Notes from the Field
A compilation of field observation and photography celebrating the stewardship and biodiversity of Steep Rock Association’s land.
CALLING for MARSH BIRDS
July 3, 2018
Beams of mist shine from the headlights as I turn into Macricostas Preserve’s parking lot. Wheels lightly crunch over dirt and gravel until slowing to a stop. Another vehicle is stationed at the trailhead and two Steep Rock Association (SRA) citizen scientists emerge.
Convening and taking one last glug of coffee, we prepare amid dawn to survey for marsh birds. This group of wading birds includes rails and bitterns. Our goal is to document their presence (or absence) and distribution within the preserve’s appropriate habitats, namely Meeker Swamp. Quality emergent wetlands like this are increasingly limited, which has resulted in declining populations of occupants evolved to slink through them completely camouflaged while probing for fish and invertebrates.
The thermometer reads 57°F and the mist has subsided. Tracy Rettenmeier marks the datasheet while Donna Cowin hoists the megaphone and presses play. The preset 5-minute period of silence incorporated for passive listening on the 12-minute track is drowned by a sea of bird song. Cardinals rejoice atop box elders, flycatchers announce from willow, and red-winged blackbirds boast until the “ki-ki-kerrr” call of a black rail broadcasts from the megaphone coursing up Bee Brook’s channel.
Calls of five more rails and two bitterns with breaks in between complete the sequence for the first site. This method, referred to as callback surveys, is designed to elicit a response from the otherwise extremely secretive marsh birds.
We arrive at the third and final station yet to detect the grunts and whinnies of our quarry. Climbing its steps in slow-motion, we ease onto the Viewing Platform. The shallow waters shimmer in light of the new day now and a breeze swishes tall grasses and reeds. “Bloonk-adoonk”. Hear that? “Bloonk-adoonk”. An american bittern! The heron-like bird disrupts the listening period clearly having heard our recordings from the previous survey site.
The solitary individual responded three more times throughout the track with its deep, gulping call. This was the first documented occurrence of a bittern at Macricostas Preserve and another endangered species in Connecticut added to a long list of rare and/or imperiled species the preserve supports. As its stewards, SRA uses this scientific information to make informed decisions on land management and preservation; however, the benefit of such citizen science projects extends beyond our boundaries. By sharing data, they aid other conservation entities’ ongoing understanding of large scale trends and supplement existing efforts like the CT Bird Atlas updating the state’s inventory of species. And by sharing our eco-advocacy through an outreach component, community members relate to nature through directed learning and implementation. Broadcast surveys will be conducted at least two more consecutive years to conform to the National Marsh Bird Monitoring Protocol and the assumptions it has derived.
SRA would like to acknowledge the Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation for its generous Khurshed Bhumgara award for the purchase of equipment to make this study possible. In addition, we sincerely thank James Fischer of White Memorial Foundation for his insight on the ecology and detectability of marsh birds, as well as Min Huang of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) for providing logistical materials. And of course, thanks to Donna Cowin and Tracy Rettenmeier for answering the citizen scientist call. When asked about her experience, Donna shared “I was happy to come away with the knowledge that we have an array of marsh birds, and feel fortunate to have the American Bittern living in our midst (even though we can’t see them!) Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this very cool project!”
As they say in scientific research, zeros are just as valuable as any other number when it comes to data, but it sure is nice to find what you are looking for, especially when it is a guttural “blook-adoonk”!
DISSECTING an OWL PELLET
June 12, 2018
Steep Rock Association trustee, committee chair, and conservation easement landowner, Natalie Dyer, poked into the office this spring possessing some treasure. “It’s an owl pellet!”, she exclaimed with wonder and excitement bubbling up as usual. And a big one at that. Looking down at a roughly 3 inch long and 2 inch wide mass of fur, I was amazed a bird had managed to regurgitate it. Owls eat their prey whole or in large chunks and have a digestive system designed to remove the bones, claws, teeth, fur, and whatever other indigestible parts go down the gullet. Moving from crop to stomach to proventriculus, this material is isolated and compressed into a pellet. Such a find offers an opportunity to better understand who is hunting nearby and what is on the menu.
Large bones protruded from the side of the conglomerate and when breaking it into manageable pieces, served as points of division.
Some bones are shattered in the digestion process, but many remain intact allowing for analysis.
Pellets are deposited 6 to 10 hours after a night’s meal. This owl is a successful hunter with a diverse diet judging by the amount and variety of bones excreted at once.
So who perches in pine trees bordering farmland, predates rabbits and rodents alike, and discards pellets. “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo”. Natalie’s neighbor is a great-horned owl!
SQUIGGLING AND SQUIRMING our way through SPRING
May 7, 2018
It’s that time of year again when thrushes and warblers serenade forest dwellers, buds burst, and a rejuvenated environment even teases of summer with an occasional tree frog sounding off. For Steep Rock Association, these cues trigger a certain stewardship action being the monitoring of our critically-important vernal pools.
A balmy rain-soaked night has aroused the mole salamanders. Stout legs pulled the long, slender, and grooved bodies of spotted, jefferson, and marbled salamanders out from underground burrows to breed in temporarily refreshed waterbodies. Approaching a pool, the egg conglomerations of spotted salamanders look otherworldly, glowing against a dappled floor of departed leaves. Some are laid on the floor while the majority of others are affixed to woody debris.
In order to count and identify egg masses, you must carefully wade through the depressions and hope your waders are tall enough. However, before doing so, I like to take a long stoop over the surface and observe what squiggles, squirms, and darts through the water. Fairy shrimp, marbled salamander larvae, and frog tadpoles can be detected this way.
A total of 624 spotted salamander egg masses and 197 Jefferson salamander egg masses were counted in 29 vernal pools! For more information on vernal pool ecology and their importance in Washington’s landscape, see a VISTA newsletter article posted below on April 4, 2017.
March 15, 2018
With snowshoes strapped, baggies at the ready, and GPS fixed, I head out into one of Steep Rock Association’s (SRA) preserves characterized as overgrown field rejoicing my career choices and the presence of such preserved land. A cold-water stream runs through it. Seeps percolate from tall grass and alder groves, wind past cedar trees, and eventually find their way to the main channel. Cottontail pellets are the quarry of the day, to determine if the New England Cottontail resides here (see previous post on this effort). A pile of pellets is quickly found and collected. What was observed next to the pile, however, would take us on a whole other adventure.
Picture-perfect tracks revealed a bobcat had moved through the area, positively with the same quarry (only tastier form) as myself, working up one of the frozen seeps and intersecting with the cottontail trail. SRA had already reached out to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to assist with a new study on habitat use and distribution of the state’s bobcat population, adding to our understanding of the importance of our preserves and thus ability to best manage them. What are they servicing in the greater landscape like mammals with large home ranges and how? More information on the state’s project can be found here:
A seasoned volunteer trapper and I returned to inspect the site as a study location a couple days later only to find another set of bobcat tracks freshly laid on top of my snowshoe prints. Good habitat indeed! No time was wasted meticulously setting two specially designed traps along the trail. They are like a havahart trap, only tall and narrow with a drop door. Plywood was fit to the sides and top, evergreen bows and dead limbs were positioned to camouflage the structure and mimic a cavity, logs were placed to steer path of travel, peat moss was placed over all metal on the floor and trigger plate, trigger rods were lubed, and lastly the door hinge was tested and tested again. A smorgasbord of cat goodness was strategically placed in and around the trap – a dead gray squirrel fashioned to the top so it hung off the ground, a spritz or two of bobcat urine, a generous helping of beaver caster on a googly-eyed cotton ball, a few pheasant tail feathers from a carcass nearby, essence of skunk, and to top it off, a dash of catnip. Sure enough, field observation coupled with the volunteer’s expertise and recipe produced – a female, #64.
Gorgeous eyes peered out from behind vertical bars of the door. A dexterous Wildlife Division technician distracted her with one hand while the other stuck a needle with sedative into her rump. A few minutes passed before the disgruntled cat was unresponsive, removed from the cage, and carefully rested on a slab of plywood.
Outside of the hidden enclosure her sheer beauty was realized. Darkly colored cheeks and blotchy belly spotting were unique and especially attractive. Physical measurements and observations were quickly recorded, which included length of body, length of tail, weight, sign of nursing, tooth condition, overall health, as well as a hair and ear sample. Coming in at 16.42 pounds, she was about average for a two-year old female.
Unfortunately, DEEP had run low on GPS radio collars, saving the last few for cats caught in urban areas, but she did receive an identifying tag in each ear, which would provide valuable information should she turn up again. It was an absolute privilege to observe such a majestic creature up close and help contribute to the state’s knowledge when it comes to managing this predator in the ecosystem. You can help too as citizen scientists by reporting sightings to DEEP. So keep an eye out for those dark cheeks, spotted belly, and fancy new earrings of #64 and take pleasure knowing she and many other bobbed-tailed felines share these rugged hills with us.
PURSUIT for PELLETS
February 6, 2018
They’re not the easiest to obtain. Stooping, crawling, and dipping through young forest, citizen scientists with Steep Rock Association (SRA) earned their cottontail scat (or pellets). The native species, New England Cottontail (NEC), prefer this brambly habitat type over more open fields and meadows where the non-native eastern cottontail dominates. Forest succession and interspecific competition have resulted in a severe decline in NECs throughout the region, prompting a coalition of federal and state agencies, private organizations, universities, and many others to help the species recover. Documenting the presence of a population aids this effort; however, NECs and eastern cottontails look very similar in the field, which makes differentiating difficult. Analysis of scat has become the most effective and non-invasive method to determine who is hopping around.
Following a recent snow, five samples were collected in Macricostas Preserve, a site chosen for the amount of contiguous early successional habitat both in and out of the preserve. NECs require 10-20 acres (or more) of this abandoned farmland, old orchard, swamp, or vegetated clearcut. Classic bunny trails maneuvered through gaps in brushy rose and aged stone wall. Dimpled along the way may be a pellet or two, a thin brown oval of expelled vegetation, ultimately leading to a resting stop where a mound usually lay in the shallow depression.
Anna Quinn of News Times in Danbury joined our foray and documented the morning in a nicely written article.
Samples from other SRA preserves have been collected as well to be sent in to CT DEEP. Check back this spring/summer for the results! Meanwhile, here is where you can find more information.
THE FUNGAL ARMS
Essay and photos by Peary Stafford
January 4, 2018
It’s January… and there’s precious little nature to study in Steep Rock. Few birds, no insects and for sure no flowering plants. But there’s always something and these desolate winter days, BK and I (OK, mostly I) have taken to investigating the fungal life of our beloved Land Trust. This particular day, driven by cabin fever, we settled upon fungus for a reason to go walking in the nasty, misty weather. Parking at the Hidden Valley Preserve, we walked in on the Bee Brook side, taking photos and collecting various forms of mostly woody shelf fungus on the way; a couple of amateur mycologists hoping to make an ID or two back home with the help of our field guides. Working our way out to the bridge, we crossed the Shepaug and were about to return when I spotted a tree covered with some small species of shelf fungus. Wondering what it might be and if it was different from all the other similar things we had already seen, I noticed something really different; something that looked like the back end of a tiny white squid sticking out from the trunk.
I must admit that this next bit falls straight into the category of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, for I immediately proclaimed “Coral Fungus!” believing it to be something I’d read about and seen pictures of in the field guides and thought looked pretty cool. Fascinated, we took a number of photos, then continued our walk back out toward Route 47, checking tree trunks, stumps and fallen logs as we went. A little ways down the path we saw a man walking toward us carrying what was obviously some pretty serious camera equipment. Curious as to what someone else was doing out there on this hideous day, I asked him what he was photographing. He said that he worked for the Republican-American and needed some nature pictures for the supplement Country Life. In return, he asked what we were up to and I replied that we were looking at fungus and showed him some of the cool stuff I had in my pockets. Bemused, he exclaimed that this was the first time that someone had told him that he had a pocket full of fungus and was actually proud of it!
Feeling suddenly a bit sheepish, I managed that back down the trail a little ways there was a really neat little thing called a coral fungus and that he should take a picture of that for his nature shot. He nodded dubiously; we went back down the trail where I showed him the tree, and he took some photos of the little organism. He also snapped one or two of us as we examined the odd little thing and the photos in the paper a few weeks later gave rise to comments about my “Elmer Fudd hat” as well as the inevitable fungus jokes.
Inevitably, when we got home and I looked in the books, I was horrified to learn that my coral fungus identification wasn’t even close. While it looks superficially similar, a species with the neat name White Worm Coral grows out of the ground, not tree trunks, and is fragile as fine china, while ours was soft and pliable. Visions of bad identifications printed in newspapers and attributed to me started flashing through my brain and I immediately emailed Greg Hanisek (who also works at the Republican-American) to head off our photographer and to get his advice as to what this now mystery form of life might be. If Greg could stop my misidentification from being printed, at least I would be able to go to bed that night knowing that I wouldn’t be the laughing stock of all the many mycophiles within the range of the paper.
It wasn’t too long before I got back a copy of my email that Greg had forwarded to a man named Bill Yule – a past president of the CT Mycological Society – asking for help. This man’s so into fungus that he uses the email address Bolete Bill – Bolete being a family of mushrooms.
The next morning there was a response from Bolete Bill and it seems he had a pretty good idea of what the item in question was. His “wild guess” as he put it, was
“one of the Cordyceps [genus] that attacks moths and entombs them. Sometimes the moth emerges from a cocoon but can’t fly and just slowly dies under bark…here’s an attached picture of one that attacks the Copper Underwing [a kind of moth]…as the mushroom continues to grow the moth more or less disappears and you’re left with a mass of squiggly fungal arms in a clump…kind of what you see there in the pic…”
Well, that was enough to pique my interest! Off I went to try to find out more about Mr. Cordyceps on the Internet. Googling the word did little to help, as apparently this fungus is also used in some funky herbal remedies for God-knows-what, and all I got were a lot of commercial pages about stuff that didn’t sound quite on the up-and-up. One page claimed that ingesting it would: stimulate the immune system; — cure sexual dysfunction in men; — maximize body oxygen uptake; — build muscles; — improve kidney, liver and lung functioning; — provide anti-aging effect… and to boot: The list of what is stated is not complete. While I wasn’t quite ready to run back to the tree and wolf it down, I certainly was impressed with its purported beneficial effects. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to see what kind of spam I’m going to get as a result of visiting those pages!
Eventually I did find a web page – MushroomExpert.com – that had a ton of information about this form, including this little tidbit: there’s a congener – a member of the same genus – of our Cordyceps down in Costa Rica that is even more devious than ours. It’s unfortunate prey is a type of ant that upon ingesting a spore of the fungus ends up having its brain rewired by the evil thing. This rearrangement of synapses causes the ant to climb to the top of a tree in the rainforest and attach itself to the uppermost leaves, whereupon the fungus promptly sprouts from the head of the ant like the monster in the movie Alien. It then merrily releases its spores into the jungle breezes. I mean, I get evolution and all that, but fungus isn’t exactly a higher life form. How in the world did it figure out how to do that?
Whew! This was getting serious and I really needed to know if our little squid butt was actually one of these fungi. So on another nasty day – this one really cold – I dragged BK back out and we went back to the tree. It took some doing to find our friend this time, as the cold (I presume) had caused the fungus to retract somewhat, turning it a lot grayer and smaller in the process. But find it we did, and with a couple of pokes with a Swiss Army Knife it was in a ziplock bag and headed for home. Lunch at The Pantry intervened and was fraught with the anticipation of discovery.
Once home I searched frantically for the hand lens that everyone seems to want to put anywhere but where I want it to be. I finally found it (on the mantle where I had undoubtedly left it), walked to a shaft of sunlight coming through the kitchen window and peered through the lens at the fungus in my hand. Like the man said; squiggly fungus arms. But way down at the bottom below the fungal arms (sounds remarkably like an English pub) covered in the white crust that formed the base of the piece I’d prized out, were two tubular protrusions that could just be the lower portion of an insect’s antennae. There also seemed to be mouthparts between the antennae and on the other side of the clump a few stumps were in just the right places for legs. It took little more inspection to determine that indeed, the thing the fungus was attached to was the well-decomposed remains of an insect!
Cool! It really was an insect-eating fungus! My curiosity in high gear, I had to learn more, and my instincts told me that Bolete Bill was my man.
A half a day and a couple of emails later a virtual tome on the ecology of Cordyceps was staring at me from my computer screen. It seems that this little organism holds no end of surprises. Leaving out all the anamorphs and teleomorphs and Ascomycetes that peppered his scientific discussion, the gist of what Bill told me was this: These things are so little understood that biologists have actually placed them in an “Ain’t got a clue” category. Apparently there are two phases of this particular type of fungus, one that’s capable of reproducing and one that can’t, and depending upon some poorly understood divine scheme sometimes the one comes up and sometimes it’s the other. Problem is, nobody knows which of the one form goes with the other, as they look entirely different. As a result, the mycologists have a whole bunch of sexual fungi and a whole bunch of asexual fungi all stuck in this category just waiting for some molecular biologist to fit them together. It’s sort of like the old school tests; take one from column A and match it with one from column B.
Here are some more of Bill’s words about the ecology of this primitive form:
This whole puzzle is kind of analogous to a tadpole and a frog. Suppose a tadpole had one scientific name, Squiggly squirmorum and a frog had another, Hoppity jumpalotta and no one suspected the two were connected. Tadpoles don’t reproduce sexually but suppose they could clone themselves to make more tadpoles. So herpetologists went through life thinking hey there’s these cool animals called tadpoles that only clone themselves and they live in the water, etc. Then one day some primitive biologist brought a particular tadpole home and it turned into a particular frog. Squiggly squimorum was actually the asexual stage of Hoppity jumpalotta. the frog. Sooooo Squiggly is the anamorph and Hoppity is the teleomorph and all considered together as two different morphological expression of the same organism is the holomorph.
I kind of get it now, I think. Maybe. Complex, yes; and wonderful. But so intricate and bewildering and it’s just one more example of the incredible things going on under our noses at Steep Rock. Just as good, the Connecticut Valley Mycological Society has been making annual forays at Steep Rock for at least 15 years and they haven’t yet recorded this species (Cordyceps tubularis), so it’s a new one for the Steep Rock Fungus List! They’d never seen the huge soccer ball-sized puffball I found at Macricostas last summer either, but that’s a whole other story…
WINTER divulges a PAPERY PRIZE
December 7, 2017
A few stubborn oaks still cling to brown leaves, but for the most part, trees are rid of foliage, giving forests a different look and feel. Landscapes are more intimately studied, their layers and intersections well within view. A low sun pierces empty crowns, illuminating hillsides and unveiling what remained hidden through livelier times. Aerial nests are discovered in shrubs and tree crotches, but none stand out more than those of bald-faced hornets dangling in the mid-story.
A queen is fertilized and hibernating now, tucked away in the hollow of a tree or stone wall. Come spring she will emerge and predate flies, bees, and other wasps while scouting for a nest site. This fine-scale selection has been of particular interest upon observation that many hives are positioned over water.
Is higher humidity beneficial for hive construction and interior environment? Does close proximity to water serve to conserve energy for resource allocation? Is the nest less likely to be predated over a pond edge than within a forested stand? Is the opening of a waterbody creating denser foliage cover on opportunistic limbs? Do queens simply have varying preferences or are nests just more detectable in a more open environment?
Once a site is picked, nest construction begins with the mixing of wood and saliva – wasp’s paper mache. Both comb and protective paper casing are made with this material to form a structure that enlarges over time to accommodate a maturing colony . One nest may contain several hundred individuals and approach two feet in length by season’s end. With depleting prey and cold temperatures, the queen lays fertilized female eggs and male eggs, which will emerge, leave the nest, and mate before winter. The old queen and the rest of the colony perish while these new females hibernate, dwelling on where to best build a nest, to start the cycle over again.
November 6, 2017
It all starts with a plan and permit when wetlands are concerned, but the latest stewardship project at Macricostas Preserve simply involved maintenance on a previously approved stretch of boardwalk through Meeker Swamp. Several sections had deteriorated after a decade of great use and needed replacing. The beat boards were white oak, a good choice for lasting structures, but in this scenario, black locust, a non-native and invasive tree species of the area, is an even better option.
2 x 10″ locally-milled locust boards are purchased and stacked at the staging area, in addition to locust logs (6-14 inches in diameter) hand-harvested from a neighboring preserve. The bucked sections of log, referred to as “sleepers”, are what the boards will rest upon.
Thick, deeply furrowed bark must be removed prior to use, a task largely accomplished with a drawshave. Peeling fresh logs is a tedious chore resulting in a mound of narrow scrap strips. It is recommended to plan in advance and leave logs exposed to the elements for half a year, at which point the bark practically falls off in a nice, neat peel.
Boards, logs, and tools were hauled down the trail by foot. A wheelbarrow came in handy for smaller items like a drill, batteries, screws, hammer, pencils, angle, personal protective equipment (PPE), thermos of coffee, and water. Material was laid out appropriately as carried in, with pairs of similarly-sized boards deposited in length-dependent positions.
Sleepers are placed where board sections intersect. Tops are leveled with a chainsaw fit with a ripping chain. Ripping chains have more teeth that create a finer cut than a normal chain. Removing long slabs while keeping a consistent angle can be hard to achieve without one. Shallow depressions are dug for stability and adjusted so the log sits even with the next. Stepping back and getting the side of your head at ground level gives you a line of sight for this judgement. Longer boards are given an additional sleeper in the middle of the section while shorter boards suffice with just end supports.
Boards are then placed on the sleepers and assessed. Straightness of edges, bend, and direction of grain help determine which board will lie on which face and on which side. Once positioned, ends are marked for a cut that is consistent with the abutting section. Up-cutting along this line with a chainsaw is cleaner and won’t result in a frayed top edge like a down-cut would. Cut and placed snugly back in position, the boards are secured with heavy duty outdoor screws.
Forming a smooth curve in the boardwalk is achieved with varying lengths of sections. Short boards for bends and long boards for straighter projections.
The final stages of walking its length, collecting scraps and reviewing the product, seeing its course, feeling its rigidity, and hearing its pleasing thud with each step, puts a conclusive cap on a rewarding project.
CAREFUL with this CONSPICUOUS CATERPILLAR
August 16, 2017
Hickory tussock moth larvae have made their presence known in hardwood stands this month. Whether foraging on nut leaves, suspended from a silken strand, residing on low vegetation, or cruising over ground, this caterpillar’s showy appearance makes them stand out. Predation is of little concern to this distasteful species. Long abdominal hairs are barbed and stick to an intruder, often causing an allergenic reaction similar to stinging nettles. Thus, it is best to take a non-invasive approach when observing this little bugger.
GASTROPODS have the RIGHT OF WAY
July 18, 2017
Our summer days and nights have normalized in comparison to last year, interspersed with thunderstorms that moisten the air and briefly lower air temperatures. June 2016 held about 2.5 inches of rain while June 2017 showered 5.75 inches. With 3 inches of rain so far this month, July 2017 is also on pace to exceed the average amount.
Snails and slugs, members of the class Gastropoda, thrive in the damp, dark conditions presented by storms. They mostly feed on plants and molds at night to avoid drying effects of the sun, but a rainy or humid dawn and dusk will certainly bring them out. The boardwalk at Macricostas Preserve offers ideal habitat – cool, dark, consistently damp conditions below and when suitable, a feeding platform above. Furthermore, the unique calcareous nature of Meeker Swamp provides ample calcium for snails to form a shell, protecting their soft bodies. Next time crossing the boardwalk after a shower, make sure to look where you are stepping to give these fascinating mollusks the right of way.
AN ULTRASONIC EAR to the NIGHT SKY
June 28, 2017
Bats not only flap webbed digits to get around. They also use echolocation to navigate through their surroundings and capture insects, rapidly emitting high-frequency pulses of sound and interpreting the echo produced when they bounce off nearby objects. This behavior allows for non-invasive sampling through a method known as acoustic monitoring. Detectors housing a microphone are deployed overnight to record “calls”, most of which occur at frequencies too high to be heard by the human ear and often vary enough between species to allow for identification. Steep Rock Association (SRA) did just this through the summer of 2016.
Within our strategic plan, a primary stewardship initiative is to survey, understand, and manage our properties to protect and enhance biodiversity. By acoustically monitoring bats, we improve our knowledge of what species inhabit the preserves, their relative abundance, and habitat preferences. We can incorporate this insight into our management plan to provide resources for those in greatest need of conservation. Populations throughout the northeast have declined, most notably being the abrupt collapse of cave-roosting bats following the introduction of white-nose syndrome (WNS) to New York in 2008. WNS results from an infection by the cold-loving, cave-dwelling fungus Pseudogymonascus destructans, which causes bats to cluster near hibernacula entrances, wake up from torpor, and even fly outside during winter. These activities result in a premature expenditure of fat reserves, and in just four years since its detection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that six million bats had perished in the northeast. Those affected by WNS include the big brown, little brown, eastern small-footed, northern long-eared, tri-colored, and Indiana bats. Connecticut’s tree-roosting species (silver-haired, hoary, and eastern red) migrate rather than overwinter and thus are not affected by WNS; however, they too have experienced regional declines, although much more gradually.
Nine sites in six of our preserves were sampled by SRA staff. In conjunction, Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) monitored four additional sites as part of their statewide effort. Acoustic analysis identified five species occurring on SRA lands. The big brown and silver-haired bats were the dominant species detected. Hoary and eastern red bats were well represented across the Washington landscape and seemed to prefer foraging early (shortly after sunset) and late (shortly before sunrise). Lastly, the little brown bat, once one of the most abundant species in the state, was found in low numbers at half of the sites.
This summer of 2017, SRA aims to document endangered bats by surveying habitat types less represented in 2016’s efforts, which include open water, old-growth forest, and talus/ledge slopes. Please join our mission to conserve bats who play a vital ecosystem role by keeping insect populations in check. You can protect prime foraging habitat like watercourse corridors and leave snags (standing dead trees) available for summer roosting and pup rearing.
SOME common and uncommon SPRING SIGHTINGS
June 6, 2017
June 1, 2017
There’s nothing quite as startling as a ground-nesting bird gone undetected until erupting in flight. This happened more times than I care to admit while birding and clearing preserve trails. An undaunted female mallard, wild turkey, and American woodcock all exhibited incredible perseverance and bravery while incubating eggs, only exposing a nest once being nearly stepped on.
These birds prefer well-concealed areas for nesting to avoid predation. Generally, ground-nesting birds have a low reproductive success rate due to increased vulnerability. Thick brush adjacent to a wetland was the mallard’s selected site. Once spooked, it may be difficult to identify the billed bomb by sight; however, when flapping, this duck’s wings make a characteristic whistling noise, allowing for identification even when in a stunned state.
A rocky hillside with an abundance of mountain laurel fit the bill for a wild turkey. She scratched a shallow depression in spent leaves below a bushy laurel on a small outcropping, which was only accessible from one direction.
Woodcock also make a shallow, rudimentary nest although not necessarily adjacent to woody debris or shrubs like turkey. Their smaller size and cryptic coloration allow them to seamlessly blend in with a moist forest floor littered with leaves and twigs. A clutch of 4 pinkish-buff eggs blotched with brown and gray is typical for this sandpiper.
WONDROUS WILDFLOWERS in the HIDDEN VALLEY
May 15, 2017
Satisfy your senses with an outing to Hidden Valley Preserve. Short, hoarse phrases give away a singing scarlet tanager atop the talus slope while a Louisiana waterthrush whistles and twitters beside the cascading tributary. Northerly aspects cast shade over the trail and a breeze funneling through the narrow gully bring goosebumps to exposed skin. The river rushes by providing a visual, auditory, and olfactory experience of its own. Sensation abounds to a point where tolerance takes hold and legs power toward the next bend in anticipation of another fix. Be advised, it is in one’s interest to stop, absorb, and examine the forest’s more minute wonders this place has to offer.
An especially rich and rare community of wildflowers adorn this land, including some northern-affinity species that are uncommon in the state. Contributing to our growing outreach and programming aspirations, Peary and BK Stafford led a hike focusing on the identification and ecology of these specialized plants pollinated by insects. If you were unable to attend, make sure to mark your calendar because this event was an absolute treat that we hope will continue for years to come. Below are photos of wildflowers observed from approximately 1.5 miles of trail.
TEEMING WITH LIFE
April 4, 2017
Peeps and quacks of breeding amphibians are beginning to permeate our woodlands. Follow them and you will find a vernal pool, pond, or stream in healthy spring form. Steep Rock Association has put forth much effort investigating the amphibian community utilizing these aquatic habitats. For those who missed it, below is an article from the VISTA Summer 2015 Newsletter summarizing the pilot year of our vernal pool monitoring. Stay tuned for updates and photographs as we carefully muck through these unique environments in the coming month.
Vernal pools have been designated as a type of critical habitat throughout Steep Rock properties…and for good reason. These isolated, woodland water bodies fill seasonally, reaching maximum volume in the spring, and then dry-up annually or every few years. Due to the absence of fish predation, amphibian and invertebrate species have been able to adapt to the hydrologic regime and take advantage of this unique, temporary environment. Some animals, known as obligate species, are completely dependent on vernal pools for reproduction and life stage development. Here in Connecticut, obligate species include the fairy shrimp, wood frog, and four species of mole salamander (spotted, blue-spotted, jefferson’s, and marbled).
As ecologically-minded stewards of our land, we are interested in monitoring these habitats to document any temporal changes in condition and occupancy, which allows us to ensure their continued existence and importance to woodland communities. Detailed surveys of all vernal pools on Steep Rock preserves have been completed, constituting baseline data on pool characteristics, vegetative structure, and biological inventory.
Pools exhibited a considerable degree of variance in size, depth, in-basin vegetation, woody debris, and canopy closure. However, almost all were found in mature, mixed hardwood and hemlock stands, with floors composed of leaf litter. The array of life observed was remarkable. Isopods (a small crustacean), aquatic beetles and worms, snails, and a slew of fly larvae were frequently seen crawling or darting about. Green frogs and peepers ducked for cover while gray treefrogs called from the safety of nearby trees. Wood ducks secretively swam amongst woody vegetation and veeries hopped between sphagnum-covered rootwads in the more substantial pools. Although not many mammals were encountered, signs of their presence were bountiful in the form of scat, tracks and fur. Our observations also confirmed the presence of obligate species. Fairy shrimp were seen in 3 adjacent pools. Wood frog egg masses and/or tadpoles were detected in all but one of the 24 sites surveyed. Spotted salamanders were the most abundant of the obligate salamander species, present in 83% of pools, followed by jefferson’s (17%), marbled (8%), and blue-spotted salamanders (4%).
It is apparent that vernal pools play a critical role in Steep Rock woodlands and contribute enormously to biodiversity. Monitoring efforts will continue annually to help us better understand their traits, assess the value of their availability, and guide our land management practices.
BLUEBIRD BOX CLEANING in preparation for NESTWATCH
February 27, 2017
Cavity nesting species like eastern bluebird and tree swallow benefit from the availability of artificial nest boxes. Nests constructed in them often have greater success compared to those in a natural cavity, being less susceptible to predation and having a beneficial microclimate as a result of mindful placement. As spring approaches and migrating birds return to stake breeding territories, it is good practice to clean nest boxes before potential occupants inspect them. If boxes contain old nests, waste from overwintering birds, or deer mice, Mr. Bluebird may look elsewhere for a site to propose to females. Some individuals stay through the cold season when berries are in adequate supply and boxes offer thermal refuge. By overwintering, a male can select the highest quality territory (2-7 acres) before competition arrives. Bluebirds are philopatric, tending to return to the same area year after year.
The trail of nest boxes at Macricostas Preserve were predominantly occupied by tree swallows in 2016. Soon the stretch of boardwalk dividing it may seem unnavigable, engulfed in a whirlwind of iridescent blue aviators swooping at one another in defense of their territory, which in this situation includes their nest and adjacent, unoccupied boxes.
While tree swallows fervently defend against intraspecific individuals (within the same species), they seem to tolerate bluebirds moving in next door. If cavities are available, bluebirds may not be perceived as a major competitor since their foraging is concentrated on the ground and not in flight, as is the swallow’s method.
Other cavity nesters that will use a bluebird box include tufted titmouse, chickadee, nuthatches, flycatchers, wrens, and the dreaded house sparrow!
Steep Rock Association is excited to be partaking in NestWatch during the spring and summer of 2017, satisfying both stewardship and outreach initiatives within our strategic plan. We strongly encourage members of the community who are interested in developing their bird identification and nest box management skills to register for the introductory training and consider volunteering.
Through NestWatch, we will be able to confidently document species occupancy and reproductive success of our bluebird box trail at Macricostas Preserve. Results will be incorporated into future management strategies and data collected will be entered into an online database, contributing to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s understanding of breeding bird populations in Connecticut.
January 28, 2017
A winter’s day awakens with a burnt salmon sunrise engulfing the horizon and a fresh snow blanketing the landscape. A frigid breeze rattles frozen limbs. You pull up the sheets and pity all wildlife, for they must be hunkered down in coniferous stands, reserving stores or hibernating, but that is not always the case. Weasels, which belong to family Mustelidae, do not hibernate and some are active even on days like this.
The river otter has also slept in, taking comfort in the reclaimed beaver lodge built into a bank of the Shepaug River. In summer, arousal time would be in the dead of night, but is now early morning. Just upstream is a slow, deep pool where breakfast resides. The otter slips out one of many den entrances, flexes its body while slinking across the ice, and slides on its belly into the river. Water rolls off guard hairs and dense, oily underfur. Valvular ears and nostrils are closed. Webbed feet, powerful legs, and a tapered tail propel the submarine weasel to a debris jam at the pool’s tail. Long whiskers detect movement and a mature white sucker is flushed. Swimming in bursts, the otter easily intercepts the sluggish fish. A feast like this must be thoroughly enjoyed on land (or atop a debris jam), starting with the head and working down, as opposed to smaller fare, which can be consumed in the water.
River otters aren’t nearly as well equipped for locomotion on land as water, but they are still highly mobile, loping through watersheds and across drainages. Although family groups travel drastically less in winter than the rest of the year, the presence of snow and their desire to slide allows for an extension of foraging range. Breeding season for river otters has begun and soon you may see tracks of an expectant female that set off in search of a den to give birth in spring.
January 26, 2017
A cattail falls to the blade of my brush cutter, grudgingly smacking my face and exploding into a cloud of seed. Reed canary grass, invasive by nature, has also colonized this wet meadow of Macricostas Preserve that parallels Route 202, and its eradication is the focus of my effort. Monotonously sweeping back and forth, my blade meets resistance, and a cottontail head comes into view. Blood has splattered on the dirty yellow grass and I am convinced I have just decapitated a priority species in the state. Stew ingredients are inventoried…have carrots, potatoes, onions, capers, flour, stock…pick up a dry red wine and parsley on the way home. I was almost disappointed to realize that I was not the dealer of death when the body could not be found. The head was cool to the touch, confirming that a great horned owl or coyote had claimed it as prey the night before.
Two species almost identical in appearance inhabit Connecticut – the eastern and New England cottontail. Eastern cottontails are more prevalent, found in fields, meadows, and yards while New England cottontails, the native species, are less common due to loss of its preferred habitat (thicket shrubland and young forest). We are in one of DEEP’s core focus areas for restoration of New England cottontail and Steep Rock Association actively manages its preserves to provide early successional habitat for dependent wildlife.
BALD EAGLES back for WINTER
Updated February 7, 2017
Three bald eagles of varying age were observed on Lake Waramaug this morning. The photos below depict morphological changes immature eagles undergo as they reach maturity. It usually takes four to five years to develop the characteristic white head and tail of adults. An adult was also seen in flight, although not documented.
Updated January 20, 2017
Fourteen citizen scientists braved the 20°F morning of January 14th to participate in the Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey. It was quickly realized that stealth would be an issue as we crunched along icy trails, surveying an active route along the Shepaug River rather than being stationed at specific sites. The later of these methods is also known as point counts. No eagles were detected in Steep Rock Preserve or in Washington Depot where they had been seen earlier in winter; however, one adult eagle was briefly observed flying upriver at the north end of Hidden Valley Preserve. Steep Rock Association plans to participate in this monitoring effort annually. Much thanks to those volunteers who joined us in 2017!
December 21, 2016
As temperatures drop and waterbodies freeze farther north, many bald eagles migrate south in search of open water and food (fish, waterfowl, carcasses). A small commune consistently winters in the upper Shepaug River valley for these commodities and sure enough, they’re back!
From personal observation, I’ve found they often perch in gnarly riverside sycamore trees when hunting and may go unnoticed in this situation. The white head and tail blends with the bark and the dark brown body with cavities created from lost limbs. This breaks up their shape and may aid predation of waterfowl that abide on icy edges of open water.
If a bald eagle is spotted, it should not be approached since they are easily disturbed by human activity. As awe-striking as a 7-foot span of wings displacing air is, expending unnecessary energy during a stressful wintering period is detrimental to this endangered species. Individuals congregate at night in roost trees that are ideally within 8 miles of their foraging area and sheltered from wind. One I’ve come across was atop a steep, southeast facing slope in an old white pine growing out of the hillside. The tree’s crown peaked at the top of the hill such that it was protected by thick summit vegetation of mountain laurel and scrub oak on two sides. The slope had an exposed ledge face, which warmed nicely in the morning sun, the height to offer thermals, and an expansive view of the valley below. Sites like this may be used for consecutive winter seasons by bald eagles. Communal roosting has its own advantages, which include information transfer. If an eagle observes a fellow rooster with what remains of a trout dinner, it knows to concentrate hunting effort in the area where he or she came from. This is known as the Information Center Hypothesis.
The Midwinter Eagle Survey, a nationwide, coordinated count of bald eagles, began in 1979 and has been conducted each January since to monitor the status of this species. Connecticut’s results from 1979 – 2006 depict the raptor’s comeback from near extinction in the state and can be viewed via the link below.
Steep Rock Association will be participating in this ongoing research by counting bald eagles on two sections of the Shepaug River in Steep Rock and Hidden Valley Preserves. Please join us for this amazing citizen science opportunity!
OWLERS must be PROWLERS
December 20, 2016
Winter is primetime for owl prowling since many species’ breeding seasons are either underway or quickly approach, and they act accordingly. Great horned and barred owls hoot in declaration of their territories as well as to communicate with their mate. Eastern screech owls whinny and northern saw-whets squeal as day turns to night.
However, don’t expect to be greeted by a choir on every outing. A successful owler must summon the prowler within to be rewarded. Happenings of the day are set aside and the brain unburdened. Stealth is exercised through light steps and adjusted eyesight. Auditory perception is heightened. Resilience, confidence, and knowledge, as with most endeavors, are of paramount importance.
Two owl prowl programs were offered by Steep Rock Association this year. The first was held during a cool, clear November night, hours before a snowstorm engulfed the area. A barred owl hooted from a ridge top and later an eastern screech owl defiantly answered territorial calls before flying in to investigate. The small owl was spotted about 20 feet away, silently perched in the periphery of a flashlight beam. This individual had beautiful brownish-red plumage, clearly a red-morph screech, as opposed to a gray-morph. Moments later a northern-saw whet owl announced its presence with a series of different vocalizations. The feisty bird flew low overhead of the group and rigorously flapped itself out of sight, crash landing in a young maple forest. Seeing as the prowl was so well attended and eventful, a second was held on another clear, cold night. A mostly full moon shone bright, but a steady breeze persisted and no owls were detected.
Owls will often fly in to check out the origin of a call before vocalizing themselves, and it takes a keen eye to spot movement in the night sky or a dark silhouette on a limb. Feathered wings and legs that create no wind resistance ensure they go undetected in flight. Primary flight feathers have a serrated leading edge that cuts through the air and a flexible, porous trailing edge that then mutes noisy vibrations.
Prowling can also be practiced during the day by searching for areas of white wash at the base of trees or on the ground. The smaller eastern screech and northern-saw whet owls use the same roosts over and over resulting in the buildup of chalky white droppings beneath them. Other signs to look for are mobbing birds and prey caches (food storage for later consumption). A study conducted in New Haven that examined caching behavior of saw-whet owls found that caches usually consist of a single small mammal, always laid across the branch on which the owl was roosting. They also noted that caching was most commonly observed during the coldest months of the year, and usually associated with periods of prolonged snow cover.
Devine, A. and D.G. Smith. 2005. Caching behavior in Northern Saw-whet Owls, Aegolius acadicus. Canadian Field-Naturalist 119(4): 578-579.
A NATURALIST’S JOURNAL
November 16, 2016
As a senior at Shepaug Valley High School in 2005, I would look forward to when “C Period” would roll around in early afternoon, a time designated to work on a personal project required for graduation. I decided to keep a naturalist’s journal and at the onset of C Period, I would hop in my jeep and make the short drive to Steep Rock Preserve, a dependable locale to make observations and write entries. I also incorporated my passion to draw, sketching wildlife that I wrote about as well as each new month’s abbreviation with things from nature as a preface to the next string of entries. Seeing as Steep Rock Association was highly featured in the journal and I consider it the birthplace of Notes from the Field, I wanted share an entry corresponding with this time of year.
MONITORING CONSERVATION EASEMENTS
November 14, 2016
As notified in the previous edition of VISTA, Steep Rock Association has submitted an application for accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance, seeking recognition for excellence as a conservation organization. A vital element under review in regard to policies and practices is the stewardship of our conservation easements.
Conservation easements (or “conservation restrictions”) are legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust that permanently limits uses of the land to protect its conservation value. More detailed descriptions of easements and their benefit to both landowners and the public can be found in the Spring 1995 and Spring 2006 VISTAs, which are archived on our website.
Steep Rock Association has acquired 109 conservation easements since 1987, comprising roughly half of the land we’ve protected. For accreditation, we are required to monitor each of these parcels annually to ensure the terms are being upheld, identify encroachments, and document changes in condition. Monitoring is conducted during fall and winter in order to remain on a 12-month interval between inspections. In addition, these inspections are performed more efficiently once leaves have fallen and there is better visibility in forests. Please look for an inspection notice in the coming months if you are an easement landowner.
As manager of the conservation easement program, this task is by far the most consuming and rewarding. Several parcels are hundreds of acres and encompass Washington’s rugged hills. Others are smaller in size and less strenuous to traverse, but still serve their purpose, which may be to preserve a specific habitat type, contribute to a protected corridor, or promote working farmland. It is certainly a privilege to hike these private lands year after year to revel at undisturbed resources and applaud sound management efforts while a crisp breeze carries wild grape aromas and showers spent leaves that crunch underfoot. Sharing in landowner’s love for their property is equally special and I wholeheartedly welcome stories about the litter of fox pups that frolic outside their den or the demise of a historic mill. Interactions like these coupled with the knowledge that the eased land will be protected in perpetuity never fail to warm the gears for those most wintry of monitoring walks.
BLACK BEARS branching out in LITCHFIELD COUNTY
October 10, 2016
A broad black mass foraging in a foliated landscape is becoming a common sight as Connecticut’s bear population continues to grow.
This species was extirpated from the state in the 1800s, seen as a threat to livestock roaming the cleared hillsides. With farms abandoned and fields regenerated, Connecticut again offers suitable habitat for bears. High quality habitat exists in the form of lush wetlands with young shoots in spring and thick forests with reliable masts in fall. Many bears find this resource richness in the northwest corner and emigrate from source populations in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts and Taconics of New York. In the last 20 years, the population has experienced a dramatic increase in numbers and expansion in range to the south and east.
Biologists have documented high reproduction rates in adults and high survival rates of offspring. While female cubs often settle close to their mother’s home range, young males tend to disperse and travel significant distances in search of their own territory. Once established, a male’s home range can exceed 50 square miles, about 10 times that of a female. This suggests that most bears observed during initial recolonization are males.
In 2012, Steep Rock Association took part in a collaborative DEEP / UCONN study that investigated the size and distribution of Connecticut’s bear population. PhD student Mike Evans used barbed wire corrals, considered a non-invasive technique in the wildlife field, to attract bears and obtain hair samples. Three of the 175 corrals deployed in western Connecticut were in Steep Rock preserves. No hair was detected on our corrals, but 235 different bears were identified from hair on others. Another facet of the study examined how human density affected black bear ecology. They found the highest concentration of bears are in “exurban” areas with 6-50 houses/km2, presumably due to the availability of supplemental food sources without sacrificing adequate forest cover. You can visit a story map of the study’s findings at the link below.
Now is a better time than ever to see one of the estimated 700 bears in the state! Just last month, three individuals were observed within a few square miles south of Steep Rock Preserve. They are focused on fattening up for winter and in drought conditions, will move widely through their range to make ends meet. Refer to the DEEP website for information on preventing problem bears at your home and what to do during an encounter.
RIVERINE BIRDS take advantage of LOW FLOWS
October 6, 2016
Water-obligate birds species like great blue heron, common merganser, and belted kingfisher likely associate low flows with foraging success.
The drought-ridden Shepaug River has experienced decreased turbidity and increased water temperatures resulting in a lack of dissolved oxygen available for aquatic organisms. Coldwater fish like trout and sculpin become stressed in these conditions. Other more tolerant fish like dace, shiners, suckers, and sunfish suffer from enhanced competition. This negatively impacts their fitness and makes them more vulnerable to predators who can now concentrate their efforts in the diminished inundated area. Herons slowly stalk through runs once too swift and silhouettes become more visible to perched kingfishers. In addition, pools no longer offer reasonable refuge from diving birds like common mergansers.
As with most environmental issues, holistic examination often reveals some sort of paradox. You notice an osprey flying upstream with a trout in its talons and a double-digit family of mergansers preening on a series of mid-stream boulders during a hike in Hidden Valley Preserve. It is quite apparent that these birds presently benefit from low flows, but adding a temporal outlook brings to light further ecological effects. If significant numbers of fish in multiple age classes are predated now, there may be fewer young-of-year fish to replenish populations. In turn, riverine birds may not be able to raise as many healthy offspring in succeeding years. Food availability is often not the only limiting factor for reproductive success and distribution in avian species. For example, belted kingfishers identify a nest site before establishing a hunting territory based on riffle length and productivity. This species relies on the other extreme in flow (flooding) to erode banks and create their preferred nesting habitat.
August 12, 2016
The Shepaug River has a robust population of snapping turtles, evident by the abundance of females observed nesting in May and June. Many find the preserve’s low-lying, sandy fields and trails as adequate sites to excavate a shallow bowl and lay about 30 white eggs. Once covering them up with soil, the female returns to the river. One spring afternoon, an anxious individual had me reeling in line and wondering if I could outrun a bear while wearing waders. After noisily plowing into a fallen log on the far bank three times, moving it substantially, she finally barreled over the top and tumbled into the water.
Up to 90% of nests may be destroyed during the 80-day incubation period by predators like mink, raccoon, skunk, crows, and snakes. An interesting study conducted last year in Ontario examined cues used by predators to detect and depredate snapping turtle nests. They found that out of three cue types (visual, tactile, and chemosensory), nests with a tactile (touch) cue were significantly more likely to be depredated than nests with a visual or chemosensory (smell) cue. Furthermore, combining a tactile and chemosensory cue had an additive effect, increasing the probability of nest predation.
Oddie, M.A.Y., S.M. Coombes, and C.M. Davy. 2015. Investigation of cues used by predators to detect Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentine) nests. Canadian Journal of Zoology 93: 299-305.
RED EFTS on the MOVE
August 10, 2016
The air is thick with moisture this morning. My glasses quickly fog and I remove them, decidedly better off with just sub-par vision. Thunder claps in the distance and I realize the day’s rain may arrive earlier than expected. Juvenile eastern (red-spotted) newts or “efts” are more aware of the imminent wet conditions and lie within the trail. Their bright orange skin contrasts with the dark brown of earth, warning even poor-sighted, potential predators like myself of their toxicity. This use of coloration as a defense mechanism is called aposematism.
Efts are entirely terrestrial, developing lungs in place of gills when metamorphosing from an aquatic larvae. They can inhabit moist woods for 6 years, preying on springtails and other insects, before maturing into an olive-colored adult, reacquiring gills, and spending the remainder of life in freshwater.
MYRIAD of MUSHROOMS
August 3, 2016
Thunderstorms have moistened the warm woods, triggering many fungal species to send out their fruiting bodies through leaf litter and dead wood. Certain specimens have large caps and it is hard to believe the majority of the organism remains unseen, underground in thread-like aggregations of cells called hyphae. Some fungi like conk, turkey tail, and coral are saprophytic, converting dead organic material into fungal biomass, carbon dioxide, and organic acids.
Others like amanita, trumpet, chanterelle, bolete, and russula are mutualistic fungi that form symbiotic relationships with plant roots. In exchange for carbon, they help solubilize phosphorus and bring soil nutrients to the plant.
The third group of fungi are pathogenic, causing reduced production or death of its host. Not only do they cycle nutrients, but also provide wildlife habitat through the creation of snags. The sulphur shelf falls in this category as it induces a heartwood rot with a clear preference for oak.
WILD HONEYBEES above the TUNNEL
July 8, 2016
The buzz of bees catches my attention while on the trail above the Tunnel in Steep Rock. I give a quick look around the ground to confirm I haven’t disturbed a yellow jacket nest. Yellow jackets usually are aren’t a concern until late summer, but the dry, hot conditions through June have triggered early nesting in places. I realize with satisfaction that it is an apparently robust colony of honeybees living about 12 feet up in an eastern hemlock. They enter and exit a round cavity with purpose, many returning with bulbous hauls of pollen, indicating an active brood nest. What a treat to see this pollinator thriving in the wild, and not just in a beekeeper’s apiary.
AMERICAN KESTREL BANDING
July 1, 2016
A pair of kestrels have successfully nested in a box built by Steep Rock staff! Several boxes were deployed in our preserves two years ago, attached to trees within field breaks or those bordering a field edge. Interest had been documented through observations of kestrels perched on the box or looking in the cavity, but none nested. This year our Land Manager, Clark Gifford, repositioned two of the boxes, attaching them to long posts placed in open pasture and BAM! While driving by one of the pastures, I noticed a kestrel perched on top of the box. I watched it fly down to the ground and then enter the box. It most likely grabbed a grasshopper, caterpillar, or beetle, but other prey includes voles, mice, small birds, frogs, and crayfish. This was repeated several times in just a couple of minutes, a sign there were young inside.
The pair had a clutch of five nestlings, which is average for this small falcon. Art Gingert, the local expert/bander, and Clark coordinated the banding effort, joined by Steep Rock staff and trustees.
Some interesting information in regard to banding:
Kestrel’s legs and feet develop quickly, reaching adult size before they fledge and leave the nest. This allowed us to band the birds while they were still flightless without the worry of them outgrowing the metal band. Each band has a unique number with instruction for reporting if found such that if the individual is captured during a bird inventory study, conservationists will know where the bird came from and gain knowledge on migration patterns of kestrels originating in the northeast.
FUZZY HEADS and FLAPPY WINGS…FLEDGING SEASON is in FULL SWING
July 1, 2016
The time has come when the young of many bird species have reached a stage in their life called fledging. This means the nestlings have developed the necessary feathers and muscles for flight, making them capable of leaving the nest; however, they are still dependent on the adults to provide care and food for a period of time.
An adult barred owl and three of its offspring swoop down and perch on either side of Tunnel Road. The closest juvenile rests atop a beech snag while emitting contact calls to the others, its downy head feathers illuminated in the low morning light. They fly across the Shepaug River and mount low limbs hanging over the far bank. The adult dives to the water and picks something off the surface, perhaps a big mayfly, dead crayfish, or frog. One of the juveniles is still in sight, intently focused on a small pool still inundated in an otherwise dry river edge, swaying its head back and forth as if in disbelief of what swims below. I imagine a trapped minnow will entice this youngster for some time.
Farther down Tunnel Road a short, bushy live beech tree crowds the edge of the road. I unfold the handsaw, kneel down next to the unlucky plant, and find a nest concealed in the dense little crown of foliage. Three veery nestlings look back at me with wide eyes, snugly filling the cup composed of leaves, twigs, and grasses. They are on the verge of fledging, but have not made that first flight just yet. The mother keeps a close watch on the intrusion, but is not so overwhelmed to pass up a couple easy grubs. I retract the saw, slowly distance myself, and she promptly delivers the meal to the nest.
A CLOSER LOOK at the KIOSKS
June 8, 2016
Next time you are looking at program flyers or checking trail maps in the trailhead kiosks, stop and do some investigating. Perhaps a phoebe has built a nest beneath the roof or a spider has claimed a nook. I have found them to be a great place to see what insects are out. Many kiosks are adjacent to the river and recently hatched mayflies seem to find them an appropriate place to molt from a dun into a spinner. You may notice their exoskeleton left clinging to the wooden post or the newly-emerged adult spinner residing on the glass window.
WOOLLY ADELGID and the EASTERN HEMLOCK
June 2, 2016
Updated September 1, 2016
All trails on our preserves are in the process of being clipped of encroaching vegetation and cleared of woody material. Oftentimes in mixed hardwood coniferous forest, an eastern hemlock bordering a trail will branch out into the opening and need to be trimmed back. One consideration to take into account is that a hemlock branch will have its needles through the winter, catch snow, and bow down into the corridor with the extra weight, which can make travel a little tricky for cross-country skiers.
Many of the hemlock branches cut so far have had signs of woolly adelgid infestation. The woolly adelgid is an aphid-like insect from Asia that develops through six life stages – egg, 4 nymphal instars, and adult. The first instar nymphs crawl in search of a host tree and once finding it, remain there, feeding on young tissue of outer twigs and starches vital to the tree’s fitness. It may also inject toxins while feeding, enhancing needle drop and branch die back. Individuals are parthenogenetic, meaning they are all female and capable of reproducing without mating. There are two generations a year (fall-winter-spring and spring-early summer).
What I have been noticing on the underside of branch tips are white “wool-looking” masses. These are ovisacs created by adults with wax filaments to protect themselves and their eggs. Another sign of infestation are needles grayish green in color, instead of the deep, dark shiny green of our beloved conifer. Mortality of hemlock stands has a significant impact on the ecosystem. Their ability to shade and provide cover create habitat for wildlife and especially fish, being such a prevalent tree species in watersheds and riparian zones. Ecological processes like stream temperature regulation, leaching, nutrient cycling, and decomposition will be affected by the shift in forest species composition. Moccasin flower’s, or pink lady’s slippers, prefer the partial shade and acidic environments offered by hemlocks. Huge congregations like the one pictured below will surely be more scarce without hemlocks in the forest.
After just recently going through old VISTA newsletters, I have been educated on the closely watched development of this invasive species in Steep Rock and our collaboration with the CT Agricultural Experiment Station in its control. The titles are nicely summarized. CT Agricultural Experiment Station’s primary researcher will be returning to Steep Rock preserves this fall for the first time since 2005 to assess the status of adelgid and ladybeetle populations.
Fall 1987 The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid Threatens Steep Rock Grove
Spring 1995 Lookout For The Woolly Adelgid
Spring 1998 Woolly Adelgid Identified In Steep Rock
Dr. Mark McClure of CT Ag Station observes infested trees at Steep Rock Summit and releases 10,500 predatory ladybeetles (Sasajiscymnus tsugae)
Spring 1999 More Adelgid Found, Beetles Are Reproducing
Adelgids have spread through Clamshell to Hauser Bridge, 5,000 ladybeetles released in Hidden Valley
Spring 2002 Hemlocks Doing Well, Adelgid On Decline, Beetles Reproducing
Spring 2005 Outlook Hopeful For Hemlock Recovery
Dr. Carole Cheah takes over Dr. McClure’s research, documents abundant new shoot growth and low percentage of adelgid-infested crowns in Steep Rock impacted areas
Connecticut is first state to document biological control program having measurable impact on hemlock health
April 26, 2016
One of Steep Rock’s initiatives is to protect and enhance biodiversity. Biodiversity is a measure of the variety of habitat types and species present on our preserves. Often, ecosystems containing a high degree of biodiversity are more productive than those without. This is due to an enhanced connectivity between organisms resulting from each playing their unique role (niche) in their respective community.
Early successional habitat was historically more abundant throughout Connecticut’s landscape. Land that was cleared for farming or timber harvest became colonized by early successional tree and shrub species. Forests have matured and now dominate the land, resulting in a significant decline in the thickly vegetated environments of meadows, thickets, and young forests. As one may expect, populations of wildlife that depend on these habitat types have also declined. They include the New England cottontail and a slew of avian species (American woodcock, ruffed grouse, eastern towhee, prairie warbler, golden-winged warbler, blue-winged warbler, brown thrasher, and field sparrow).
Steep Rock Association has undertaken several biodiversity-driven projects to restore early successional habitat and I am often asked by hikers about tree felling in the preserves. This post is to inform and educate the public on the management techniques we employ to increase the availability of this habitat type on our land.
The term “edge” is used to describe an area where two or more habitat types meet. The most abrupt and noticeable of these is the junction of a mowed or managed field and mature forest, which offers very little value to wildlife. An edge of greater value consists of a gradual transition between habitat types, which is typical of those created by natural disturbances.
The transition from field to forest is created through a lack of mowing in the field (natural revegetation) and thinning of overstory trees in the forest. Zones are partitioned in the forest and receive varying thinning treatments. The first zone, adjacent to the field, is thinned the heaviest, resulting in an open canopy and abundant sun reaching the floor to stimulate new growth. The second zone is thinned a bit less and so on in order to create a minimum transition area of 150 feet that will eventually contain vertically diverse structure. Some cut trees are used to build brush piles in the edge that provide cover for wildlife, but most material is left lying on the forest floor for decomposers to break down and cycle nutrients back into the soil.
Clearcut and Thinning
These management techniques have been employed on a multi-year project focused around a meadow in the southwestern section of Hidden Valley. Its original size of 1.1 acres fell below the minimum requirement for many early successional dependent species, which is approximately 3 acres. Clearing and thinning of the forest around the meadow will establish new meadow, shrubland, and old field habitats, increasing the amount of connected early successional habitat in this nook of Hidden Valley Preserve to approximately eight acres.
Girdling is a practice used in conjunction with the other management techniques mentioned. Rather than felling a tree, it is killed by removing a strip of cambial bark around the perimeter of its trunk. This prevents the transport of water from roots to crown, creating a standing snag (dead tree) beneficial to copious insects and wildlife that feed on them. In addition, the absence of a leafy crown during the growing season lets light into the understory. Mature trees are targeted for girdling since they stand for a long time and can support large cavities necessary for some species. Tree species differ in their resistance to death by girdling and resistance to decay. For example, the oak depicted below will die faster than a girdled maple in the same setting, but once dead, the maple may decay faster over time. These are considerations to take into account when managing for the presence of snags with varying degrees of decay.
BUGS of the SHEPAUG RIVER
April 26, 2016
Born and raised a fisherman, the progression of my year is closely tied to insect hatches. Trout is the quarry of choice and so I often find myself on the banks of the Shepaug River. Keen eyes examine anything in flight, anything swimming, anything floating on the surface, and anything eddying through inside bends of the river like discarded exoskeletons. This will help me determine what the fish may be eating and how to imitate it. However, in many circumstances, signs like these simply aren’t there and the river appears lifeless, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Wade to a riffle, a shallow reach of the river where water tumbles over a rocky substrate, and pick up a stone from the bottom. Macroinvertebrates will be clinging to its surface. These bugs are stoneflies, caddisflies, and mayflies in their immature, aquatic life stages known as nymphs (mayflies and stoneflies) and larvae (caddisflies and dobsonflies). You may also notice small cases stuck to the rock. Caddisfly larvae build these cases to live in and the material varies by species. Many macroinvertebrates spend several years developing in the river before hatching into an adult, mating, laying eggs, and dying all in the span of a few days. These immature bugs compose the majority of a trout’s diet and thus when in doubt, I tie on a nymph or larvae imitation and fish it right on the bottom.
Riffle Bioassessment by Volunteers (RBV) Program
Macroinvertebrates are great indicators of water quality. Certain species are very tolerant of degraded water while others like many stoneflies and some mayflies have a low tolerance for poor water quality. The presence of low-tolerance species indicates high water quality and a healthy lotic system.
The Riffle Bioassessment by Volunteers (RBV) is a DEEP program that uses data collected by volunteers to document high quality streams throughout the state. Steep Rock Association invites all interested to join us in participation of this program. Staff will be leading benthic macroinvertebrate sampling of the Shepaug River and its tributaries this fall to determine the water quality of our streams.
This past week about 30 Gunnery students suited up in hip waders for a brief sampling period to see what they could turn up in the Shepaug River. Stoneflies, mayflies, caddisflies, hellgrammites (dobsonfly larvae), crayfish, and even a few small suckers were caught and observed in a collection tub. Giant stoneflies, common stoneflies, body-builder mayflies, and minnow mayflies were low-tolerance species identified…a good indication of unimpaired water in the Shepaug River.
SPRING 2016 WATER BAR MAINTENANCE
March 22, 2016
Many water bars have been installed on Steep Rock trails to divert water and prevent erosion. These bars fill with sand, leaves, sticks, and other organic matter, which needs to be cleaned out periodically so they function properly.
Several inches of rain fell two weeks ago (which flushed quite a bit of material) and temperatures have risen to 70 degrees Fahrenheit…time to make the water bar rounds.
A variety of avian species including tufted titmouse, black-capped chickadee, American robin, red-bellied woodpecker, and hairy woodpecker vocalize and forage at one especially active sight this morning. A pair of red-shouldered hawks passes overhead as a pileated woodpecker calls from an adjacent stand. A brown creeper flies to the base of the nearest shagbark hickory and hops up the tree, rotating around the side at times, methodically but hastily probing for food. Once nearing the crown, the creeper flies to another shagbark hickory and again I watch the bird work up the entirety of the tree. This happens six times in roughly 15 minutes and every time a different shagbark hickory is chosen. It is likely that the “shagginess” of this species’ bark harbors a greater quantity and/or quality of insect fare than other available trees resulting in foraging success, a developed preference, and a more-fit individual.
I’ve included a photo taken in 2015 when clearing water bars in Steep Rock. This dusky salamander inhabited a water bar and was found burrowed beneath the wet leaves and twigs it collected.
Clouds of an approaching rain storm creep into the afternoon sky. Wood frog and peeper calls resonate from a nearby vernal pool. Peepers were out last night, but these are the first wood frogs I’ve detected this spring. Crouched down at the pool’s edge, my eye is grabbed by a fairy shrimp propelling itself a solid inch and a half through the water. The mystical creature hovers in place, its leg-like appendages in constant motion. While approaching the next pool down the trail, a juvenile red-tailed hawk swoops down to a perch above the inundated depression, clearly interested in its swimming amphibians.
A partially decayed tree lies across the blue-blazed Pinnacle Trail. Using my hoe-like tool, I pick up one end and am able to position it off the trail. A red-backed salamander had colonized the underside of the tree and rests motionless in the depression created from the tree’s impact when falling. This individual has a short tail, which is likely the result of its back end being bitten off by another red-backed salamander when competing for shelter and/or a mate (intraspecific competition).