Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wilcox Park, Milford

It was a terribly dreary day in Shelton. Fog drifted over a covering of dirty snow. But it's been drab for, I don't know, weeks I think, so I decided to force myself outdoors. It's also that time of year where you find yourself thinking unexpectedly, "Oh no, it's past 1:00, it'll be dark soon!"

So I jumped in the car and headed south for someplace right along the shore, hoping there wouldn't be any snow. The gamble paid off and, as a bonus, there wasn't even any snow-fog, and I enjoyed watching the boats and ducks. Wilcox Park is small, located along the mouth of the Wepawaug River (I keep finding myself along this river lately). There are docks, pavilions, playing fields, and a wooded area with trails, benches, an overlook and, of course, some letterboxes.

On the way back home, as soon as I climbed up Warner Hill Road into the hills of Shelton, I was surrounded by snow and dark fog once again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Flying Squirrel

One of our hardest working trail volunteers, who asked not to be credited so I'll just say it was "RS", took this picture of a Southern Flying Squirrel eating suet at his home in Shelton (it was dark out). People are often surprised to hear we have flying squirrels. The squirrels are very small and nocturnal, so even though the they are common, most people never see them. Earlier this fall, a resident from Pine Rock Park noted a family of flying squirrels there, and said he could find them with a flashlight by listening for the sound of falling acorns. Soon after learning that tip, my son heard acorns falling on the driveway as he headed out for the school bus at dawn. He looked up, and sure enough, there was a little party of flying squirrels. A neighbor of mine also noted flying squirrels at her bird feeder a few years ago, but as much as I checked my feeders in the dark, I never saw any.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Shelton Lakes Recreation Path

The grand opening of the Shelton Lakes Recreation Path Phase 1 was today, followed by a hike. This phase of the Rec Path (1.25 miles) is now 8-12 feet wide and surfaced with crushed stone.
Here are photos and a video of our ribbon-cutting ceremony, and here's an aerial showing where the Rec Path Phase 1 is located. Parts of phases 2 and 3 are now a rough hiking trail (you can pan on the aerial and switch it to street map view to get a better idea of where the route is located). Coincidentally, it was ten years ago on December 18, 1998 that the City of Shelton purchased 234 acres there at Shelton Lakes from the water company. A developer had plans drawn up for condominiums, a retail center, and single-family homes, so we are very lucky to have purchased the property as open space.

The new granite markers at the entryway and road crossings were acquired through a grant secured by the late Dick Belden.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Winter Greenery in Clinton

I love having four seasons. The entire world around us is transformed every few months. Our early-season snow melted, leaving the woods rather brown and stark today. But that only made the scattered winter greenery stand out. The top photo is hair cap moss.

Princess Pine (Lycopodium) along with moss (dark green) and lichens (light green). People used to collect Princess Pine for Christmas greenery and they became rare for a time.
This is Downy Rattlesnake Plaintain. They say if you step on it you'll get lost in the forest.
These photos were taken today at Peter's Memorial Woods in Clinton. The Clinton Land Trust has done a fabulous job of maintaining this land, with high quality trails, maps, and signage, and the park is many interesting features, such as rock formations and a few very large oaks.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Jones Family Farm, Shelton

Yesterday we made our annual pilgrimage to Jones Family Farm to cut our Christmas tree, followed by hot apple cider, cookies, and some shopping at the gift shop, but we had a lot of people with us and I didn't really get to walk around the farm the way I wanted to. So today, after a couple of inches of snow, I headed back just to hike around and enjoy the farm without having to pick out a tree or worry about where the kids are.

As expected, the place was mobbed with hundreds of people from Shelton as well as New York City and New Jersey. Getting a place to park is like lining up before a rock concert. Fortunately, it is also very well organized and it took me all of two minutes to get a spot near the barnyard where they have their sales, gift shop, canteen, and fire pit.

I walked through a mob of smiley, rosy-faced families, and headed west up Candy Cane Hill, aka Israel Hill. Up and up, past pines, firs, and spruce I went, finally arriving at the North Pole, which is not a metaphor but an actual place on the hill, marked by signs. I climbed a bit further, then panned a series of photos which I stitched together at home (see above). Click here to see a larger version which you can magnify to see more closely. The left side of the photo is to the northeast and the right side is towards the southeast. Pumpkinseed Hill is the cleared area in the left background. The Candy Cane parking area is in the center right, and the cleared area in the right background is the Hudak and Stearn Farms off of Birdseye Road.
I went a bit further until a sign announced beautiful tall spruce trees to the right down the hill. These trees are actually on Shelton Family Farm, which is leased by the Jones family. In addition to Christmas trees there are wide open fields and a private pond called Lake Emerson just off Rt 110 (a well-known go-cart track is nearby). In the distance are the fields of Pumpkinseed Hill, also farmed by the Jones family. This end of the farm was very quiet with only a few families looking at the trees. I know which trees I'm looking at next year.
After the hike, I stopped in at the canteen with its heated restroom and hot apple cider, and hung out to people-watch. Frosty was walking around waving to the kids, and people were sitting around the fire pit trying to keep out of the smoke.
Jones Family Farm and Shelton Family Farm have both been preserved via the "purchase of development rights," which means that they are privately owned but can never be subdivided into a housing development. I've heard a few people grumble about using city funds to buy land "rights" rather than just buying the land outright, and how the land is not open to the public. However, I'm happy the farmers continue to own the property and run their farms. Though technically not open to the public, these lands are in fact enjoyed by the public in a way that would not be an option if the City were to own the property. I've been at the farm several times this year, picking strawberries, blueberries (twice), getting pumpkins, cutting a tree, and today I simply walked around enjoying the scenery. See my photos from the hike -- this place is a series of photo ops.
Preserving land by the purchase of development rights is the most cost effective method we have available. The price per acre is lower than if the land were purchased outright. Plus, there are no public maintenance costs associated with the land, because it is privately owned.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Eisenhower Park, Milford

Letterboxing took me to some corners of Eisenhower Park that I'd never seen before. Here's the Wepawaug River. Coincidentally, I walked along another section of this river just the other day at the Wepawaug Conservation Area and Kowal Nature Preserve in Orange, 'boxing once again. The river looked much the same upstream as it does in this picture.

According to the letterboxing clues, the 15-acre Kowal Nature Preserve was donated by a mailman. Imagine that. Most conservation lands have a story behind their preservation and a devoted crew of people who worked to make it so. There's an entire book about the epic battle to preserve Sleeping Giant State Park. Here in Shelton we are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Shelton Lakes purchase, which has grown to about 450-acres with 10 miles of trails. Before the purchase, there were well-grounded fears that the area would be filled with new houses. Anyways, I salute everyone who has helped to preserve conservation lands.

Back to Eisenhower Park. One of the fields was lined with overgrown tires which must have demarcated the parking areas at some point in time. I wonder how long the tires will last, and how some future archeologist might interpret them. As art, perhaps?

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Loss of a Landmark

There she goes! The Derby/Shelton dam gatehouse is collapsing and will likely be replaced with the egress for a new fish ladder. The gatehouse is a landmark for boaters and has been the feature of many prominant landscape paintings, including a large depression-era painting in the Post Office, and another painting in Plumb Libary.

The gatehouse is owned by the Stratford-based McCallum Enterprises, who also owns the dam, canal and hydroelectric facilities. Under their federal license, McCallum was required to maintain the gatehouse, which was probably a hassle. But McCallum's engineers and the DEP fisheries unit decided the gatehouse was just the place for the fish ladder, so maintenance requirement has been waived. Sheltonites were given no opportunity to comment on this idea and it appears the people designing the fish ladder were not even aware that people around here think it's important. So, there goes our landmark.

McCallum also has plans to fill in the canal and replace it with high-density housing, and has recently installed an obnoxious fence (see photo below) to close 1000 feet of riverfront that had been public under their federal license to operate the hydroelectric facility. Local residents and officials had no idea these actions were proposed and missed the comment periods because the legal public notices were made in the Waterbury Republican, Fairfield Citizen News, and New Haven Advocate, the first two of which are not local and the latter is a left-wing freebie for college students that many older people find offensive.

The property is regulated by the 5-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which supercedes all local regulations. The City of Shelton and local residents were given no opportunity to provide input before FERC decided to allow the collapse of the gatehouse, the filling of the canal, and the closure of the canal to the public. However, the US Corps of Army Engineers has not approved a required wetlands permit so far, so the canal might yet be saved (the application was temporarily withdrawn).

Here's a video (be sure to click "watch in high quality" to the lower right of the video) of the Canal Street Riverfront Development zone and the canal and locks, along with the fence that was erected, and here's a page with more information about the canal. I put the video together since many residents are not familiar with that area and aren't quite sure where the locks are.

Update 11/20/2008: FERC responded to DEP and the City of Shelton by a strong reversal of their original approval to close the canal to the public. The Mayor had asked for US Representative Rosa DeLauro for assistance, and that seems to have paid off. Yay!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Feels like there's a bug crawling across my skin...

I think I'm averaging about one of these every week since October. Adult deer ticks - the ones you find in cool weather - are more likely to be infected with Lyme Disease than the summer nymph stages. Fortunately, most people either feel the tick walk across their skin or they will feel an irritation after the tick bites. I usually find the adults walking down my arm, often while driving back from a hike through heavy brush. Or they might be on my neck, behind my ear, or on my back. And I always pick the adults up in the brush, so it's easy enough to do a tick check after letterboxing or working in the woods.

I've heard a lot of stupid things about ticks. Some come from medical professionals. For example, a friend of mine pulled an engorged tick off of herself in the winter (surely an adult deer tick) and called the doctor. She was told that if she could see it, the tick couldn't be a deer tick. I've also seen on the Internet pages that say it is all but impossible to see the nymph ticks. Hello? Ticks are not invisible nor are they microscopic. I can see the adults and nymphs just fine, and I occasionally even see the larvae, which are way smaller than even the nymphs (larvae can't carry Lyme Disease). The point is you need to LOOK very carefully and use mirrors and/or partners to check the areas you can't normally see. And I suppose if you are very hairy or have darker skin you're going to have a harder time.

The nymphs are a summer thing (May-June-July), and that's how most people get Lyme Disease. I think this is only partially because nymphs are smaller and more difficult to see. I think it is also because nymphs prefer low vegetation and grassy areas rather than brush, and people pick them up just by going out to their BBQ or mowing the lawn. They don't think to do a tick check just for stepping out onto the lawn.

Outdoorsy people, however, check for ticks constantly, and investigate every little tickle that might prove to be a tick. As long as the tick is pulled off within 24-48 hours after a bite, you won't get Lyme Disease, even if the tick is infected (and chances are good that it is not). Knock on wood, I've pulled hundreds of deer tick off of me over the years but never got Lyme Disease.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Zoar Trail, Newtown

"Who knew??" my husband and I kept saying. Who knew this trail, so close to home, would be so scenic? Our destination was Prydden Falls and a solitary letterbox that no one had logged for over 3 years, 1.6 miles from the trailhead at Great Quarter Road. The trail followed the shoreline of Lake Zoar the entire route, sometimes right along the shoreline and at other times 50 or 100 feet up. We could see the lake through the trees almost all the way to the falls. The trail was not difficult other than some tricky footing here and there posed by roots and rocks.

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Prydden Falls were dramatic - the photo only captures a portion of it. At the foot of the falls there is a nice rock on the shoreline with an unobstructed view of the river. A great place for a picnic. After finding the letterbox and a nearby geocache, we returned the way we came. You can make a loop of the trail, but it's much longer and rugged.

Zoar Trail is one of CFPA's Blue-Blazed trails and we found it well-maintained. A trail volunteer somewhere deserves a pat on the back. It is also classifed as scenic by the DEP. Here are some more photos.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Toby's Rock Mtn, Beacon Falls

Ever wonder what's up on those rocky ledges overlooking Route 8 on your way up to Naugatuck? You know, the ones with all the graffitti? Turns out part of it is located within Naugatuck State Forest, a forest which is, oddly, scattered about the region in several unjoined "blocks".

I have never seen a map or description of the trails there, other than what can be found for letterboxing clues. Access is via Cold Spring Road, a gravelled series of potholes that follows the traintracks to a remote parking area. There, I found some unexpected interpretive signs at the parking lot which tell about the history of the area as a sort of amusement park. I then went back out to the gravel road and found the trailhead on the south side of Spruce Brook. Although the trail is mostly unmarked, it is generally easy to follow along the bank of the brook past a series of scenic waterfalls, chutes, and pools.

After a beautiful walk along the brook, I found a turn-off for the poorly maintained blue trail, which I followed up to the top of Toby's Rock Mountain. The view was spectacular, looking north up Route 8 through the notch where the Naugatuck River Valley constricts to its narrowest point. Turkey Vultures (the ones who are constantly circling over Route, apparently waiting for you to die) were sometimes flying below me, and migrating hawks occasionally passed overhead.

I don't know of any maps available for hikers, and the trails are not well marked or maintained, which is a shame, because the scenery there is amazing. Here are some of my photos.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pomfret Pow Wow

Here's yet another way our open space and parks are used: A Pow Wow. This one was in Pomfret, where I was letterboxing, geocaching, leaf-peaking, and meeting up with a friend (who tipped me off to the Pow Wow). There was a roped-off circle where various dancing and drumming and such was taking place, and an outer circle of vendors selling things like Buffalo Burgers, jewelry, and animal pelts. I very nearly bought an entire beaver pelt, including the tail, for $35. But I couldn't imagine what I would do with it, and settled for an amazingly soft rabbit pelt for $7 for my daughter.
There are schedules of pow wows available online, like this one for New England. In some ways my favorite part was simply hearing the drums and flute in the background as I walked through the forest approaching the pow wow, because it felt timeless.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Copperhead at Sleeping Giant

The letterboxing clues directed me to look for "a serpent's den" along the trail in Hamden. Turns out this was not just a figure of speech! This juvenile copperhead greeted me in front of the den and conveniently hung out while I fumbled in my pack for a camera, all the while trying not to tumble off the cliff just below me. When I got a little too close with the camera (that's what the macro setting is for, right?) he struck aggressively and was in no hurry to leave. The yellow-green tail tip is typical for a juvenile. After a while he finally decided he'd had enough of me and headed for the den (see video). I never did find that letterbox.

Although copperheads (and timber rattlesnakes) may be found throughout the state, it is on the traprock ridges of central Connecticut where they are most common. Still, I have never seen one until today, so this was a real treat, especially since I had the good fortune to not fall off the cliff in my excitement. I've found many snakes letterboxing and geocaching, mostly shy garter and ring-necked snakes (sometimes right on or under the box). This snake was completely different. It had an evil sort of beauty - the triangular head and the serpent eyes are very different from our more common and less dangerous snakes. It's appearence simply shouted out, "Danger!" The repeated strikes emphasized that point.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Piebald Deer

Not the best photo, but if you look closely (click to enlarge) you'll see that the back half of this deer is white with brown spots. This is called a "piebald" pattern, and the genes responsible for the coloration may also result in bowing of the nose, short legs, and an arching spine. I saw this deer off of Isinglass Road in Shelton, near Trap Falls Reservoir.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Damp in Durham

I spent a damp, foggy day letterboxing in Durham, starting on the Mattabassett (blue blazed) Trail, where the view from the trap rock ridge was lost in a white out, at least at first. Slugs were crossing the trail, and my glasses kept fogging up. After lunch the fog finally burned off and I was able to enjoy the view of the valley below. The photo is a land snail taking advantage of the wet weather. It was only about 1/2 inch long. I had no luck identifying the snail - there are many similar land species.

I then headed over to CFPA's Field Forest behind the High School for some more letterboxes, where I found this violet mushroom. It was the most slippery, slimy thing I have ever touched. I believe it is a Viscid Violet Cortes (Cortinarius iodes).

Durham is a most pleasant town, with lots of farmland and trails. Here are some photos.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Milford Point Audubon

This is a pipefish I caught with my bare hands just off the shore at the Connecticut Coastal Audubon Center in Milford. Pipefish are related to sea horses. I used to have a Long Island Sound aquarium and I'd come down to the tidal lagoon at Milford Point to hunt for creatures to put in the aquarium. It was fascinating. The animals ate each other quite a bit, and by spring my tank was pretty bare. Lady crabs, the purple ones with wicked sharp claws, stood motionless over the hermit crabs with claws cocked and ready to strike. Moon Snails enveloped clams and snails with a humungous foot, then slid under the sand to digest their food. The fish ate the shrimp. After a couple years I discovered to my horror that I had a 12-inch long red polycheate worm living in there with at least 3 billion legs. I had apparently raised him well.

Pipefish, I discovered, would stalk the little shore shrimp I had in the tank, who were carrying a clutch of eggs under their tails. Every so often the pipefish would unobtrusively slip in and steal an egg, which helped to explain how they could eat anything with those tiny mouths. This particular pipefish was swimming about my feet and few inches of water while I was speaking with a friend. I simply reached down and grabbed him.

The Milford Point Coastal Audubon Center is a great place to get away from the crowds and walk along a natural beach. Here are some more pictures.
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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Autumn Olive Sweet Tarts

Autumn Olive is an infamous invasive shrub well known for taking over fields from farmers and conservationists. But did you know the berries taste just like Sweet Tarts? No kidding. You don't eat them like normal berries, you suck on them and then spit out the big seed. This Autumn Olive was at the Ansonia Nature Center, but they are found throughout the area along roadsides and old fields. When ripe, the berries are red with little speckles on them, and one shrub can produce a huge amount of berries.
Unlike some other invasives, Autumn Olive does have value for wildlife. The berries are eaten by birds in preparation for fall migration, and the shrubs provide dense cover for nesting as well as erosion control. On the other hand, they quickly replace valuble hayfields and meadow habitats, and the fast-growing shrubs are a major hassle and expense to remove.
I have developed a grudging respect for some invasives. These plants and animals are marvelously competetive. They are simply better at what they do, which is why they win and take over.
Update 9/9/2008: A fascinating article in the NYTimes yesterday discusses how, in the big picture, contrary to conventional wisdom, exotic species actually contribute significantly to biodiversity and evolution. Which isn't to say that certain species don't cause terrible problems, just that the arrival of exotic species is not the end of the world.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Candy Cane Pine Sap

This Pine Sap I found off-trail at the Ansonia Nature Center has an unusually bright candy cane appearance. Pine Sap, along with its cousin Indian Pipes, are plants that have lost the ability to photosynthesize, and so are not green. Instead, they are indirect parasites on other plants such as beech and oak trees, by feeding on fungi that are feeding on tree roots.

These types of plants ususually look more like a fungus than a plant, with a dull white or tan appearence, yet like other plants they produce flowers, nector, pollen and seeds. I've never seen Pine Sap this colorful before.

And...once again I was being watched. I spent the afternoon exploring unmarked trails between the Ansonia Nature Center, the adjacent state forest (600 acres), and the "Paugussett Last Settlement", where I now have a letterbox. More on that later.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Black Rock State Park

Here's my new favorite beach not 30 minutes up Route 8 in Watertown, just north of Waterbury. Forget the jellyfish at the shore, this beach comes with lifeguards as well as hiking trails in lovely Litchfield County. Just $5 will get you in. The Mattabassett Blue Dot Trail goes up to the top of a small peak overlooking the lake where, after finding a letterbox, we picnicked. It's called Black Rock due to some graphite that was mined here once, and after lunch we hiked down the red trail, which looks like the old haul road for the mine. A few geocaches later we strolled back along the lakeside trail and finally returned to the beach for a swim, which was clean and uncrowded.
There are no concessions, but the gas station (Citgo?) just down the road has a deli where we picked up fried chicken and a salad.

Later, while my daughter fished, I explored the shoreline with the old point-and-shoot. We discovered some huge snails I had never seen before and suspected they were invasives - there were so many. Sure enough, they turn out to be "Chinese Mystery Snails", which have been reported in Western Connecticut and the Hudson River Valley. The snails are native to Asia, where they are eaten, and they are also used in fresh water aquariums because they close up when water quality becomes toxic, thereby alerting the aquarium owner before the fish die.

Here are some photos of the park.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Indian Potato or Groundnut

In an area dominated by invasive species, it was a pleasure to discover this historic American vine growing on the banks of the Far Mill River near Means Brook (photo above). It's been called Indian Potato, Potato Bean, and Groundnut because the tuberous roots, which contain significantly more protein than potatoes, were eaten extensively by Native Americans. Over the years, many efforts have been made to cultivate the crop, with the 2-3 years required per crop the biggest drawback. Still, efforts continue. The legume is in the pea family, and "beans" are now appearing on the vine.

Another native species, Swamp Loosestrife (left photo), was also growing along the banks (not to be confused with the highly invasive Purple Loosestrife). I've been trimming back some of the invasive Asiatic Bittersweet, Autumn Olive, and Japanese Barberry that dominate the area, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Red Eft

The Red Eft is the beautiful orange terrestrial phase of the Red Spotted Newt. These creatures start out camo greenish colored in the ponds, change to the vivid orange form and live on land for a while, then revert back to the camo form as adults. Back in May 2007 I posted an entry showing the adult aquatic phase hunting in a pond. Red Efts can be locally abundant after a rain. I nearly stepped on this one at Tarrywile Park in Danbury on a very steamy afternoon following a thunderstorm, then saw seven others on the trail during my walk.
Tarrywile turned out to be a very nice park. They have 21 miles of trails on 722 acres, including several ponds and a big hill with a view towards downtown Danbury. Not to mention 6 letterboxes and 3 geocaches (that I know of). Timing is everything. This park looks like it gets busy, but because I arrived just after a big line of thunderstorms the place was deserted and, walking quietly, I saw lots of wildlife. Besides the Red Efts, I saw two flocks of turkey, 10 deer, and this really neat arrowhead, freshly exposed by the thunderstorm (see photos).

Update Feb. 2009: While at the Peabody Museum I took a look at their CT arrowheads on display and the ones that look like mine are called, "squibnocket triangular." Most webpages say they are generally 3,000 to 5,000 years old. Holy Cow!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

CSA at Stone Gardens Farm

Here's my first weekly box of produce from Stone Gardens Farm's CSA program in Shelton. I bought one share in their summer program, so I get a box of produce each week through October. This is a classic example of "Community Supported Agriculture", or CSA, in which people buy shares of the farm's crop. You pay for your shares in advance, then each week you pick up your share (or 1/2 share, or 2 shares, or whatever you paid for). There is no guarantee, just as there is no guarantee if you plant your own garden and spend hours and hours tending your crops, only to have a bunch of great big tomato hornworms wipe out your entire garden in one day, which is one reason I no longer have a vegetable garden (do I sound traumatized?) I trusted these folks were better at gardening than I was, and the box of veggies proves it.

My neighbor Carol also bought a summer share, so we'll save gas by taking turns picking up the produce. In my box were about a dozen ears of sweet corn, a bag of green beans, a head of cabbage, a couple cucumbers, some hot peppers, 2 yellow squash, a couple zuccinni, 3 big tomatoes, some garlic and parsley, kale, collard greens (had to figure that one out), and chives.

The program is pretty much word of mouth, and I hear these folks work their butts off on the farm, which doesn't surprise me. Farming is hard work! The farm is located on Saw Mill City Road in the White Hills, off of Birdseye Road.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Housatonic Tunnels, Locks, & Dam

Trails volunteers and friends had a little fun today exploring the old tunnels and locks of the Housatonic River. See our photos and video. If you have a high-speed connection, select the 'higher resolution' option on the video.

We kayaked from the Derby boat launch under the Route 8 bridge to the Derby Dam. The industrial artifacts were the main attraction along this route. First there are the bridges, then there are tunnels, including this one located underneath the Birmingham. The tunnels were built under factories from the 1800's to capture power from water as it fell from the canal above to the river below. Each factory had it's own tunnel.

Image the amount of work, all of it by hand, that went into building the structures that allowed the rise of factories in Shelton - the canal, the dam, the tunnels, and of course the factories such as the Birmingham. Shelton is the only city in Connecticut that legally changed its name (from "Huntington"), choosing to honor Edward Shelton, the man most responsible for the industrial rise of downtown.

We continued up the river to the Shelton locks and then on to the Derby Dam, which wasn't letting out very much water at the time. If it were, we wouldn't have been able to get so close.

The trail volunteers then traveled up the Naugatuck River to Ansonia. I don't have any photos or video of that since I had to leave early.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Baby Possum Plays Dead

This half-grown (and still cute) possum was playing dead on the Rec Path near Wesley Drive. I nearly stepped on him and instantly thought, "Gross, a dead animal right on the trail." Followed by, "Wait a minute...that's a possum .."

It was dusk and there were lots of fireworks in the neighborhood - maybe that spooked him. Possums don't actually "play" dead - it's more like they go into shock easily. I nudged him with a stick and he "grinned", showing off his teeth. It seemed like he was maybe coming out of his 'coma'. When I touched a ticklish spot, his hind leg moved up to scratch his ear like a dog.

I used sticks to move him off the trail before I left so no bikers would run him over. About 20 minutes later I brought my daughter back to show her. By this time it was pretty dark, but the possum was right where I left him. See the YouTube video - He seemed a lot more "dead" in the video, I think because of our flashlight shining in his eyes.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lion's Mane Jellyfish

My daughter and I stumbled upon this Lion's Mane or "Red" Jelly at Hammonassett State Park today. This species and the Portugese Man-o-war jelly reportedly have the most serious stings. In general, the brightly colored animals (especially red ones) are the more toxic ones, and I instinctly gave this one a wide berth. Update 7/3/2008: Short Beach in Stratford was just covered in small versions of this jellyfish today, from 1 inch to 5 inches in diameter. I was told a couple days ago, the water was filled with very large ones, over one foot in diameter (the one on the photo from Hammonassett was maybe 6 or 8 inches). I've never seen these at Short Beach before.

On a lighter note, the park was a step away from Watership Downs with over a dozen rabbits along the park road on the way out. This one was just stretched out and relaxin'.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Back to Pleasure Beach

The birds have really taken over Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport (see earlier post for more info about that beach). Last winter I saw a Kestrel, which looks rather like a dwarf Peregrine Falcon.

On a visit yesterday we followed the shoreline closely until we reached the old pier and bridge, then headed inland. Immediately a Willet harrassed us incessantly, circling overhead and chattering. Willets are brownish shore birds with long legs. I assume a nest was nearby. Then, a pair of magnificent Osprey circled over us. I think the nest in the photo is not their main nest -- I glimpsed a larger nest in the distance later on.

The vegetation was intense - especially ragweed and poison ivy. Oh for joy. Good thing for the old pavement. We did a quick walk past the carosel and other derelict buildings. Someone recently told me they saw turkeys living in one of the buildings.

On the way back, along Long Beach, some areas have been kindly roped off to protect nesting shorebirds. I was annoyed that someone had set up a beach chair and was playing music right next to one of the ropes. The beach is 3/4 mile long, for crying out loud, they had to set up their chair right next to the rope?

At any rate, at one of the enclosures a flock of Least Terns heckled anyone passing. They darted about so quickly it was hard to see what they looked like and even harder to get a picture. I finally succeeded to some extent, enough to identify the birds. Least Terns are considered a threatened species by the Connecticut DEP. Here are some fun facts: They weigh just one ounce and were pushed towards extinction in the early 1900's by the millinary trade. What the heck is the millinary trade? ....(looking it up)... OK, according to Websters that means, "Women's apparel for the head." Feathers for lady's hats, I guess. At one ounce, I'm sure they weren't being killed for the dinner plate.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bambi Strikes Again

How cute is that? Bambi nursing as mom gives him a bath. This was just a few feet from Ripton Road near Huntington Center. There was another mom and baby nearby, too shy to leave the tree line (the fawn was bleating like a sheep at his pal out in the meadow). Sure, they spread disease, cause property damage, and are destroying the forest understory that other species depend on for survival, but when I see something like that I can't help but turn the car around a get a photo. They're cute!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

We Are Being Watched...

Today I glimpsed a red fox on Birchbank Trail as it fled up and off the trail. When I reached the point where he had left the trail, I stopped for a few minutes and looked carefully at the hillside above me. Red fox are bright and curious, and I was convinced this one was watching me from ... somewhere. Couldn't find him. I walked up the trail a few more steps and looked again and there he was, about 150 ft up the hill, sitting there panting in a sunbeam like a golden retriever. The two of us watched each other for about five minutes (I MUST get myself a 35mm camera!). By the way, we call these moments "trail magic."

The alert hiker knows that he or she is being watched. As we walk down the trail, the deer, bobcat, coyote, and fox quietly monitor our passage, sometimes within pouncing distance. Last summer near Silent Waters I passed a deer frozen like a statue just 15 feet from the trail. Only her head moved slowly as I passed. There was hardly even any brush, and this was right across the street from the busy Middle School. The animals must sense how unobservant we humans usually are.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Far Mill and Means Brook Join

Not many people have seen where the Far Mill River and Means Brook join, which is too bad, because it's teaming with wildlife (or maybe that's good). The spot is difficult to get to for much of the year because of the marshy terrain, but if the water is low, and you're a little adventurous, you can get there from the Rec Path and Land Trust meadow.

At the southern end of the meadow, look for an unmarked path heading west towards the river. Go straight into the woods along the path, but when the path curves left, go straight ahead to a small rise occupied by a concrete pad and wellhead (this is, after all, the "Huntington Wellfield Open Space"). Cross the concrete and bear left a bit to a small clearing. In the distance, straight ahead, is the Far Mill River coming straight towards you. To the right is Means Brook, but you can't really see it if the water is low, because it's obsured by a low island. Follow the shoreline left a bit to a log that you can cross to reach the island. Wear mud shoes, and watch out for stinging nettles.

Cross the island to see where the two rivers meet. Then hang out for a bit to watch the wildlife, as I did today:

As soon as I reached the river I heard the plop of a turtle falling into the water. Yellow iris bloomed along the edge. I crossed the river and immediately heard great crashing on the opposite shore in the brush, followed by lengthy snorting by a deer. They don't usually do that around here since they are so used to people.

I headed toward a patch of woods on the island crowned by a specimen Swamp White Oak which towered over a thicket of dogwood shrubs just covered in white flowers. A garter snake slipped by. Back out in the open, I watched a pair of bluebirds attending their nest in a 'snag' (old dead tree) on the edge of the water. A trout darted as I approached the shore. A frog croaked. All kinds of birds swooped around me and sang. Red-winged blackbirds were the most notable.

Off the island and down the shore a bit I could see live freshwater mussels on the river bottom. Usually you only see them after an animal has lunched on them and deposited the shells onshore. Clumps of Blue Flag Iris were in bloom.

Back in the meadow, I finally spied the Baltimore Orioles I'd been looking for. It was a good ten minutes before I realized I was standing directly under their nest, which hangs from a black cherry tree in full bloom right over the Rec Path. It's about half way down the meadow, next to a tree that has a 'open space' marker on it. Under it are freshly dug tunnels by a woodchuck or fox.

This was one of those days that made me wish I had a 35 mm camera instead of a point-and-shoot. Even so, I didn't do too awfully bad - here are my photos from the day.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Coral-Phase Salamander

Mike VanValen sent me this photo of an unusual coral phase redback salamander he found along the Derby Greenway. Redback salamanders are common and normally look like this. This salamander was full of eggs and may pass on her beautiful pink-lavender coloration to another generation.

Very Hungry Deer

I took this photo at a recent vacation in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Every evening the roadside was filled with deer eating the new spring grass. We saw about 50 deer in twenty minutes. Amazing.

Check out the rib cages on that deer, visible even under the thick winter coat. Ever since the Disney movie "Bambi", doing anything about the deer population has been labeled cruel, as if starving all winter isn't cruel (note we saw the survivors only). Here in Shelton, hunting has only very recently ceased (I remember hearing hunting shots out my back door not too long ago and I still get calls about deer blinds in the open space), so the deer population is presumably rising. Unless our "mountain lion" keeps them under control ;-D.

While walking along some Shenandoah trails I noted how open the forest was - there was nothing for the deer to eat. This is what happens when there are too many deer - they eat every plant they possibly can, and pretty soon all that's left is mature trees and a few plant species they don't like, such as green brier and hayscented fern (a native species that is classified as invasive in areas of large deer populations). This can be catastrophic for forest ecology and the entire food web. When a tree falls over in a storm, there are no young trees to replace it, because the deer have eaten them all. Native insects cannot find the type of leaf they need to eat, and perish. The birds, amphibians, and mammals that survive by eating those insects find that they too are starving. If only there were some way to make the Bambi people care about ALL the species of the forest, not just the cute ones.

On Assateague Island the situation was even worse. They have two deer species (Sitka Elk, technically) as well as the famous wild ponies. The forest was nothing but white pines and greenbrier, and I do mean nothing -- greenbrier as far as the eye could see in every direction.

Several years ago I saw a deer exclusion zone at Bluff Point State Park, protected by fencing, and it was very dramatic. Most of the park looked just like Assateague does now - nothing but mature trees and greenbrier. But within the tiny plots protected from deer, a healthy forest flourished, filled with saplings, shrubs and wildflowers.