HTML tutorial

Notes from the Field

Home » Notes from the Field

A compilation of field observation and photography celebrating the stewardship and biodiversity of Steep Rock Association’s land.

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.

Program leaders Peary and BK Stafford wasted no time, educating on wild ginger (Genus Asarum) at the meeting location

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Round-leaved yellow violet (Viola rotundifolia)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Twisted stalk (Streptopus aplexifolius)     Note: This is one northern-affinity plant occurring in a cold microclimate influenced by aspect, seepage, and shading.

Corn lily (Clintonia borealis)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Trillium (Trillium erectum)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Bluet (Genus Houstonia)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Pussy toes (Genus Antennaria)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)    Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) near flowering

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Toothwort (Genus Dentaria)     Note: This is a host plant for the West Virginia White with Hidden Valley Preserve being one of only few locales statewide for this butterfly.     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Rue-anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

False hellebore (Veratum viride)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Miterwort (Genus Mitella)

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius)     Photo credit: Peary and BK Stafford

Lousewort (Genus Pedicularis)


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.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) in Hidden Valley Preserve

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)     Note: Softened wetland soils give rise to this plant in early spring.

Wood frog (Rana sylvatica) egg mass

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) egg mass with developing embryos

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) egg mass clustering


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.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) egg mass     Note: Masses have wider and firmer membranes than Jefferson salamanders.

 

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) egg masses    Note: Masses may be both clear and cloudy.


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.

Male eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) scouting from a cedar post at Judea Garden

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.

Tree swallow beside the boardwalk at Macricostas Preserve

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.

Male bluebird hunting grounded insects on an unusually warm February day

Tree swallow nest with sign of overwinter use     Note: One dead TRES fledgling was revealed after removing cottony milkweed seed floss brought in by a mouse.

Other cavity nesters that will use a bluebird box include tufted titmouse, chickadee, nuthatches, flycatchers, wrens, and the dreaded house sparrow!

House wren (Troglodytes aedon) nest constructed on top of a likely bluebird nest    Note: House wrens are extremely territorial.  They will destroy the eggs and nests of competitors.

Five unhatched house wren eggs from the previous season    Note: Fine material like pine needles, wood duck feathers, and bits of plastic (blue at top) are used for the nest cup, which lies on top of the stick base.

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.


MOBILE MUSTELIDS

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 otter (Lontra canadensis) with a crayfish    Note: Strong carnassial and molar teeth behind the visibly sharp canines are used to crush exoskeletons of crustaceans (left).  Air bubbles rise from another otter scouring the submerged bank (right).

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.

River otter tracks on preserved fen habitat    Note: Registered claws form pointed toes.


RABBIT STEW

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.

Cottontail rabbit carcass at Macricostas Preserve

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.

Juvenile bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at the ice edge    Note: A dark bill and lack of mottled plumage indicate this is a first-year bird.

Sub-adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) scavenging a deer carcass    Note: The yellow bill and distinct eye-stripe suggest this is a third-year bird.

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.

Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) and American black ducks (Anas rubripes) on an open section of the Shepaug River

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.

A wintering adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the Shepaug River valley     Note: This bird went undetected until in close proximity, which should be avoided.

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.

http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?A=2712&Q=324740

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!

http://www.steeprockassoc.org/explorations-in-nature/


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.

Northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) cache above a hemlock-lined section of railroad bed in Steep Rock Preserve


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.

November's first entry in my naturalist's journal from 2005

November’s first entry in my naturalist’s journal from 2005


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.

Coldwater stream (Walker Brook) running through the Coleman Easement

Coldwater stream (Walker Brook) running through the Coleman Easement

Scenic, working farmland of the abutting Horan and Solley Easements

Scenic, working farmland of the abutting Horan and Solley Easements


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.

http://clear3.uconn.edu/viewers/bears/

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.

http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2723&q=325968&depNav_GID=1655

Black bear (Ursus americanus) trail in Meeker Swamp (Macricostas Preserve)

 

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.

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) hunting on the Shepaug River

 

SHEPAUG SNAPPERS

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.

Female snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentine) nesting in a Hidden Valley trail

Female snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentine) nesting in a Hidden Valley trail

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.

Predation of snapping turtle nest in a Hidden Valley field     Note: Egg shell remains may suggest hatching occurred prior to predation


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.

Eastern (red-spotted) newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) in eft life stage

 

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.

Artist's Conk (Ganoderma applanatum)

Artist’s conk (Ganoderma applanatum)

 

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

Crown-tipped Coral (Artomyces pyxidatus)

Crown-tipped coral (Artomyces pyxidatus) bordering a waterbar

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.

Caesar's Amanita (Amanita caesarea) Note: The white volva is visible at the base of the stem.

Caesar’s amanita (Amanita caesarea)    Note: The white volva is visible at the base of the stem.

Black Trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides) Note: This species is associated with beech trees and moss.

Black trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides)     Note: This species is associated with beech trees and moss.

Cinnabar-red Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus)

Cinnabar-red chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus)

Two-colored Bolete (Baorangia bicolor) Note: A small mammal's eyes were bigger than his stomach.

Two-colored bolete (Baorangia bicolor)     Note: A small mammal’s eyes were bigger than its stomach.

Emetic Russula (Russula emetica)

Emetic russula (Russula emetic)

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.

Sulphur shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus) Note: This species is also known as “chicken of the woods”.


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.

Honeybee (Genus: Apis) hive in an eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

 

Forager honeybees (Genus: Apis) returning with nectar and pollen


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.

Art Gingert initially inspecting the nest box Photo credit: BK Stafford

Art Gingert initially inspecting the nest box     Photo credit:  BK Stafford

 

Five banded kestrels (Falco sparverius)

Five banded kestrels (Falco sparverius)     Note: Males have blue-gray wings (three on left).                                         Photo credit:  Todd Catlin

 

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.

Female kestrel nestling (Falco sparverius)     Photo credit:  BK Stafford



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.

Juvenile barred owl (Catharus fuscescens) Note: Downy head feathers signify recent fledging

Juvenile barred owl (Strix varia)     Note: Downy head feathers suggest recent fledging


Juvenile barred owl (Strix varia) looking to others

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.

Veery nestlings (Catharus fuscescens)

Veery nestlings (Catharus fuscescens)



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.

Light cahill mayfly (Stenacrom interpunctatum) in spinner life stage on kiosk

Light cahill mayfly (Stenacrom interpunctatum) in spinner life stage on kiosk



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.

Mocassin flowers(Cypripedium acaule) in a hemlock-dominated Hidden Valley forest

Moccasin flowers (Cypripedium acaule) in a hemlock-dominated Hidden Valley 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


 What’s the cutting all about?  EARLY SUCCESSIONAL HABITAT MANAGEMENT

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.

Edge Feathering

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.

Natural aspen revegetation from lack of mowing in edge habitat

 

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.

Expanded meadow and a wildlife brush pile in Hidden Valley Preserve

Expanded meadow and a wildlife brush pile in Hidden Valley Preserve

Girdling

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.

Girdling of a mature oak in an edge feathering treatment

Girdled mature oak in an edge feathering treatment



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.

Adult winter stonefly (Family: Taeniopterygidae)     Note: This species is one of the first insects to hatch during late-winter and early-spring.

 

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.

Gunnery students sampling benthic macroinvertebrates in the Shepaug River

Gunnery students sampling benthic macroinvertebrates in the Shepaug River     Photo credit:  Alison Frye

 

Gunnery students examining and identifying macroinvertebrates

Gunnery students examining and identifying macroinvertebrates     Photo credit:  Alison Frye



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.

Dusky salamander 1

Dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus)

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.

Wood frog (Rana sylvatica)Note: Specimens exhibited significant variation in color ranging from dark brown, to reddish brown, to light tan.

Wood frog (Rana sylvatica)     Note: Specimens exhibited significant variation in color ranging from dark brown, to reddish brown, to light tan.

Fairy shrimp(Eubranchipus vernalis) Note: The white forked tail is characteristic of females.

Fairy shrimp (Eubranchipus vernalis)     Note: The white forked tail is characteristic of females.

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

 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).

Red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus)     Note: Partially severed tail.

 

 

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookEmail this to someonePrint this page