Bruce Fellman: Blog en-us (C) Bruce Fellman (Bruce Fellman) Wed, 25 Apr 2018 12:53:00 GMT Wed, 25 Apr 2018 12:53:00 GMT Almost May blobs

It's always a great time to walk in the wetlands, but the last part of April may be the best time of all. There are, of course, no mosquitoes out and about to plague the hiker, and, along the edges of many streams and swampy areas, there's one of the prettiest wildflowers in Creation starting to bloom. This would be the Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris. It's not, to be sure, a genuine marigold, but, as becomes obvious when it's in its full, shiny yellow glory, the plant is clearly a cousin of the Buttercup. It also goes by a bewildering number of common names, from the one we call it around here to these: kingcup, brave bassinets, crazy Beth, horse blob, May blob, mare blob, water boots, meadow-bright,  water cowslip, and publicans-and-sinners, to show a handful I found mentioned on the Wikipedia entry for C. palustris. I'm sure an enjoyable day could be spent tracking down the origin and development of these monikers, but, by any name, this is a flower to enjoy in the, um, "flesh"—a sunny treasure for winter-weary eyes.



buttercup caltha palustris marsh marigold spring wetlands wildflowers Fri, 20 Apr 2018 13:00:00 GMT
Hepatic semi-hot-spot

It was almost a spring day, and even though the wind still carried a chilly off the Atlantic, the sun was bright and delivered some genuine heat. That said, I kept the long-underwear pants on, and I carried some light gloves, just in case. My destination was Avalonia's Benedict Benson Preserve, and my goal was to try to find that refuge's cache of Round-lobed Hepatica, which I was pretty sure would be in bloom. Discovering the location of a second patch of a plant that had eluded me for 20 or so years was one of the natural history highlights of last year, and after spotting a collection of Hepatica along the Blue-blazed Trail last week, I figured it was time to check on the progress of the Benson group, which grew in never-obvious pockets on the western slope of this exceptionally pretty piece of land. As was the case along the Blue-blazed Trail, the Hepatica were hard to find—perhaps the winter took a toll—but I'm compulsively persistent and, after about a half hour of keeping my eyes low to the leaf litter, I spotted a few. It was worth whatever back discomfort the contortions might cost me.

avalonia land conservancy benedict benson preserve blue-blazed trail hepatica round-lobed hepatica spring Thu, 19 Apr 2018 12:45:00 GMT
Another second

As a naturalist, I'm always looking for firsts, but I've already discovered the year's first butterfly—the Mourning Cloak I spotted and wrote about on the 31st of March—so the book is closed on the Lepidoptera debut. Of course, there are still premieres for individual lepidopteran species, and second place among all the butterfly arrivals is not, in any event, too shabby. Here's the silver medalist: a scallop-winged beauty—this is only obvious when the lepidopteran spreads its wings—known quite appropriately as the Eastern Comma. Polygonia comma gets its scientific and common name from the punctuation mark it carries, a silvery mark on the underside of both hind wings that resembles the sign in written English that it's time for a pause in the flow of the sentence. The comma had the same "pause" impact on the Naturalist, who stopped hiking and found the butterfly, whose dark underwings almost vanished from view as the insect perched on a collection of hardwood lichens. But there was that giveaway field mark drawing attention to itself and foiling the perfection of the camouflage... for me, anyway.


butterflies comma eastern comma insects lepidoptera polygonia comma Wed, 18 Apr 2018 12:02:00 GMT
Serious business

The phoebes are still chasing each other incessantly, but, at least on this occasion, one of the birds paused for a few moments to show me, in no uncertain terms, that they're doing more than engaging in avian aerobics. I don't know where the proposed nest might be, but the bird in the lens was clearly coming home with appropriate building materials for the nursery. While the sexes are hard to tell apart, this one is most likely a female, since Eastern Phoebe moms typically construct their mud-and-stick nests on their own, without help from their mates. (The guys are not entirely useless, and usually provide food for their incubating mates.) Build well, mom.

eastern phoebe nest building phoebes Tue, 17 Apr 2018 14:30:00 GMT
A late shimmer

We had a lot of rain today, interspersed with long rumbles of thunder, and when it was all over in the late afternoon, the gauge held in excess of two inches of precipitation. There was a strong but short-lived chorus of peepers at dusk, and these coerced me to put on my waders and see who else amphibian might be out. According to natural history lore, most of the amphib breeding is over in a couple of nights, and we certainly shouldn't be seeing such early "birds" as Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamander. But that lore, I learned a couple of decades ago and stopped repeating as gospel, isn't really correct. Breeding comes in several waves, and from the shimmering looks of things along the vernal bottom, there might be a small, tail-end bout of salamander mating later tonight. There were several Spotteds on the prowl, and I don't think they were out simply for a nighttime stroll.

peepers spotted salamanders wood frogs Tue, 17 Apr 2018 02:30:00 GMT
A touch of yellow

Forsythia are non-native shrubs related to olives and are mostly residents of Asia. The plant genus is named to honor William Forsyth, a Scottish botanist and royal gardener from the late-18th century who, as near as I can determine, may never have laid eyes on one of these early spring stalwarts, which have just begun gracing us with their abundant yellow blossoms. The various species of Forsythia, the first of which was noticed by a Westerner in a Japanese garden in the 1770s, didn't make their way into European gardens in any abundance until the middle of the nineteenth century, well after Forsyth's death in 1804. But if Forsythia's namesake never glimpsed what are also known as "Easter Plants," given their propensity for early bloom, Forsyth would certainly have loved them. Everyone does. You simply can't help smiling when these cheery yellow flowers take over a still largely barren landscape. This Forsythia is mine, a fascinating variety with leaf veins that are etched in silver. As is the Forsythia custom, the flowers come first, so we'll save the foliage for a later post.

easter plants flowering shrubs forsythia plants spring william forsyth Mon, 16 Apr 2018 02:15:00 GMT
Mate search

The Phoebes have been back for several days, and, in their raspy voices, they've been singing up a storm, calling out an approximation of their common name over and over. When the vocal action isn't quite enough, they've started to chase each other around the ridge, with the males making sure any potential rivals are run out of home territory. With the male-female chases, however, the tone seems different... maybe a little more light-hearted, even playful. Oh sure, the ultimate objective is mating, but this morning, there didn't seem to be any urgency to the flights. Instead, it looked like each couple was simply having fun in preparation for something a bit more serious.

birds mating phoebes Sun, 15 Apr 2018 03:45:00 GMT
Maybe a match

Any worries about what might happen today, the date that folks stricken by paraskevidekatriaphobia everywhere fear the most, quickly went by the wayside when the sun came out, the temperature rose into the upper 50s, and it actually felt like early spring. In response, the Spring Peepers started to call in the late afternoon, and by dusk, it was surround-sound. I thought I might have heard the first of the toad trills in there so I opted to visit the large open-air vernal in my friend's meadow, which is now the Samuel Cote Preserve and a North Stonington Land Alliance holding. No toads yet but there was an amazing, almost deafening, abundance of singing peepers. In the vernal I monitor near the house, the frogs typically go silent when I approach, but that isn't the case here. As I stood knee-deep in the chilly water—I was wearing chest-high waders—these diminutive tree frogs, both solo and in pairs, pair no attention to the documentarian and continued their concerts, along with their, um... well, no need to get graphic. The peepers were graphic enough.

north stonington land alliance paraskevidekatriaphobia samuel cote preserve spring peepers tree frogs Fri, 13 Apr 2018 14:15:00 GMT
Not quite dynamic duo

When I spotted the first Great Horned Owlet several days ago, I thought that it might not be alone. But no matter how long I looked... and no matter how many pictures I took from every conceivable angle... I couldn't establish, with anything approaching certainty, that it was anything other than an only child. On today's nursery visit, however, I saw two heads—one, looking directly at the intruder; the other, focused in the opposite direction. They're clearly different sizes, which is to be expected, since GHOs begin the incubation process as soon as the first egg is laid and lay each egg a couple of days apart. This means that the hatching dates are also staggered, so the size difference is neither a sign of sexual dimorphism—the females are bigger than the males—nor an illusion. I think two owlets is the complete brood.

birds ghos great horned owls owlets sexual dimorphism spring Thu, 12 Apr 2018 04:15:00 GMT
Hepatica heaven

Last year, after searching for what I was beginning to assume were truly mythical plants, I finally discovered a patch of Hepatica, one of our earliest bloomers and a species I hadn't seen in at least 20 years. This year, I knew just where to look to re-find them and I had a pretty good idea about proper timing. What I didn't have, of course, was any clear indication that I had the stamina to hike the up-and-down trail for more than a mile to arrive at the stretch of quartzite soil that nurtured these rarities. I have to admit that it wasn't an easy trek, but, happily for me, I managed it, lack of land speed records aside. I was a little late getting to Hepatica Heaven and, in the gathering chill, the pretty flowers were beginning to close for the business day and show only their "fur" coats. Still, it was wonderful to locate them again, and they looked to have weathered the winter in fine shape. I was equally glad that I'd weathered the hike... and the return trip... in reasonably decent shape.

hepatica quartzite soil Wed, 11 Apr 2018 14:30:00 GMT
Red alert

To say that spring has been slow to arrive would probably be the understatement of the decade. To be sure, our springs—well, our spring weather—are almost never in concert with the calendar, and even in the best of years, the progress of the growing season is retarded by our proximity to the ocean, which is cold for quite a while longer... and a magnet that pulls out the heart of spring until, well, just about summer. So it goes... so it almost always goes. But, however slow things can be, eventually one of those true signs of the season makes its debut, and today, on the upper banks of a nearby river, I spotted the first Red Maple blossoms. I read recently that Acer rubrum is our most common hardwood tree in the area, and, given its ubiquity, you might think the tree would be easy to ignore. Not so. I have a few signature Red Maples that I watch every April to see which one will grace us with the first exquisite tree flowers, ruby delights for the eye, but, sigh, an eyesore for folks who suffer from pollen allergies. Perhaps this photo will bring joy to the sniffling house-bounders.


acer rubrum allergies april red maple spring tree flowers Tue, 10 Apr 2018 13:45:00 GMT
Welcome, baby GHO!

At the very least, every time I trek down the driveway to get the mail, I'm now wearing high-powered binoculars and, before I make the return trek home, I take a side trip across the street to hike across my neighbor's meadow, get into a place where there's a clear view of the Great Horned Owl nest, and see what Mama's doing. Today, I thought I spotted the slightest trace of white not quite covered up by the GHO's wing feathers, and when she decided it was time to head out in search of food, I gave a hoot of my own and, to my great delight, watched a little downy head emerge from the crater of the nest. So there was at least one owlet in there, and, from the look and size of the baby and the strength with which the fuzzball could rise out of hiding, it was clearly not a brand-new hatchling. I beamed at my good fortune and left quickly to avoid to much disturbance. Later, I brought the big telephoto and captured the recent arrival, still an only child as near as I could determine.

binoculars great horned owl nestling sigma supertelephoto Mon, 09 Apr 2018 12:45:00 GMT
Prurient interest

Beyond the simple fact that I know these are flies, I'm just not sure of their exact identity. But while species and genus and family of these members of the insect order Diptera remain a mystery—honing my fly ID skills is an item on my taxonomic bucket list—what they're doing on this sunny but cool afternoon is pretty darn obvious. Why they've chosen to court and mate on the leaves of a Winter Aconite is anybody's guess, but the urge took a bunch of these flies and, while I moved in for a prurient close-up—naturalists are forever moving in for prurient closeups—several couples had the same behavioral idea and rested in tandem. Ah spring!

diptera flies mating behavior prurient spring Sun, 08 Apr 2018 15:00:00 GMT
Prim and pleasurable

The snow is gone, but the chill remains, and, with it, the absolutely grudging progress of what is, after all, supposed to be the growing season. Not much is happening on that front in the woods and fields, but in the garden, it's a different story. To be sure, everything is quite a bit behind, and even the early April stalwarts are not exactly blooming with any measure of abundance. But there certainly have been plenty of crocuses, the dwarf Iris are putting on a show, and the hellebores are offering blossoms to any takers, which, so far, have been pretty near non-existent. I've yet to see a bee. If, however, any hymenopterans are able to brave the less-than-inviting temperatures—it won't get out of the 40s today—they're sure to visit the garden Primroses, one clump of which always laughs off the cold and rolls out the floral welcome mat for hardy pollinators. Hardy naturalists, too.

bees hymenopterans pollinators primroses Sat, 07 Apr 2018 13:30:00 GMT
False alarm

The Weather Channel, of course, was humming with the "potential" for yet another nor'easter bringing dire consequences to the ridge and beyond. But this one just didn't feel likely, if for no other reason than my arthritis wasn't any worse than usual. Perhaps there'd be snow and wind and downed trees and power outages... perhaps not. As it turned out, definitely perhaps not. The snow wasn't even measurable: just a thin crust in places and what little accumulated melted quickly and produced none of the consequences we witnessed last month. All the trees are fine... all the electric lines are up. The cross-country skis, snowshoes, and snow shovels remained untouched, and I'm thinking that it really, really is time to put them away until at least, say, December. The lichens, if nothing else, enjoyed the drink.

lichens nor'easter snow weather channel Fri, 06 Apr 2018 12:30:00 GMT
Switch hitters

I've been wondering when the Tree Swallows would come "home" to the local wetlands, and this afternoon, on a trek past the neighborhood farm pond, I spotted the iridescent blue acrobats in their sunshine glory. I think the resident ducks and Red-winged Blackbirds enjoyed the company of our earliest-arriving swallows. In truth, the birds that biologists call Tachycineta bicolor, in honor of the sharply contrasting blue and white coloration, don't have very far to travel during migration—they may winter as far north as Virginia and the Carolinas, although the majority probably head to Mexico and Central America—and Tree Swallows are built to take one major problem in our so-called springs in stride. The main part of the swallow diet is insects, which the birds are adept at snagging on the wing. But in the typical insect-less springs we seem to have here all the time, Tachycineta bicolor can switch its diet from bugs to berries, thus being able to survive the lean conditions. Glad to have these "switch hitters" back.

dietary switch hitters tachycineta bicolor tree swallows Thu, 05 Apr 2018 14:30:00 GMT
(Almost) Grand opening

In this most grudging of springs, it all-too-often feels like the growing season is never going to get started. But, of course, if you look hard enough, you'll find some sure-fire signs that just might fill you with a subspecies of optimism. Here's definitely a big one, albeit in a tiny package. In our wildflower garden, we have patches of Bloodroot, a gloriously white-flowered spring stalwart—it's considered an ephemeral, but I've never found that description particularly apt, since Sanguinaria canadensis leaves hang around throughout the summer—whose appearance in April is always cause for joy. Today, post snow and rain, I found the first blooms poking their heads out of the leaf litter, and while there probably won't be enough true warmth any time soon to cause the flowers to throw caution—and the protection of their cold-weather jackets—to the still-chilly wind, the fact that I spotted two, with more soon to come, is balm for winter-weary eyes.

bloodroot ephemerals sanguinaria canadensis spring wildflowers Wed, 04 Apr 2018 04:15:00 GMT
Great Horned Owl creed

One phrase has long been used to characterize our mail carriers—Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds—and while this line from Herodotus may not be the official creed of the US Postal Service, it certainly summarizes the dedication of the white-truck and shoe-leather brigades... and it's also an appropriate description of the Great Horned Owl currently trying to raise chicks in the woods across the street. The female I discovered last week is clearly not too happy about her nursery being covered with snow from the most recent storm, but she's hanging in there, no matter what the weather, and, in all meteorological conditions and time periods, heading out on silent wings to snag prey. I don't know if she's feeding hatchlings yet, but she has to eat to keep the nest warm, so, neither snow nor rain ... nor gloom of night—I took out the reference to heat since we've yet to see anything much above freezing for quite some time—is keeping Mama GHO from her "appointed rounds" either. Maybe her image should be on those trucks.

gho great horned owl herodotus us postal service Tue, 03 Apr 2018 12:45:00 GMT
Who's fooling whom?

If Winter Storm Wilbur—yet another post-winter nor'easter—was forecast to arrive yesterday, I would have laughed it off as an artfully conceived April Fool's Day prank. But Wilbur turned out to be the real deal and packed more of a snow-punch than the last two gales, which proved major disappointments (unless, of course, you loathe snow). In a very short time in the morning, we got more than four inches of the white stuff. It completely blanketed the ground and clung to every tree limb, making for a very pretty scene. It was over by noon, the sun came out, and most of the accumulation was soon melting away into what for many was a bitter memory. I don't know if the early Iris hold any weather-related grudges, but these beautiful blossoms couldn't have been happy. Still, they're remarkably hardy, so, annoyed or not, there was no damage done.

iris snow winter storm wilbur Mon, 02 Apr 2018 14:15:00 GMT
Easter inverts

In keeping with the fact that today is Easter, the natural world provided its own brand of resurrection: on the calm surface of favored places along the Noah-sized stream, the "Jesus Bugs" came out of hiding and and began "walking" on water. This is a sign that better days are ahead, and watching the insects, which are true bugs and less sacrilegiously called Water Striders, is a study in miracles. They really do skate across the surfaces of tiny ponds, and their feet are so well designed that they can be held on the top of the water by surface tension alone. In this picture, the bug's talent is hard to notice, since, because of the transparency of the water, it looks like the Strider is simply walking on solid rock. Not so—it's riding along with the bubbles in an endless search for food and mates.

easter jesus bugs surface tension water striders Mon, 02 Apr 2018 03:15:00 GMT