Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nuthatch and Junco and Titmouse, Oh My!

Winter Bird Count:

It's that time of year I really start paying attention to my bird feeder.  I now have two seed feeders and two suet feeders that I filled yesterday, just before the snow.  All day the snow fell, and I watched, as eight tiny snow birds rushed in to eat.  These small gray birds with white bellies are also called juncos and migrate here from the north.  Would I see my other favorites?

A downy woodpecker stopped in at the suet feeder.  I put peanut butter in both, as they seem to especially like it.  That was at 8:34 in the morning, the snow falling gently.  By 3:05 in the afternoon the snow was falling heavier, but two cardinals made there way over, flying back and forth between the feeder and the lilac bush and the pear tree I planted to give them more cover.  There were now 11 juncos  between the tree, shrub, ground, and feeder, a very nervous tufted titmouse, and a returning downy woodpecker.

I looked again the next morning, at 7:35.  The snow had stopped.  House finches danced around, the males' red wings bright against the white all around.  Perched in the lilac were two mourning doves and I found myself singing a familiar Christmas tune.  Nine junco pecking...five house finch frolic...two mourning doves, and titmouse in a pear tree...


I got to try out my new 75-300 zoom lens and it was a whole new world over last year.  The titmouse did not stay still long and getting the lens to focus took time.  I will try a tripod later, but I was happy to get a few close-up shots of my visitors.  The chickadee, bluejays, and pair of nuthatch showed up late, and my camera's battery was fading.  Then a squirrel showed up and they all flew back into the trees.

For info on how YOU can submit data for the Winter Bird Count, visit

Monday, November 27, 2017

Are My Words Wasted?

They're disappearing...

Acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, willow...

The Oxford Junior Dictionary no longer includes these words, saying they're irrelevant to modern day childhood.  I know what every one of these words means, but didn't always.  I discovered them one at a time, wondering what a flower was and looking it up, or reading an article that mentioned one or more of these words.  Mostly, I learned these words from fantasy novels, where "bluebells" were death's knell, seven "cowslips" in hand let you see fairies, Leda was transformed into a swan and bore "cygnets"...  These words represent more than metaphor and fantasy.  We cannot advocate for what we cannot name.

It was literally decades before I knew a certain flower that appeared like magic was called a bluet.  I called them "serendipities", learning the word from another fantasy story.  When the words go away, so does the knowledge.  Why should we care about "catkins" on willows when we walk by them, looking at our phones?  Why will "acorns" matter to us, as we see a squirrel run away with its nut.  (Some even call it a pine cone and can't identify the oak tree it comes from.  Do they know they are edible with the proper preparation?  Do they know to look for acorn weevils?)

Instead, they can look up "attachment" as they add a picture to their "blog", hoping for "celebrity" as their thoughts go out on "broadband" and into "chatrooms".  Maybe they'll list "bullet-points", as whole sentences become too tedious.  Then everything is "cut-and-paste" and decided by a  "committee" who probably haven't been outside in a long, long time, too busy listening to "MP3 players" and "voice-mail" to listen to nature.

Fall Hiking

Fall hiking is great in RI, with so many preserves, land trusts, and more organizing them around the state.  Recently, I visited Grills Preserve in Westerly (which also has a Hopkinson side past the former Polly Coon Bridge).  It was one of many organized for the days after Thanksgiving.  This "turkey trot" was organized by the Westerly Land Trust.  (Orange vests are required October through January, as turkey and deer hunting are permitted with licenses.)

The leaves mostly fallen, it was still a warm day in November as my hiking boots crushed oak leaves down trails lined with Princess pine.  Despite its name, the princess pine is not a conifer, but a lycopodium, or club moss.  They only grow to about six inches high while the underground rhizomes grow out further and further.  

The fallen leaves and recently cleared trees let more light in.  This clearing was to encourage more scrub growth as in a new forest, creating a habitat better suited to our rare native species, the New England cottontail.  The much more common but introduced Eastern cottontail are comfortable in more open spaces, nesting even in lawns!  New England cottontail need much more cover.

Cottontails found in a lawn in East Providence.

Along the Pawcatuck.

One aspect of Grills Preserve that will bring me back in the spring is the trail going between the Pawcatuck river and off-shoots of ponds.  The area floods, so timing to both look for frogs and not get stuck in the mud may be challenging.  The former Polly Coon Bridge had to be redesigned after the flooding of 2010.  This cairn shows how high the water got:

One of many trees cleared to make room for smaller succession.

Burrs abound!

A granite rock out-cropping at a look-out point on "Big Hill".


Thinned out trees are piled up here.  Many birds will benefit from this type of habitat as well.

Nature adapts.


Historic graveyard with Revolutionary War veteran.

More princess pine.

One oddity that appeared both in a tree off the bridge (not completely unexpected) and then randomly on a tree near the parking lot was fishing lures...

I'm definitely getting lured back!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Taking Time...

My job has kept me maddeningly busy, but here are a few pictures from my recent hikes.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tide Pools: Bay of Fundy

It was a Facebook ad I clicked on that lead me here, with promises of whales, tidal pools, and magnifying lenses.  I was going to a foreign country to look at periwinkles and plankton!

One of my favorite wildflowers is goldenrod.  Contrary to popular belief, it's not goldenrod that causes allergies, but ragweed, in bloom around the same time.  Ragweed is wind-pollinated, so pollen is air-borne.  Goldenrod is insect-pollinated, so pollen is carried from plant to plant by insects such as the unique bumble bees I saw here.  Below is the seaside or salt marsh goldenrod, adapted to salty, course soils.  It would be the end of soil for a while...

We followed our guide Greg Turner ( further to the rocks below.  We had learned about the basalt and volcanic rock across the bay when we visited Balancing Rock in Tiverton (Long Island), NS.  Now we looked closer.  The reddish-brown lines were red oxide, or iron rust.  There appearance was caused by a chemical reaction.  Over time, water and the red oxide could split boulders!

There was little to no soil here.  We needed lichen and a few 100,000 years.

Sometimes air pockets formed as the rocks cooled, leaving behind pock-mocks.

But the site was far from barren...

An inuksuk greets us atop of a formation further on.  Take nothing and leave nothing is the golden rule, but this marker made out of stones at hand tells that people were here, and perhaps trails or food are ahead.
More on Inuksuks here.

The tide had receded, yet some water remains.  It feels like we're on an alien planet.  What life is out there?

A beach plantain has found a tiny nook of soil between rocks.

Some of the water looks brown.  Is it the red oxide, or the lichen on the rocks?

We find a tidal pool, more like a tidal puddle, full of floating life.

We look at the seaweed's cell structure with round lenses we can hold over the water.  But our guide tells us to look for the even tinier...

Those black spots are creatures: Amphipods and more!  We don't have the magnification for plankton.

We examine other puddles, getting closer to the source of water.

What's this?  Periwinkles!  They are harvested as food by some.

We examine more red in the rocks and our first seaweeds.  These have air-filled bulges that help them float.

Periwinkles, seaweed, more amphipods...

A male crab hunting for tasty creatures!

We look in further.  Would we find the origins of our own species?

Further past the primordial ooze are a diverse array of seaweeds.  Peeling them back feels like we are the microscopic ones on a dog's back, looking for our friends amidst the fur.

And we find them!

We have now found three species of periwinkle.

And quite a few species of seaweed!

They look like tiny pickles!

Or chicken feet.

Actually, many of the seaweeds are edible.  We tried seaweed chips our guide had brought.  If you like kale chips, you'll love these!  Nova Scotians and Mainers also dry a blend of seaweeds as a seasoning called dulse.  Very yummy.  We got to see nori, which is used in making sushi rolls, and sea lettuce, which is delicious all by itself.  


Next, we tapped into the source: A finely-netted basket was pulled through the sea water.

In that water were more amphipods, very active in our examining cup!

Here's a less common white periwinkle that was hiding beneath the seaweed.

The seaweed-looking creature below is actually the skeletalized remains of a bryozoan colony (Flustra foliace), which when you rub it smells like lemon!  Fishermen call it "lemon weed".  It is eaten by sea urchins and nudibranchs (sea slugs).  Other creatures such as sessile worms, the porcelain crab, even other Bryozoa can live on it as a substrate.  A colony might live for 12 years.

An interesting find:

Native scallop:

Can you guess what's on the right?

Here's the other side...

It's the smallest bone in the body.  An inner ear bone.  Of a humpback whale.

Here's a humpback whale from our Whale Watch in the Bay of Fundy:

Humpbacks do not have teeth, but baleen, which they use to sieve out hundreds of pounds of tiny plankton.  They'll chase the plankton into dense, huddled balls, then swallow them all up.  In an ecosystem, even the tiniest creature can have huge impacts on others higher on the food chain.  What affects the plankton (such as algal blooms mostly caused by fertilizer run-off or incompletely treated sewer water) can affect the many creatures that are part of its food web, including us.

Thank you Greg Turner and Gael Tours for all we learned about the tiny creatures of the tide pools, as well as helping us arrange a whale watch and trail walk across the bay.  The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world.  We had explored the rocks and tide pools while the tide was low.  Looking back, water already covered where we had been...