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2018 Notes from a Naturalist

Scroll down to see each month's note

March 2018

Welcome Wood Frogs!

By Sarah Breznen, Director of Education - March 2018
Soon you may begin to hear what sounds like ducks cackling in the woods. But that cacophonous quack does not come from a bird. What you are hearing is the chorus of wood frogs! 
Wood frogs are one of the earliest amphibians to emerge from hibernation. They awake in March, sometimes as early as February, when the temperature remains warmer for several days and begin to gather in vernal pools and wetlands to mate. Wood frogs are incredibly cold tolerant and can be found in pools when there is still ice present.  
They spend the winter under logs and leaf litter. Unlike other animals that hunker down below the frost line, wood frogs bury themselves only a few inches below the surface. These amazing little creatures can freeze themselves into an icicle and survive! Their hearts stop beating, they stop breathing, and 60% of their body is frozen solid. Most animals cannot survive being frozen because ice crystals will damage cell membranes and tissue. However, wood frogs produce something like antifreeze (high concentrations of glucose) that protect and prevent the cells from freezing. Ice forms around the organs and cells but not within them to cause damage. Wood frogs can endure cycles of freezing and thawing due to this adaption, however, they can die from a sudden cold spell or frost that does not give them enough time to find shelter. Scientists are studying wood frogs freezing and thawing and looking at the application to humans and improving organ transplants. 
Wood frogs are small, with a dark brown eye mask. They are typically brown and tan (sometimes rustcolored) which allows them fantastic camouflage amongst the dried leaves of the forest floor.  Wood frogs spend most of their adult lives in the woods, migrating in masses to vernal pools to mate in early Spring and then returning to the forest. Adults feed on insects, slugs, and earthworms. The tadpoles feed on aquatic vegetation and leaf material in the pools.   
Frogs are important indicators of the environment. They have permeable skin and eggs that can easily absorb toxic substances from the environment. If there are many frog species in an area, that can be a good sign of a healthy environment. As the weather warms, keep your ears out for these amazing amphibians! 

April 2018

To Plant in April or Not to Plant in April

and How to Help the Pollinators 

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By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator - April 2018
Everyone with a garden is eager to get out and plant seeds when the weather starts to feel warmer and the snow starts to disappear. Especially after this past March, it’s not unusual to be excited about getting outside in the warm sun to sink your hands into the dirt. But be careful about starting your garden in April. Some people call April the deadliest month for planting. Although we get teased with pleasant spring days, we still have sporadic blasts of cold and frosty weather that could be fatal for your little seedlings.  
If you just can’t wait or your plant needs to start growing early in the season, try starting your seeds indoors. Broccoli and lettuce are good examples of plants to start indoors. Make sure you take note of how much light each plant needs so you can meet their specific need. Some garden plants that do best with full sun include tomatoes and corn. Kale and lettuce prefer less direct sunlight.  
As you decide what plants to put in your garden, think about adding some native pollinator plants! Pollinator plants promote healthy ecosystems and many plants and animals rely on pollination to grow and reproduce, including your garden plants. Pollinators need plants throughout the seasons and not all plants bloom at the same time. For early spring bloomers, try golden Alexanders and spiderwort which have delicate flowers that will attract your eye as well as the pollinators’. Native wild geranium (Geranium Maculatum) is a common favorite as well and has vibrant flowers that are also sure to please.  
In the heat of the summer is when New England’s asters and wild bergamot, or bee-balm, bloom. Some plants play very important roles in the lifecycles of our favorite pollinators. For example, Milkweed is especially important for monarch butterflies, which rely only on the plant as a food source in their larval stage. Butterflies need nectar plants, but they also need larval host plants.  Some other host plants to consider are buttonbush, a shrub, and northern wild senna
During the fall, as the temperatures go down, is when we start to see Sunflowers, and Goldenrod. Woodland Sunflowers, Connecticut’s only native sunflower, grow many feet tall and are attractive beacons to your garden. The seeds feed songbirds who help control the insect population in your area. Goldenrod, often confused with ragweed, is not an allergen because it reproduces by pollination. It does not release its pollen into the air like ragweed, which is responsible for allergic reactions. In fact, goldenrod has many medicinal benefits including anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and more! 
Pollinator plants would not only add beauty to your garden, but also promote healthy honey bee and butterfly populations, as well as healthy vegetables in your garden! 

May 2018

Avian Love Stoies

Romance and Tragedy

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By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator - May 2018


Now that spring has finally come and nature is waking up from its winter dormancy, we are starting to see the leaves growing on the trees, the frogs chirping at night, and the birds singing throughout the day. This is a very important time of the year for our feathered friends. After returning from a migration, it’s time for them to start thinking about making a nest and raising young.

Robins are one of the most common birds we see in the springtime. They can be identified by their grayish brown tops and the orange chest feathers. The females are similar to the males except they are paler. Each member of a pair is never far away from each other. If you listen you can hear them softly chirping back and forth so they know they’re still close. Robins eat earthworms and other insects as well as berries from trees and shrubs. You can find them scurrying around on your lawn looking for juicy earthworms especially in the morning and after a rainfall. They like to make their nest in shrubs and branches low to the ground, but they can also be found in gutters and outdoor lights. They use feathers, roots, grass, twigs and even paper reinforced with mud to build their nest. Their eggs are a very distinctive bright blue, and each nest has about 3 to 5 eggs.

Robins are excellent examples of the mating behavior that goes on during the spring. Once they find a pair and their territory, you can clearly see how they defend it from any invader who could compete for resources and even their female pair. You can find robin territories by watching them as they scurry around your yard and when they seem to hit an imaginary line that they do not cross, that is their border. A lot of times these lines are our streets which divide lawns and other green spaces into clearly defined areas for the birds. If they do cross it, they risk attack from neighboring robins. Male against male conflicts are common during this time of year because of resource and mate defenses.

This is also a dangerous time for the birds. When the males are trying to woo their female counterparts, they become blinded by love. They follow the female wherever she goes in attempts to win her favor. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue for the birds but when the female crosses the street, the male follows her with a single purpose and becomes at risk of car strikes. Robins are low fliers to save energy so they stay at just about the height of a car grill. Robins are not the only birds at risk. Sparrows, finches, bluebirds, and many other species are also crossing our streets. A 2014 USA Today article states that research estimates 89-340 million birds are struck by vehicles on US roads annually. The large difference in estimates is because of missed birds due of scavengers and other limitations. The best and easiest way to reduce the risk of bird strikes is to drive carefully through wooded and residential roads and keep watch for sudden flying birds across the street. Once you get out of the car or when you find yourself outside, take a moment to stop and listen. Bird’s songs are meant to attract other birds, but their peaceful melodies catch our ears as well!


July 2018

It's a Komodo Dragon

no, It's a Monitor Lizard


By Allegra Jacobs -  Animal Care Expert


When people think of monitor lizards, the prehistoric looking Komodo Dragon comes to mind. You know, the one in Skyfall where James Bond skillfully navigates through a club housing the beasts in a pit below!


The Komodo Dragon is not a domesticated pet, however one of its smaller cousins is a great reptile to keep: the Savannah, or Bosc Monitor Lizard. Woodcock is lucky to have one of these docile, friendly creatures, a three year old Savannah by the name of Edna.


Opportunistic carnivores, Savannah Monitors split their time between hunting and camping out in their burrows. In captivity, they enjoy stretching their legs outside their enclosures. You may have seen Edna sporting a light blue cat harness, which she wears when campers or staff take her for walks outside!


Just shy of 2 feet long, Edna is expected to grow to 4 or 5 feet over the next few years. (She's averaging 1-2 inches of growth a month!)


Savannah's live around 15 years in captivity, which means the nature center will have this gentle giant for many more years to come.

Learn how you can help Edna and all our resident animal by supporting our Feeding Frenzy fundraising campaign.

August 2018

The Golden Days of Summer

The Late Breeders


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

At the end of summer, while humans are thinking about heading to school and cooler weather, many species of birds are beginning to think about their southern migrations. This is an important time of year for one of our common feathered friends, the American Goldfinch. Starting in late July and going until early September is when the American Goldfinch breeds.

About the American Goldfinch

Although the American Goldfinch is considered to be a migrating species, they are seen year round across most of the continental United States.

They are noticed more during the late summer months because that is when the males have their bright vibrant yellow plumage to attract females. You can also hear their songs and chatter as sometimes multiple males chase around a female in efforts to win her affection.

Interestingly, American Goldfinches are some of the only songbirds that sing in flight. This is not common probably because the two behaviors are energy taxing.

During the colder months, the males have a duller color and look closer to the females.

Why do goldfinches make their nests and lay their eggs so late in the summer?

Most birds nest in the spring when the weather is just warming up and there are plenty of food resources. This is timed to go along with the insect larvae also emerging. Insects are an important food source for songbirds such as the Bluebird, Sparrows, and Chickadees. The American Goldfinch however relies on the soft seeds from plants such as milkweed and thistle to create their nests and support their vegetarian diet. The nesting period for them is timed to begin just as these seeds are beginning to arrive in the fields and meadows.

How can you help the American Goldfinch?

These birds are not very picky about the type of feeder, and can tolerate feeders swaying in the wind. They tend to prefer the sunflower and nyjer seed the most and can be found scavenging the seeds that spill over on the ground. But you can and should also make sure that you have thistle and or milkweed available nearby for them to eat and make their nests with. Providing these plants will also attract other species such as the monarch butterfly, which is dependent on the presence of milkweed for their offspring. The presence of these other insects will bring in more bird species like mentioned before. It is all connected!

The American Goldfinch is a sign of the end of summer. They tell us what habitat and plant species are around us such as milkweed, which is also an indicator of the beloved monarch butterfly. Since goldfinches are nesting at the end of the summer, when we start to notice them more, we can also expect to see monarch butterflies, who have gone through their metamorphosis and are preparing themselves for a migration. So keep your eyes and ears open for these natural signs!


September 2018

Nature's Itch Remedy

A Plant that Benefits Us and the Ecosystem


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator


What do you call a plant that has beneficial properties, provides food for many different species, and different colored flowers for extra beauty?  Well, Jewelweed of course! September is the month when their beautiful yellow or orange flowers bloom. Jewelweed has a very unique method of seed dispersal: their seed pods burst open to spread the seeds out. This is how it got the nickname Touch-me-not. It’s possible to flick or burst them yourselves which is a source of entertainment for people of all ages. 


How does Jewelweed benefit wildlife?

The flower, or spur, houses the nectar which is 40% sugar. Their primary pollinator is the Ruby Throated Hummingbird, whose long beak can reach into the long spurs to drink the nectar and also pick up some pollen. Insects who can’t reach into the spurs sometimes burrow through the sides. Jewelweed is considered a high reward plant, meaning it provides more energy content than other sources of nectar to those who consume it. This means Jewelweed plays an important environmental role for insects and hummingbirds as temperatures start to decline.


This beneficial plant is a food sources for many animals. Small rodents and insects eat the seeds after they’ve burst out of their pods. White-tailed deer, snowshoe hares, and even black bears have been known to eat the whole plant.


How does Jewelweed benefit us?

The whole plant can be crushed in your hands and applied to areas covered with poison ivy and poison sumac to reduce and, if applied early enough, even prevent the rash and itchiness. If you already feel itchy, Jewelweed can still reduce the itchiness. This also works with mosquito bites! If you’re unlucky enough to get poison ivy, Jewelweed will be an invaluable companion.


Jewelweed can be found around shady, wet areas near streams, rivers, and ponds. The plant can only withstand temperatures above 40oF so make sure you find them before the temperature starts dropping!


Holland, Mary. Naturally Curious . North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Books, 2010.

October 2018

Pollinator Pathway Series

Preparing your Garden for Winter


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator


So why am I writing about gardening in October? Isn’t October the time to cut down all your garden plants and let them decompose to become new soil for next year’s plants? This has been the common idea for many years, but new knowledge is suggesting that this may have more of a negative impact than a positive one. As it turns out, your beneficial native pollinator plants become beneficial native food and shelter for local species during the winter months.


3 Native species that overwinter in pollinator plants:

1 - Bees

There are many native bee species in North America (honey bees are imports), and many of them are not hive minded. Many solitary bees such as the mason bee choose to overwinter in narrow holes in trees and hollow stems. Local bees are very important for ecosystems and providing habitat for their larvae to survive over winter is a great way to help boost populations!


2 - Butterflies

Of course everyone knows about the famous Monarch Butterfly’s epic migration down south in the fall, but many species of butterfly choose instead to overwinter in the cold northern climate. Some species such as swallowtails overwinter in chrysalises hanging from dead plants, while other species such as the Viceroy can be found as caterpillars under leaf debris. Although butterflies are not as well-known as bees for pollination, they still contribute a fair share!


3 - Ladybugs

As with butterflies, ladybugs are much more than just a pretty face. They overwinter at the base of plants and under rocks and leaves. Come warmer weather, ladybugs fulfill their role in your garden as pest eaters. A single ladybug can eat dozens of small insects such as aphids and their eggs. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of ladybugs, and you’ve got yourself an effective firewall against garden pests.

What about the Birds?

Of course the increase in the populations of insects in your local pollinator garden will also attract many species of songbirds. In the winter, birds such as dark eyed juncos and titmice eat the seeds leftover in the dead plants. In the spring, nesting species such as chickadees, titmice, and bluebirds rely on the caterpillar and other insect larvae as a protein rich food source for their hatchlings.


So what do I do?

Good question! The answer is nothing! Let your pollinator plants die as the weather gets colder, and then keep the plants there over winter. Once the weather starts warming up and the snow is disappearing, then you can go out and trim back the garden and get it ready for the next season. By then the insects should be able to move on before the new plants start to grow. A 2006 study found that insects provide around $57 billion in ecosystem services each year!  Perhaps you can take advantage of their services!


Walliser, Jessica. Six reasons to NOT clean up the garden this fall. n.d.


 Losey, J., and M. Vaughan. 2006 The economic value of ecological services provided by insects. Bioscience 56: 311-323

November 2018

Ladybug Infestations!

An Unexpected Winter Guest


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

As the days start to get shorter and the temperature starts to get colder, many people may be experiencing a strange ladybug infestation in their homes. This isn’t a freak sign of the end of the world, but it might be a good sign that you need to get your house checked for holes that might be leaking heat. In these fall months, ladybugs are getting ready to hibernate overwinter, and they tend to like rocky areas, under forest debris, tall grassy areas, and under tree bark. The scaffolding on older homes simulates the peeling bark on trees such as shagbark hickory and the ladybugs are attracted to the heat our homes radiate.


One May Lead to Many!

The problem arises when the ladybugs stumble upon a hole in your wall that allows them to come all the way inside your home which is a very comfortable temperature for them as well. Once one or two ladybugs find their way into your home, they let off strong pheromones that can attract other ladybugs up to a quarter mile away! This pheromone is strong and can even last years, telling future generations where to find a comfortable hibernation spot.

Is it all that bad?

Having ladybugs in your home overwinter may not be a terrible thing though. Ladybugs are well known for their beauty and supernatural luck giving powers, but what’s less widely known is that they are excellent pest hunters. Ladybugs are great to have around if you have a problem with aphids, which are small insects that can infest your indoor plants. Many times you can identify aphids by looking for small yellow or white dots bouncing around on your plants.


If you find ladybugs in your home, it’s a good idea to have someone check your walls and windows for holes and cracks. Not only will this let the insects in, but it will let the heat out!


December 2018

The Benefits of the Bird Feeder

Birds like them, but do they need them?


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

Many birds stick around to brave the cold winter months with us in Connecticut. Those that do are faced with the challenge of finding food in an unproductive season. Birds are forced to scrounge for any berries, seeds, or insects they may find hiding under bark and in other crevices. Luckily for the birds, Americans provide close to one billion pounds of bird seed each year! These nutrient packed treats help fuel a bird’s metabolism through the cold winters. Have you ever wondered if our aid is actually creating birds dependent on us for survival? If we stopped feeding these birds, would they forget how to search for the berries, seeds, and insects?


Researchers who asked this question found that birds who regularly used backyard feeders were able to switch immediately back to their natural foraging behavior when feeders were removed. So, no need to worry when the feeder is left empty for a while! Birds may not be  dependent upon the feeders, but they do still get many benefits from them!


The prevalence of food increases the chance of a bird’s survival, and therefore helps to boost the populations of the species. Local songbirds such as Cardinals, Mourning Doves, and Tufted Titmice have been increasing their population size and range aided by the rise in bird feeders.


One final benefit provided by bird feeders is that they help bring us closer to nature. Songbirds are beautiful and unique, each in their own way. A bird feeder helps us to see many different species that we may miss otherwise!


Holland, Mary. Naturally Curious . North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Books, 2010.

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