Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Q-Trail: Descending the Giant

At about Mile 8, the Quinnipiac Trail begins a long descent from the Tower at Sleeping Giant, at one point following the top of an enormous basaltic cliff that was created by a quarry. This is where I saw a copperhead last year. The descent can be treacherous if wet.

A short detour onto the Red Diamond trail brings you to the floor of the quarry, where you can look up at tiny hikers on the cliff top, or admire the rust-streaked trap rock. I enjoy seeing the distinctive plant assemblages growing in the quarry, including Bayberry and native Creeping Juniper.

Back onto the Q-Trail, there is a short stretch of serious rock climbing, then the last overlook before leaving the Giant at Mile 9. The picture below is looking back up the head...

...and then west to a flock of geese (why are they flying north?)

Finally, the trail reaches the scenic Mill River, and follows it out of the park towards busy Route 10 (Whitney Ave).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Q-Trail at Sleeping Giant

I continued my journey along the Quinnipiac Trail (the oldest in Connecticut) by parking on Chestnut Lane in Hamden, on the eastern end of Sleeping Giant State Park. This park has 30 miles of trails and 30 gazillion visitors each year, so people looking to escape the swarms of people like to skip the main entrance and park on "the quiet side." I also like to avoid weekends.

I set an ambitious goal of finding my 500th letterbox while at the park. Before ascending the Giant, I peeked under a rock and found an Eastern Red-Backed Salamander (leadback phase):

Anyone who has ever bushwacked through the forest knows what it's like to walk into a spiderweb. In this case I came face to face with a brightly colored Marbled Orb Weaver spider just inches from my nose:

As I was taking the above picture, the spider suddenly scurried away and then returned with a prize it its mouth:

The trail started out easy, and I had lots of little detours looking for boxes, but after awhile it ascended to my first overlook at Hezekiah's Knob. The rest of the day was a series of ups and downs and increasingly spectacular views as I went up the Left Knee, Left Hand, Left Leg, and Left Hip (each summit or knoll seems to have been assigned to some part of the Giant's body).

These little asters were everywhere along the rocky ridge tops. I believe they are Stiff Asters, a native species that was planted at Eklund Garden this summer, in the rock garden section. Appropriate! That aster species will now always remind me of the Giant.

The footing at Sleeping Giant is treacherous. This is not a trail to attempt right after all the leaves have fallen, or if it's wet or icy. The hard basalt "trap rock" is angular and forever trying to trip you up. Here the blue trail goes down this scree slope....

and then it's a scramble up the other side, the kind of ascent where you're using your hands as feet:

As the Quinnipiac Trail ascends the Giant's main body it follows the increasingly dramatic ridge line, with a cliff below and views out across New Haven, Long Island Sound, and Long Island:

At the top (a.k.a. Left Hip) is the popular tower, where I found my 500th box (yay!). It's always crawling with people, most of who have walked up the gravel park road. Even on a Friday, it was pretty busy.

The view at the top is amazing. Here's New Haven.

I returned via the White Trail, visiting the Giant's right side (Right Hip, Right Leg, Right Knee and, intriguingly, Ned's Cabin). Amazingly, this return trail was even more arduous than the blue trail. I had to remove my back pack at one point for fear it would tip me backwards off the cliff I was climbing.

Eventually I descended to a more sane trail, finally turning back onto the Quinnipiac Trail where I had been many hours earlier. It was late, and a Barred Owl hooted as I turned onto the trail, joining a chorus of crickets and some chattering chipmunks. Here on the quiet side I seemed to be alone with the forest.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The First CT Trail: Mile One

Quinnipiac Trail is the oldest of CFPA's "Blue-Blazed Trails," having been built by Edgar Heermance and adopted by CFPA in 1929. The trail is 24 miles in length, starting improbably behind a Wilbur Cross rest area in North Haven (actually Quinnipiac River State Park) and ending in Cheshire. Along the way it passes through Sleeping Giant State Park.

The first few miles are tragically overgrown and hard to follow, but I was looking for something said to be a mile down the trail, so I brought my pruners and cleared the trail a bit as I progressed. The path runs along the shoreline of the Quinnipiac River, and the sound of the Parkway is always present, though easy to ignore after awhile. Unique along this part of the trail are the old foundations and random fences of about 40 abandoned homes, which the state purchased due to frequent flooding.

Here are some Phlox, which are native to Connecticut, but I rarely see them growing wild because the deer love them so.

The tall yellow daisy-like flowers along the side of the road this time of year is the Jerusalem Artichoke, another native species that is used as a garden plant, as well as a food source. The roots are what is eaten. This one was growing near the beginning of the trail.

The path had one of the largest patches of Japanese Knotweed I've ever seen, which had overtaken the trail. After a bit of cutting, the path was a tunnel through the knotweed. Next year it will just grow right back, however.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Woodland Fruits & Nuts

These were taken along Turkey Trot Trail in Shelton. First is the fruit of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which is pretty common in moist woods.

Next is Poke Weed, growing on the Silent Waters dam, which gets a bit more sun. Poke berries were used as a dye by Native Americans and colonists, and it is said the Constitution was written with poke berry dye. Another name for the plant down south is Poke Salad, which is where the name of the song "Poke Salad Annie" comes from (the plant is normally poisonous but was eaten with proper harvesting and cooking).

Growing out along the powerlines were some hazelnuts. This is a shrub I don't see with nuts very often in Connecticut, but I used to see it all the time in northern Wisconsin where there was lots of logging and shrubland. I'm glad CL&P didn't spray defoliant all along the powerlines this year like they once did, and just cut back the growth by hand. Otherwise the hazelnuts would have perished.

Finally, we have Dolls Eye Baneberry. It looks poisonous, doesn't it? That's because it is. This is one of the native species purchased for Eklund Garden earlier this year, but the berries in the picture were seen along the Turkey Trot Trail cutoff.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Silent Waters Wood Ducks

Silent Waters (formerly Shelton Reservoir #1) was home to a family of Wood Ducks this afternoon, including the immature male in the photo below (wish I had a proper camera at times like these). Many people consider these to be the most beautiful of all the ducks, but they can be elusive because they live in brushy water holes and nest in tree cavities. Today while standing on the Rec Path bridge I could hear them in the brush and dead trees well out in the water. The one in the photo finally left the commotion and swam away.

Silent Waters has great Wood Duck habitat because it was flooded a few years back, killing off the trees that once marked the shoreline. There is also some buttonbush growing out in the water, and providing good cover for wildlife.

I think it's a good bet that the Wood Duck family was born and raised at Silent Waters. I would think that with all those dead trees, there must be a good nesting cavity somewhere. There's also lots of privacy for the shy birds because hikers can't get up to most of the shoreline, and boat traffic is very minimal (the occasional canoe or kayak is it). By the way, I also saw a big Osprey circling the pond while I was there as well.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cutting Trees Helps Wildlife

Many of Connecticut's rare and endangered species are dependent on shrubland habitat, which has become rather uncommon in modern times. Shrubland was always a natural part of the Connecticut landscape, forming several years after an area was burned over by uncontrolled wildfires or leveled by hurricanes, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and shrubs and saplings to form a dense thicket.

Shrubland is great for wildlife. The photo below was taken during the Covert's Project at Goodwin State Forest, which is managed for wildlife habitat. This is done primarily by careful logging, which mimics the natural forest disturbance of blowdowns or fire.

I used to see lots of this kind of habitat in northern Wisconsin growing up, on lands owned and logged by the paper companies. At the time I don't think I explicitly knew that shrubland were needed for wildlife, I just knew that I tended to see a lot of animals there. In more populated areas like Connecticut, however, people tend to think that cutting down trees is bad, and that shrubland is ugly, in the same way that people used to think that forest fires were bad for forests (most people now know better). Another problem is that invasive species can take over, so instead of saplings and native shrubs, you have a field of multiflora rose and Autumn Olive.

Our most significant shrubland in this area is probably the powerline corridors. Unfortunately, some shrubland species cannot use the corridors because the habitat is too narrow and too close to edge habitats that foster harmful species such as the cowbird. Even so, I alway enjoy coming out onto the powerlines when I'm hiking, and keep my eye out for wildlife.

Goodwin State Forest, Hampton

I spent several days in the Hampton/Chaplin area (northeast part of the state) attending the Coverts Project for forest stewardship (more about that later). After the program ended I did a bit of exploration in the state forest that had been our outdoor classroom for the last few days.

There is a large pond near the parking area mostly covered with lily pads. I was told that a few years back they pulled 36 beaver out of that pond. That's a lot of beaver!

I started out by following a trail along the edge of the water. Here's a great big scary fishing spider, laying an ambush along the shoreline.

Later I thought I saw a piece of plastic garbage peeking out from under a rock in a stone wall. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be some kind of mushroom growing into the rock above. I flipped through my mushroom book when I got home, but was not the wiser for it. I'm guessing it's some kind of common mushroom that became a mutant when it found itself trapped under the rock.

As the sun sank and I headed back for my car, I passed this Great Blue Heron out in the middle of the lily pads. Not sure what he's standing on...maybe one of those beavers ;-).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


People tend to think of the Amazon or Africa when they hear the word 'deforestation', and yet we've got rampant deforestation of our parks and open spaces occurring right here in Fairfield County. This doesn't involve cutting down trees, and most people cannot see it. Take a look at the picture below, taken in Orange, for example:

You might think it's a healthy forest with pretty green ferns. But do you see any shrubs? Any wildflowers? Any tree seedlings? This is NOT what a healthy forest looks like.

What you see is what the deer cannot eat. They don't eat hayscented fern, which is a native species that can become invasive when there are too many deer (because the deer have eaten everything else). Obviously, they also don't eat tree trunks. They do, however, eat tree seedlings, native shrubs, and wildflowers, which is why you don't see any.

This is a young forest and the trees will keep growing for decades. But someday, they will die, from old age, or maybe we'll have another '38 hurricane, which blew down a couple billion trees. And then what? With no tree seedlings, what will become of our forests? Will they turn into grassland? Or just fill up with thickets of unpalatable invasive species like burning bush and Japanese barberry, and maybe some vines like greenbrier and the insidious Mile-A-Minute vine (the new one that can grow up to 6 inches per day). I don't think anyone really knows.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Funny Bug Art

What can I say? These Birch Sawfly Larvae defy explanation. I found these weeding at Eklund Garden in Shelton. (Strangely, I was able to ID them instantly by Googling "funny caterpillar on birch.")

Life in the Milkweed

Emma and I biked down to the Lane Street Land Trust meadow this morning and looked at the young milkweed that's growing for signs of life. The meadow was cut over about a month ago, and the milkweed is now young and tender. See map location.

Here's a beautiful Monarch Butterfly caterpillar feeding on the milkweed. We found a couple of these. The milkweed has a toxic compound that the Monarchs ingest, making them unpalatable to other creatures.
Here are some ants tending to a colony of Oleander Aphids. The ants drink a liquid secreted by the aphids. These particular aphids are not native to North America, but originated in the Mediterranean region.
Harriet's bench was still in the shade, giving us a nice break from the sun. The milkweed patch we checked is visible just beyond the bench.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ridgefield Dog Park

What a delightful time we had at the Ridgefield Dog Park! This was our first visit to a functioning dog park and Biscuit had the time of her life. She ran, and ran, and ran, and wrestled, ran, wrestled, panted, ran, wrestled, sniffed, ran...nonstop for 45 minutes (this was after a 2 mile bike ride!)

Biscuit played with lots of dogs, but made a special friend with Harvey, a miniature Golden Doodle puppy that goes there twice a day. She gained much experience meeting new dogs, a critical skill for puppies to learn. I know of soooo many people who can't let their dogs meet other dogs because they were never properly socialized and will just get into a fight. But it's really hard to find a good way for your puppy to meet lots of other dogs.

The humans were also having lots of fun watching the dogs and making friends. There was lots of chatter about the dog breeds, and laughter over the doggy play.

We stayed in the side for small dogs. The picture above shows the area for the large dogs, which looks pretty much the same, only bigger. The park was very well maintained and a real pleasure to visit. The video clip below shows how much joy both dogs and their owners were getting from their visit at the park.