woods seems to be older and more well established, with a thicker canopy and much more diversity in the tree species. It'll take me a while to figure out all the trees we have in these woods, but -- at least as a start -- I've been very happy to discover that we have a few young American Beech trees in residence. These trees are still holding onto their brown and dried leaves from last year, and I think their pointed buds (hiding this year's leaves) are quite charming:

Back in the yard (and out of the woods), I found many more buds to admire. Our remaining Tulip Tree (still standing after what used to be a second nearby Tulip Tree collapsed over the summer) turns out to have strangely paddle-shaped buds:

And I've been especially eager to check on the progress of a few shrubs I planted this past fall, including a blueberry, which was showing lovely maroon-and-gold buds:

American Hazelnut, with tiny globe-shaped buds on hairy stems:

And Spicebush, with its little clusters of buds (which I hope to see swelling and opening in the next month or two):

And while neither a native plant nor my own addition to the landscape, I'm very much drawn to the lilac bushes at the edge of our driveway; these big, plump buds seem to have so much promise for spring, even in the middle of January:

Well, that's winter! And it's been another wonderful first season in this wonderful place. I'm sure there will be more snowy weather and cold temperatures to come, but the seasons are starting to turn.... When you hear from me next, I'll be sharing some early signs of spring. :)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Feeding the Neighbors

On November 20, I put up my first bird-feeding station in the yard. We already had a couple of our trusty window feeders up, but now we've got a nice big platform feeder and a hopper feeder, all stocked with sunflower seeds. There's plenty of room now for the neighborhood birds to come and get food!

The chickadees and titmice (what great explorers!) found the new feeders less than half an hour after I put them up. And since then, the feeders have become very popular with our local birds. Blue Jays visit in small noisy groups, and I very much enjoy seeing these beautiful birds (especially since they were basically absent from our yard over the summer):

I love all these fancy feathers:

And I didn't know Blue Jays had so many black feathers hidden behind their blue crests:

What a lovely bird:

House Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-Capped Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice have been the most common and consistent visitors to the feeders so far (along with the Blue Jays), but I've also seen several other birds taking advantage of this new food source: White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, American Goldfinches, and more recently American Tree Sparrows and a single Morning Dove (the dove was picking up dropped seeds on the ground).

All this localized activity also makes for a great opportunity to see these birds up close as they wait in nearby bushes and trees for their turn at the feeder. Here's an obliging Black-capped Chickadee:

And an adorable Tufted Titmouse:

I love these charismatic little birds:

Titmouse, could your head be any pointier?

This Downy Woodpecker might not have actually been heading for the feeder, but I still liked seeing him among the bare branches and old husks on the nearby Shagbark Hickory:

With more frequent and heavier snowfalls in recent weeks, the activity at the feeder has become even more intense. Juncos, especially, are all over the place now. A flock of a dozen or so American Goldfinches came through the yard this past Tuesday (January 2) and provided some competition for the juncos (what a fancy tail the junco in this next picture has):

It turns out that juncos can be rather bossy, though; here's a video of one of our juncos maintaining dominance on the platform feeder against goldfinch intruders:

And the birds were still as active as ever during yesterday's snow storm, despite heavy snow and gusting winds:

Here's one last video from the midst of yesterday's storm, with juncos getting blown all over in the battering wind:

I think our bird feeder setup is off to a great start! A couple of days ago, I added a few handfuls of peanuts, and they're already all gone, carried away one at a time mostly by tiny chickadees, titmice, juncos, and sparrows, to be pecked and nibbled into smaller pieces in the nearby bushes. (The jays and woodpeckers got at least a few of the nuts as well.) I'm looking forward to many more bird-filled days to come in our yard!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Things Left Behind

As we get deeper into November and head toward winter, there are still plenty of animals hanging around our yard (feisty Red Squirrels, noisy Blue Jays, flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and House Finches that come through...). But when I've been walking on our property recently, I keep noticing the signs of creatures no longer here; some of these animals passed through only days ago, while some of these animals have been gone for a long, long time.

Bald-faced Hornets built a large and beautiful nest at the base of some old blueberry bushes in our yard over the summer. I gave these creatures a wide berth when they were active, but now that the hornets are gone, I can safely admire their construction up close:

In the time since I took the above picture (about a week ago), another creature made its own inspection of the hornet nest, digging into the nest's side; I wonder whether the creature found anything good to eat inside:

Even with part of the nest damaged, I still got to admire the wasps' exterior work when I visited the nest today. Earlier in the summer, I watched these wasps harvesting bits of wood from our shed's old beams. How amazing that the wasps turned those mouthfuls of wood pulp into these fantastic designs:

There's been a lot of excavation here recently (the geothermal loop field is fully laid out and buried, and as of tonight, we have heat!), and about 1/3 of our meadow is currently a big mud field. This change apparently hasn't bothered our local White-tailed Deer, whose footprints throughout the meadow reassure us that they're still regularly passing through, even if we haven't seen the deer themselves in a while:

The excavation has also turned up some amazingly interesting things that were hidden underground. As it turns out, we've got a lot of rocks on and in our property, and a small portion of those rocks contain fossils. The fossils in this area of New York are from the Devonian period, somewhere around 400-350 million years ago.... As far as I'm concerned, finding even the small delicate cast of a 400-million-year-old brachiopod -- a marine creature, right here in our yard -- is pretty amazing:

Some of the rocks we've found here are extra interesting. This rock has a couple of small, regular-looking brachiopod fossils on one side:

While the other side looks to be a thick conglomeration of fossilized material, like a slice right out of a marine mud bed (and this looked so much like mud that I tried to clean it off, but no, it's rock):

The best fossil rock so far is a big round thing (somewhere between 1 and 2 feet across, I forgot to measure it) with large brachiopod fossils all over. From one angle, the fossils are more or less recognizable as shells, although larger than any I've seen yet on this property:

From another side, though, the rock is covered with cross-sections of brachiopod casts, making me think of some interesting and unknown calligraphy, or that a giant made indentations with its fingernails all over the rock's surface:

What fascinating things animals leave behind!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Fall is Turning to Winter, and We Have Basement Tenants

Peak fall foliage made the hillsides around our house look really spectacular. Here's a panorama from October 26 (click to make it bigger), with sunlight and all sorts of colors under a cloudy sky:

Now it's a couple of weeks later, and the color has gone to mostly brown and gray. And we had our first persistent snow today -- just a few flurries, but it's bitterly cold, and the white flakes stuck. Here's our first taste of winter at the new house!

It's really cold outside (high in the 20s today, low around 18 degrees F tonight), and unfortunately it's also cold inside. We're keeping the house at a manageable but not-quite-comfortable temperature with a few space heaters while we wait for a delayed geothermal project to finish up. (The project is very exciting, but it means that half of the meadow currently looks like a field of dirt piles -- dressed up at least in snow in the above picture. And also, yes, it's cold.)

So the house is chilly, but it's still significantly warmer than the outside temperature. And this afternoon while poking around in a back corner of the basement I found two tenants who have apparently decided to spend the winter indoors with us:

A Woolly Bear and -- my goodness -- a Spotted Salamander are surprising additions to the household, but I'm happy to let them hibernate here. I'll keep an eye on this corner over the next few months to see how these two fare. I hope these creatures survive the winter and make it back outside when spring returns!

Update: After posting this, I went back into the basement and saw the sweetest little salamander face looking out of its hole. Happy hunting tonight, little creature!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Late Summer and Early Fall at the House, Part 2: Amphibians and Insects

Continuing the previous post, here are some more nature sightings at our house from the past two and a half months (from August through mid-October)!

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptile sightings have continued to be slim; it seems to be mostly Garter Snakes around here, and they haven't been especially common. In August, we had a fire in our yard's existing fire pit, and a young Garter Snake came out to warm itself on the cinder blocks, which was lovely. We also found a couple of baby snakes -- probably Garter Snakes -- in the compost pile in mid-September. Aside from that, and a handful of other sightings, it's been pretty quiet reptile-wise.

By contrast, it's been a really great couple of months for amphibians. Red Efts (juvenile Red-spotted Newts) started showing up more frequently in the yard in mid-August, and in September I was finding really little efts in the yard and woods. Here's a particularly tiny eft on the muddy part of our woods trail, navigating a boot print:

At the end of August, we found a small Spotted Salamander under the compost pile. And there appears to be a thriving population of Red-backed Salamanders in the woods; this past Thursday I found one or two of these sleek little salamanders under nearly every rock I checked.

Wood Frogs and especially Pickerel Frogs became more common in the yard in August and September. But Spring Peepers have remained by far the most numerous and easily seen amphibian in our yard, even up through October. I absolutely love that this place is such a haven for Spring Peepers, which I think of as reclusive and rarely-seen frogs. Not here! By August, I was getting used to seeing peepers perched on just about any wide, flat leaf in the yard:

There were little peepers like the one above, and there were older, tougher-looking individuals as well; this one was resting on a Common Milkweed leaf in the meadow one mid-August afternoon:

I don't think I could ever get tired of seeing these wonderful little frogs (this picture is from early September):

Who's that hanging out on a potted plant on the deck in early September? Oh yes, a peeper (with a beautiful pattern on its back):

And on the wall at night in early October? Peeper:

One night about a week ago, I opened the front door to toss a bug outside, and a peeper was sitting right on the doorstep, looking for all the world like it had been about to knock on the door and ask to come in. And individuals have continued to climb up on our windows on some nights, although not nearly as frequently (or in such numbers) as they did during the summer, when they were also much smaller:

I'm very much hoping that every year here will be similarly full of Spring Peepers. If not, though, at least I got to experience their abundance this summer and fall. :)

Insects and Others

These have been some amazing months for insect diversity, especially for butterflies and moths and their caterpillars. I didn't try at all to be comprehensive, but lots of beautiful and weird creatures caught my attention in the past couple of months.

In early and mid August, a big patch of (very fragrant) Garden Phlox flowers turned out to be a great place to see nectar feeders, like this big Spicebush Swallowtail:

A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) also spent a great deal of time visiting these blooms. What an adorable creature!

I can't decide which part of this moth is the cutest: its pointy ear-like antennae or its fuzzy tail. It was really enjoying these flowers:

I've found a few Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) plants on the property, and one day in early August I noticed what looked like strangely pink petals mixed in with the yellow blooms. So I touched a petal, and it fluttered! There are three Primrose Moths (Schinia florida) on this one flower, and another on the back-right bloom:

This really pretty moth, a Large Tolype (Tolype velleda), showed up at our porch light in mid-September:

Also in mid-September, a fantastically bright Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) hung around our driveway for a day or so:

Although not as brightly colored, the bark-patterned undersides of this butterfly's wings are also very pretty:

A little later in September, a bunch of Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) came through the yard, and they spent a lot of time on the New England Aster blossoms:

What a beautiful butterfly, on such beautiful flowers:

(This whole place, by the way, was practically carpeted with asters of various species throughout September, but I only ever found two small patches of New England Aster. I'll do my best to help spread this especially showy plant around the property, and in future years I'll be sure to learn what other aster species we have here.)

This sulfur butterfly also made a lovely sight on the small flowers of another aster (perhaps Calico Aster?):

Monarchs have made a surprisingly strong appearance here in the past couple of months. In August and September, a few caterpillars ate some Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) I planted (I'm gradually adding to the property's native plant diversity):

Monarch caterpillars sure do have a lot of bold stripes:

Adult Monarch butterflies started passing through the yard more commonly in late September and early October. Here's one individual taking advantage of asters tucked among grass stems in the meadow:

These really are impressive insects:

And here's another Monarch filling up on one of the last goldenrod blooms in early October (along with several other insects):

Along with the Monarchs, several other interesting caterpillars appeared in the past couple of months. A Beautiful Wood-nymph (Eudryas grata) caterpillar -- so stripey and spotty -- was munching on grape leaves in late August:

A few large Hermit Sphinx (Sphinx eremitus) caterpillars made good use of an overgrown bed of mint in mid-September:

Wooly Bears (caterpillars of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella) have been common in the yard throughout late summer and early fall; here's one from this past Thursday, looking a bit lost in especially fall-like surroundings:

At the end of September, on a lilac bush, I found perhaps the strangest caterpillar I've ever seen, Harris' Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata):

In addition to the bird-dropping-like (but strangely hairy) outfit, and the bizarrely contorted posture, this caterpillar also has those weird black clumps dangling from its front end... which upon further reading turn out to be its own discarded head capsules from previous molts, still attached to its body by those white hairs. Ahhhh, what a weird creature!

Had enough strange crawling things yet? Here's another one -- an American Giant Millipede (Narceus americanus) that crossed our front walkway at the end of September:

And finally, as temperatures got colder in late September, I was charmed to find bumblebees sleeping in tiers below late goldenrod blossoms:


It's been quite a full two and a half months. And now I'm all caught up with sharing the goings-on here, and fall is in full swing. This morning was another hugely active and bird-filled morning. I'm so excited to see what will come next!