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2019 Notes from a Naturalist

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January 2019

Winter Chorus

Breeding Behavior in Winter?


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator


We have now entered the cold winter months and it seems that everything is dormant. But if you listen, you may hear songs heating up in the bird world. Breeding season is not for a few months from now, but some bird species like to get an early start! The low sounds of the male Great Horned Owl mixed with the territorial melodies of the black capped chickadee start to play throughout the forest at this time of year.


Great Horned Owls are unlike other common bird species because they reproduce in the winter. Late January to early February is when owl pairs meet up. But for weeks before this, even before the New Year, males start their hooting calls. It is characteristic of the Great Horned Owl to hoot year round, but it is more intense and frequent during this time. When the pair finally meet up, a courtship dance takes place, which consists of lots of tail bobbing and feather flaunting, bill rubbing, and high pitch sounds. You know, the usual things people do when they’re in love! You can expect to hear Great Horned Owl mating calls most frequently in the morning.


The Black Capped Chickadee doesn’t move as quickly as the Great Horned Owl. During the winter months, chickadees start singing their territorial song, which is triggered by the lengthening daylight hours. This song includes two half second long notes, with the first note being a higher pitch than the second. Their song is short and sweet and sends a clear message throughout the forest: “This is my territory!” Territory boundaries dissolve a bit in the winter months while food is scarce, and you can often find chickadees around other songbird species like juncos and titmice, but chickadees like to get a head start on preparing for the spring breeding season.   Chickadee songs can be heard throughout the day as long as they don’t feel threatened.


Bird songs and calls are very complex and send many different messages. Scientists are just beginning to recognize similarities between bird song and human language. In the winter, there may not be much to sing about, but the Great Horned Owl and the Black Capped Chickadee demonstrate two uses for bird song and why it is especially important during these months!



Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2016.

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

February 2019

Why is the Fox face down in the Snow?


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator


February has come and we are officially in the middle of winter. While we’re going crazy relying on groundhogs for global weather predictions, it may seem that some animals are going crazy jumping face first into the snow. Is there a reason for it? Or are these predators just finding a way to entertain themselves until spring?


Before I explain the fox’s behavior, let me explain what’s happening underneath the snow. The space between the snow and the ground is called the subnivean layer which is important habitat for rodents. In this layer, the humid climate stays at a constant 32 degrees, protecting the critters from the harsh cold. They also find food resources from plants and insects hidden in the ground and leaves. The snow even acts as a cover which protects the rodents from being easily spotted by predators against a bright white background.


Predators need to find another way to capture their prey who may be hidden under the snow. Some species like the ermine, who are related to weasels, are small enough to fit through the tunnels and channels created by the smaller rodents, but species like fox and owls rely on excellent hearing skills to find their meals. A fox is able to hear a mouse scurrying under 2-3 feet of snow! Once a mouse has been detected, the fox leaps into the air to gain enough momentum to dive down into the snow head first and capture their prey.


This is an excellent example of superb senses and adaptation to changing environments. But it definitely seems silly to us watching from a far!


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

Image sources:

March 2019

Why so Sappy?


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

In March, the tree world starts to get a little sticky. Winter is coming to an end, nature is waking from its hibernation, and the first thought on the minds of animals and plants is, “I’m hungry!”  Whenever people are asked what trees can provide for humans, one of the first answers to come up is sap, or syrup, which is made from tree sap. Where does this weird substance come from and why is it even there?


The story of this year’s sap starts during last year’s summer. In fact, the story actually starts from space! 93 million miles from us, the sun sends light speeding towards earth. After about 8 minutes, the light reaches the earth and that’s when the trees use the chlorophyll in their leaves to convert that energy into carbohydrates. This process is called photosynthesis. These carbs are used not only by the tree, but also by the fungi that live in a symbiotic relationship with the trees. In exchange for carbs, the fungi provide minerals to help trees grow tall and strong.


When autumn comes, trees take this energy and store it underground in their roots. Many plants store nutrients in their roots during this time of the year. When spring comes and the trees need a lot of energy to produce their new leaves, they depend upon sap, which they draw up from their roots in March, to give them one last burst into spring before they’re up and running on photosynthesis again.


Humans have learned to tap into this energy source too. After being collected from a tree, the sap is boiled until it becomes what we call syrup. This is a heavily viscous fluid with very high sugar content and excellent energy booster to add to our morning pancakes and waffles. So pour some sun energy on your breakfast!

April 2019

The Power of Rot


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

April is the time when people start thinking about getting back to the garden. Although it may be early to think about planting, it’s not too early to think about composting. In fact, composting can be a year round activity!


Composting is not difficult and shouldn’t take much time. Some people get discouraged because they are afraid of the time commitment while others put in too much effort. The four of the most common uses for compost are:

  • mulch

  • soil

  • compost tea

  • lawn top dressing


Compost mulch helps to retain moisture as well as provide nutrients for your plants. If you have no need to retain moisture, you could mix the compost into your soil to work with the soil already present. You shouldn’t try to plant something in 100% compost - it is possible to over-fertilize your plants! Compost tea is not what you think it is: steep some compost dirt in water for a bit and then you have a nutrient rich water source for your plants! Lastly, sprinkling compost on top of your lawn will allow it to sink in between the blades of grass leading to a healthier looking lawn!


Maintaining a compost bin is not difficult but does require some attention. You can add green material such as fruits and vegetables, and brown material such as toilet paper rolls, and egg cartons. Even coffee grounds and filters can go in! If you find that your compost is too wet and smelly, add more dry brown material; if it is too dry and not breaking down, add more green material. If you’re afraid of attracting wildlife, you can get one that closes and seals shut. If you live in an apartment and you don’t have a yard, or if you simply don’t want to maintain a bin, you can have businesses like Curbside Compost pick up your compost waste for you!


Composting is a great example of the beautiful relationship between us and nature. Our unwanted scraps become the necessary fuel for life in the garden.



For more information, check out backyard boss' page on how to make a compost.

May 2019

A letter to Dandelions


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator


Dear Dandelion,


                Let me first start off by saying thank you. Thank you for all the benefits and healthy nutrition that you provide. Your bright flowers speckle lawns with bursts of yellow among a sea of green. Along with pleasing the eye, your sweet flowers can make delicious dandelion wine, and soothe our muscles in an oily salve. Your leaves can be added to a salad and although you taste bitter, I know this means you are promoting my digestive system and boosting liver function. This clears out all the bad toxins within me to make room for healthy nutrients. This will help my skin to glow! I love that you are filled with vitamin A, B, C, and D, as well as potassium, manganese, carbohydrates and more.

                Your roots can be roasted and brewed just like coffee with similar diuretic effects. Now I know some people use you instead of coffee, but you’re not trying to replace our beloved beverage. Which is why you can also be paired with our favorite morning pick me ups! For those who may not enjoy coffee, you can be infused in a tea that is just as delicious as green tea. The opportunities you present us seem endless and that is amazing!

                Please let me apologize. I’m sorry that some people consider you a weed. I’m sorry we spray round up and other chemicals on you to get rid of you. It is ironic that we spray toxic chemicals on you when you are so good at ridding us of toxins. If only we could change our perspective and see that you’re a friend trying to help, then maybe we would be more warm and welcoming just like you!

                Lastly, thank you for teaching me persistence. I see that you grow in even the most challenging of locations, which shows me that I can persevere through my own adversity!



                                Your Friend

June 2019

Icy Summer?


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator


June is here, school is ending and summer vacations are on the horizon. People are finally getting to enjoy the warm weather and sunny skies we have craved for months! So why is it HAILING IN THE SUMMER!? Where is the ice coming from if we are baking in the heat?


Hail catches us off guard in the summer when it arrives because we simply don’t expect it. But hail actually requires warm weather to form. Thunderstorm conditions caused by warm rising air lift the water molecules in the clouds higher into the atmosphere. In this higher layer of atmosphere the temperature drops well below 0F, freezing the water molecules. Then, they fall back down into the warmer lower levels of the atmosphere, melt a little and pick up more water, then get lifted back up into the upper atmosphere to freeze again. This circling up and down in the clouds happens again and again until the ice ball, or hail, is too heavy to be held up by the updraft of warm air. Then it falls down towards the ground, possibly upon unsuspecting summer revelers.


People sometimes mistake sleet and freezing rain for hail. Freezing rain is when there is a thin layer of cold air on the ground that freezes the rain into a thin sheet of ice, coating the ground and even plants. Sleet is caused when there is a larger layer of cold air on the ground so the rain has time to freeze while failing. This results in small ice balls that build up on the ground. Both of these conditions happen when the ground layer of the atmosphere is cold as it is in winter.


Armed with this knowledge, perhaps you will feel less caught off guard when ice starts falling from the sky in the summer. And hopefully, you will look up and appreciate these amazing weather patterns!


August 2019

Big Scales to Fill


By Allegra Jacobs, Animal Care


The name “Monty Python” is well known, but in Fairfield County, he is more than just a legendary movie. Woodcock’s own Ball Python of the same name (pictured above) has stolen hearts, conquered snake phobias, and given warm hugs and gentle nudges to anyone in need. Fairfield’s Monty Python is a snake, and for the past fifteen years he has been VERY well known. 


Now in his early 20’s, Monty has paid his dues and was lovingly retired in 2018 to a quiet life at the nature center, free from his responsibilities as an education animal. We always knew this day would come, but a bigger question loomed ahead: who was going to replace our legendary snake?


We always say our animals find us, and Monty’s replacement did just that. Rocco the baby Ball Python arrived at Woodcock in July 2017, and after one camp season he was an animal favorite and we were confident he would embrace his new role with enthusiasm. Just two feet long, Rocco still has some growing to do, but still emcompasses the love, curiosity, and gentle nature that Monty used to win over the hearts of children and adults far and wide. We love him very much and we hope you do too - and if not, perhaps you’ll give him a chance to change your mind. 


Some fun facts about Ball Pythons:


  • Scientific name: python regius. Also called Royal Pythons, they get their name from the ball they curl up in. Royal Python is a nod to them being worn as jewelry in ancient times.

  • Contrary to popular belief, the name “python” does not automatically mean these snakes are dangerous or venomous. In fact, they are very popular in the pet trade.

  • Monty and Rocco both display a very basic dominant gene in their coloring which gives them a brown and black scaled look. We don’t know for sure their exact morphs, but Ball Pythons come in many different cool colors and patterns. 

  • This snake is native to Africa. If you see one in the wild here, it is VERY lost!

September 2019

Next Gen Turtles


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

September is in full swing which means we can expect to see turtle hatchlings emerging from their nests and scurrying back to the ponds their parents came from. Their eggs were laid towards the beginning of summer underground in the dirt no more than a mile or so from their water source. Interestingly, the temperature of the egg decides the sex of the turtle. So, turtles closer to the warm surface of the nest tend to be female, while the eggs deeper into the cold dirt tend to be male.


Two popular species you can find in Connecticut are:

Painted Turtles

  • Hatchings are about the size of a quarter

  • Adults grow to 6 inches long

  • Black shell on the top with distinctive orange and yellow patterns under the sides of the shell, and yellow and black markings along the face

  • Painted turtles are generally safe to handle to move across the street if you see one, but just make sure you wash your hands afterwards because….


Snapping Turtles

  • Hatchlings are about 1.5-2 inches

  • Adults can grow 20 inches long

  • Dark black or brown on the top shell with a light tan underside

  • Snapping turtles cannot fit fully inside their shell and therefore are very aggressive when they feel threatened. If you need to move one off the road, it’s a good idea to see if you can get them to move without touching them, or cover their face with a cloth or shirt so they can’t see you while you handle them.


Turtles are important to the ecosystem because they help to spread native seeds, and their eggs provide a healthy food source for native animals. Keep your eye out for little baby turtles while you’re going about your day!

October 2019

The Forest Blues


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

October is full of color! During this time, forests in the northern hemisphere change to vibrant reds, orange, yellows, and browns - all you have to do is to look up. But there is another color in autumn that we have to look down to see. Along the forest floor, wood from fallen trees turns a beautiful blue green color. This is because of a cleverly named organism called blue stain fungus.


Blue stain fungus can be found in the woods all year long, but in the autumn is when the fruiting bodies of the fungus appear. These tiny mushrooms are spotted all over the forest. At Woodcock Nature Center it’s found mostly in the decaying wood from a Black Birch tree. It can also be found in Poplar, Aspen, Ash, and Oak. This stained wood is sought out by woodworkers. It was also very popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian renaissance when woodworkers would us it for their beautiful wooden inlays. 


The blue color of the fungus comes from a pigment called xylindein, which can be used as an algaecide and prevents plant growth. The pigment also prevents termites from infesting the wood which is a good defense mechanism for the fungus not to be eaten. Blue stain fungus is also being studied for its possible cancer fighting effects.


Now that you are more aware of it, you may find that this beautiful blue wood really stands out amongst its surroundings. Blue is the least common color in nature, so it’s amazing that we are able to find something close to home that is so unique!

November 2019

Furry Architects


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

In November, the leaves have almost fully fallen and nature seems to have become quiet as it waits for the cold winter snow.  Around this time you may notice a peculiar bundle of sticks and leaves revealed in the branches of the trees. It looks like a rather large bird nest, but the animal that created this home does not have wings.


The architects of these structures are squirrels. Squirrels have two types of nests. Their preferred nest is an abandoned woodpecker cavity which offers more protection from predators and the elements. When those cavities are not available, the squirrels construct large nests, called dreys, in which to raise their offspring. These nests look similar to crow nests in size and shape. What distinguishes squirrel nests from crow nests is that squirrels like to add leaves to the structure; crows simply use small twigs intertwined together.


Since they are so often on the move, it is not uncommon for squirrels to have multiple nests. They tend to use them solo but, in the winter when it is cold and mating is beginning, a pair will nest together to raise young and conserve body heat.


Squirrels play an important role in the environment. Many trees have been planted as a result of squirrel stashes being forgotten. After burying thousands of acorns and other seeds, a squirrel is bound to forget a few. Digging through soil to bury seeds helps to aerate the soil. They also eat harmful insects such as tree infesting beetles and lawn damaging grubs.  And lastly, just as they use nests previously made by other species, other species also use their abandoned nests. As with all native creatures, nature benefits from the presence of these furry friends just as it does with each important puzzle piece making up our ecosystem

December 2019

Don't Feed the Deer


By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

It’s cold outside and there is snow on the ground. You look out your window and see what looks like a lifeless landscape covered in white. But then you notice some white tailed deer wandering through the barren forest. If you have a tendency towards empathy, you may feel as though you would be doing the deer a service by providing them with a nutrient rich food source to help fuel their survival through these winter months. But here’s why that is a bad idea:

In the summer deer are eating machines. They eat and eat and eat almost everything around them and all the while they are building up fat storage in their bodies. When the temperatures start declining, they slow down their eating and reduce their digestive function drastically. This allows them to rely mainly on their fat storage to get them through the winter, and less on their environment.

When we feed the deer in the winter the food sits in their digestive system and, due to the decreased digestion, does not break down. This causes the food to rot inside of them and can disrupt the micro-organisms in their gut. Ironically, feeding deer in the winter can lead to infection and death.

                So, when you see deer in the winter, choose instead to be thankful for the moment given to you to be able to watch them in the wild. There is no need to feed them. They are well equipped to handle the harsh winter climate.

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