Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you had a wonderful day!

A smirk because it got away from pies and jack o'lantern!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Barred Owl

The day after we moved into our new place, we were greeted with the call of a Barred Owl.  I literally dropped what I was doing, and ran into the house to get Jacob so he could hear the echoing call, too.  The owl's 'who cooks for you, who cooks for you all' call is wonderful; full of vibrato as it fills the woods. Needless to say, we are thrilled to have such a cool neighbor.

Its been about 2 months now, and we enjoy biweekly calls and sightings.  We've learned that there isn't one owl, but two who hoot back and forth; including on a full moon night just out side our bedroom window.   We've spotted the owls trying to get away from a gang of crows, and gliding silently way from crunching leaves and noisy dogs.  About 2 weeks ago we finally saw one perched, Jacob ran back to the house for binoculars for a great look (thanks, dear.)  Every time I see the owls it makes me happy because they are so amazing.

Today, however, I finally found a roosting tree and under it four owl pellets!  I was really excited because I have been looking for the roosting tree in hopes of finding pellets and learning what the owls eat.  Its so cool to know another detail of our owls lives.  The pellets contained shrew skulls, probably Northern Short-tailed Shrew based on size and teeth; White-footed mice skulls; and a vole skull, most-likely Red-back Vole.  There were multiple animals represented in each pellet with an average of 4 animals per pellet.  Some of the skeletons were from young animals and others were mature.  Many of the bones were broken and missing so I don't know if each pellet represents one feeding or if the owl makes more than one pellet at a time.  I'm also not sure how old the pellets were, but the last pellet I dissected was much drier and easier to pick apart. So the pellets tell us that, our woods have shrews, white-footed mice, and voles, and Barred Owls who eat them.

Shrew & rodent skull,
Sharp insect crunching vs flat nibbling & grinding teeth

The largest pellet is about 2 inches by 1.5 inches

Shrew teeth have a stained color

If you've never dissected an owl pellet, I recommend trying it.  Especially if you have an owl in you neighborhood.  This is a project that many elementary aged kids do, but some of us never get too old for fun science!  You can order owl pellets off the internet, and there are tons of resources like bone charts on-line. I think that wild owl pellets are more fun because it really does show more about the owls and woods around you.  In my old job at the Austin Nature and Science Center's Trade Counter, I dissected two wild Great-horned Owl pellets with kids and we found a juvenile opossum bones, rats, and mice in one, and rats, mice, and bat remains in another!  Small owls like Screech Owls eat mostly bugs so if you find a tiny pellet near your owl box don't over look the bug bits.  The fun of owl pellets is not knowing what you will get and learning more about our these fantastic birds.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Volunteering or Exploring New Worlds?

Visit six continents in under an hour: meander through the tropics, stroll through deserts, and step to the boggy edge of pond, all in one morning.  'How can this be possible?' you ask, to which I reply, 'By visiting a botanical garden or greenhouse!'  In this case, I have not only been allowed to visit these amazing places, but to work there, as well.  For the past three Thursdays, I have been volunteering at the University of Connecticut's (UCONN) Ecology, & Evolutionary Biology Greenhouses.

 Tropical Flowers 
Vanilla vine in Bloom, Madagascar 

Streptocarpus prolixus, no common name listed

My name for this is the Red Dragon!
But it's also know as Red Tower Ginger, Costa Rica

Queen Sirikit, Philippines

Hadrodermas warszewiczianum,
 that's one super scientific name! from Mesoamerica
The plants inside the greenhouses are a wonderful illustration of our world's biodiversity, and often look so strange that they seem more at home in a science fiction book than reality.  The first room you enter when you visit the greenhouse is the epiphyte room with a large tree structure and walls covered with orchids, bromeliads, Spanish moss, and other plants that live in trees.  The tropical plants greenhouse is filled with thousands of plants: ferns; trees; a tree fern; smaller bushes; things with huge leaves, small leaves, and virtually no leaves; vines tangling with tree tops; and even vats of water with aquatic weeds can be found.  The hot humid climate of the tropics is exemplified in the greenhouse especially in contrast to Connecticut's chilly fall air outside.  The 'cool' greenhouse or greenhouse with seasons, is split in to three sections: dry temperate (Mediterranean-like), desert with Old World aloes and euphorbs on one side and New World cactus and yucca on the other, and lastly wet temperate climate where a fun collection of carnivorous plants is grown. The plants are arranged by where they are found, so you can visit Madagascar, deserts of South Africa, the tropics of South America, and many other world regions and climates.

'Cool' Climate Greenhouse

Colletia unlicia, Chile

River Lily, South Africa

Gingham Golf Ball, South Africa

Fontanesia phillyreoides, China

Phyllobolus tenuiflorus, South Africa

Aloe albiflora, Madagasgar

Cactus, North America and Mexico

Zea mexicana, the mother of corn!, Mexico
My volunteer job has been to help with the weekly Bloom List.  I get to wonder through the greenhouses in search of what is flowering, and record it in the database.  The bloom list is great not only because it gives you an idea of the flowers you can see on a visit, but data collected over several years helps the gardeners, Clinton, Dana, and Matt, know if the plant is healthy by looking at the plant's biological patterns.  This volunteer job is fun because I carefully look over each plant in search of flowers instead of just walking through and out the exit.  It isn't super hard, but it can be a challenge to recognize the flowers since some plants have tiny flowers, some have seed holders that look like flowers, and sometimes the plants are tangled together so it can be difficult to determine to which plant the flower goes.  Each week, I am becoming more familiar with the plants and am learning more about Botany.  Volunteering at UCONN's EEB greenhouses has been a real treat with friendly staff, beautiful plants to see and photograph, challenges of new things to learn, and occasional gifts in the form of plants from the greenhouse.

Stay tuned for more posts with photos of the carnivorous plant collection, and wide angled view of the tropical house!


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Post #100, plus a little snow!

I need to celebrate a little because this is post number 100!  I started this blog on Jan 24, 2012, and with a only few exceptions have posted something every week.  I have enjoyed coming up with things to write about, taking photos, sharing artwork, and highlights from our backyard and life.  I like the creativity that I get to express on this blog.  I have enjoyed these 100 posts inspired by nature, and I hope you have, too.  

***********************************  Hooray!  **************************************

Our first snow in Connecticut!  

Dark-eyed Junco through the window!

Yesterday evening, I received the following email from my good friend, Catherine.

 "Just a quick hello to let you know that I am still so tickled about your adventure in Connecticut   Always learning and connecting with the environment.  What I can hardly wait for is how the dogs respond to the first snow.  What will be their reaction to that white stuff falling on their fur?  Let us know. " 

Well, this morning we got our answer with our first snow.  It was a little sweet snow, a light dusting on the bushes and leaves.  We got less than 1/2 inch between 6 and 11 this morning, and most of it melted as it landed.  The flakes were a descent size up to about a nickel.  I watched the snow cling to leaves and give everything a fuzzy texture.  Snow is so beautiful!  In Austin, TX we got this much snow about 2 times in the five years that Jacob and I lived there!

Silly after the snow.
Most of it has already melted
So, what did the dogs think?  Well, their reaction was a little disappointing.  I imagined the dogs chasing after the flakes, acting very confused, or being crazy.  I even had the ipad camera ready for some video, but they mostly stood around, did their normal squirrel patrol, and were a bit cold even with doggy jackets.  They were very excited when I first opened the door, but it was because Cici saw a deer in the yard as I opened the living room curtains.  When they got outside, Cici ran barking with little dogs in tow to catch the deer, but of course it was long gone.  So what's more exciting to a dog, snow or a deer?! 

I look forward to a blanket of snow that will show animal tracks.  Then, I will be able to have an idea what the dogs are smelling as their tails wag like mad.  It is fun to watch the dogs hunting.  They do work together if one gets on a strong scent.  Antro has a keen nose and likes to investigate under every log.  He is difficult to get off a scent, and will run along hardly lifting his head.  Silly sees things and will alert the other dogs with a bark (often much to my chagrin when it is a cat in someone's yard).  Cici is the fast.  Upon seeing her, someone once said, 'I see you have an athlete.'  Its true, she loves to run.  I think she would have a chance to actually catch a deer.  I enjoy our walks, though I sometimes wish they weren't quite so eager as they pull me along.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Naturalist Niche

At times, I feel a little over whelmed by the number of plants that I can not recognize in our backyard.  It brings me back to my college days of spending hours studying herbarium specimens for the week's botany quiz.  I am unfamiliar with several genus of common trees in the area.  Throw in new bushes, shrubs, ferns, weedy plants, and non-native lawn plants, and you've got an entire woods of unknowns.  I recognize how valuable my college classes were in devoting time and energy to the study of plants and animals.  I also realize that I just need to learn a few new species everyday to get back on my naturalist feet.

The place where I have been studying Connecticut trees, mushrooms, invertebrates and the like is at the dining room table, and I have named it the Naturalist Niche!  Usually in the late afternoon while outside with the dogs, I find something a mushroom, a bunch of leaves, berries, a feather.  Then I bring the item inside and try to identify it.  The Naturalist Niche has a number of reference books, containers for specimens, a magnifying glass, a dissecting microscope, a notebook, pencil, and ipad for internet searches. The Niche has good lighting and windows, a storage area (that is traditionally used to store fine china!), and the table is a good working surface.  Everything I need to investigate what is outside inside the cozy  house.

In the Naturalist Niche, I work to identify mushrooms using Mushrooms Demystified, and make spore prints.  I find mushroom identification a real challenge, so far I have identified a giant puff ball, two little brown mushrooms to genus Pananeolus and Psathyrella, and a bolete.  I hope to improve to the level of identifying with enough confidence to eat the edible mushrooms from our backyard woods.  I have identified more than a dozen trees, but I am afraid some tree identifications will have to resume in the spring as many trees have lost their leaves.  I am making a collection of pressed leaves.  I use the area to study birds including a white-breasted nuthatch (Sunday's post), drawing birds from photos in field guides, and identifying dropped feathers (I found the FWS has a great online resource for Id'ing feathers.)  The Naturalist Niche is one of my favorite places in the house because it feels good to come out of the fog and gain knowledge of what is around me.

Puff ball

Norway spruce cone and needles with a mushroom

Spore Print

Fly maggots attack the old mushroom!

A large pressed Tulip Tree Leaf, Liriodendron tulipifera

Northern Red Oak, Quercus rubra, pressed in the
 Altas of North American Freshwater Fishes, a hefty book!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

White-breasted Nuthatch Study

Our new living room has a fantastic large window, and one of the first things that Jacob did since moving in to our new place was create a large bird feeder tripod.  We added three feeders and a suet cake, and have enjoyed watching a variety of birds from the comfort of our couch. Throughout the day Black-capped Chickadees, Tuffed Titmice, Blue Jays, Dark-eyed Junco, Downy Woodpeckers, and White Breasted Nuthatches are flying in and out of the yard.  We have also seen with less frequency White-throated Sparrows, Hairy Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a Red-winged Blackbird, and a female Cardinal. 

Tuesday however brought an unfortunate event; a white-breasted nuthatch flew into the window and died. (Since, then I've taped bird silhouettes on the outside of window to help the birds see the glass.)  I was saddened to see this gymnast of the trees dead, but I decided to take advantage of the accident, and I did a nuthatch study. With the bird in hand, I was able to see it's overall body shape, really see how the feathers overlap, to see its upturned bill, and look closely a the feet.  I spent close to two hours sketching different angles, photographing, and then doing small watercolor of the beautiful bird.  I am glad I was able to get to know this bird better, and I predict a larger painting coming in the future.  Here are two links to blogs devoted to nature sketching and nature art and

 A little more about why I think White-breasted Nut hatches are Olympic gymnasts.  White-breasted Nuthatches are insect eaters, who climb all over trees poking under bark, among leaves, and in cavities looking for their prey.  They have the ability to climb strait up, upside down, and all around the tree's trunk and branches. They are very active and do all their stunts with speed and a hopping, hitching gait.  They are also pretty noisy beeping with every hitch up the tree.  Birds of North America describes their call as "a low 'yank, yank'."  You can check these websites to learn more and hear a recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch. ( cornell bird lab and enature)