Monday, June 27, 2011

Candy Growing on Trees

As a gardener or naturalist, you may have noticed that certain plants act as a wildlife magnet, thanks to the food they supply, or perhaps the shelter they provide. I have four such magnets on my property.

1. The apple trees.
When I moved to Owl Hollow 15 years ago, I counted five apple trees. I'm down to just two producing trees now, as they were all quite old and somewhat diseased, but the two remaining trees produce little yellow apples that begin dropping in June. I've seen everything from a crow flying across the yard with a small apple speared in its beak to a hungry coyote pup going after these apples.

2. The mulberry tree.
I planted just one mulberry tree probably six years ago, but it's a volunteer tree, very close to one of those apple trees, that has really taken off. Just three years old now, it's already 20 feet high. Its berries are starting to ripen and the birds are going nuts. Cardinals, catbirds, robins and a Baltimore oriole, plus a little red squirrel, are what I've seen in its branches so far. I have a great vantage point for viewing all the ruckus as the tree is just outside my office window.

3. Brambles.
Whether it's blackberries, raspberries or wineberries doesn't really matter, but if you have thorny brambles that produce berries, it's a bird bonanza. The berries shown above are wineberries, another Asian interloper, I'm afraid, but I'm guessing they provide just as many antioxidants as native berries, so yes, I will enjoy them all winter long.

4. Viburnums.
I have a large double file viburnum in the front yard. Its berries are reportedly blue/black, but I have yet to see a single one (!) because the birds pick them off before they're even ripe! Not sure what it is about these fruits that make them so delectable, but the birds love 'em. The shrub in bloom, I might add, is magnificent.

Do you have any wildlife magnets in your yard?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Critter Sighting

You never know what you might see at Owl Hollow. Over the years, I've gotten into the habit of frequently peering out the window of whatever room I'm in whenever I happen to think of it. It's just an absent-minded way of keeping tabs on the out-of-doors as I go about my normal routine. And I've been rewarded with sightings of a lot of critters who are either year-round residents or just passing through.

Waldo and Luther do the same thing. Often, it's the cats' behavior that alerts me to something interesting on the other side of the glass.  Sometimes, it's a neighbor's cat on the prowl. Yesterday, my neighbor's big shaggy dog had gotten loose and he came ambling on by, apparently delighted to be on the lam. Other critters, like the deer, coyote and woodchucks, linger for a while, making a meal of the apricot-sized green apples that have begun falling from the apple tree.  At other times, the critters are just passing through like the wild turkey, or the raccoon that took recent advantage of my laziness to raid a bucket of bird seed left in an open garage.

Today, the early morning light woke me up early, around 5:30 a.m. After feeding the boys, I settled in at the kitchen table with a plate of blueberry pancakes and a morning news show. A movement outside caught my eye. This time, it was a gray fox acting like it was late for an urgent appointment. He was taking the narrow blue stone footpath that runs along the north side of the house, just five feet from the window, and with a waist-high picket fence garden on the other side.  He was gone in an instant; no time for photo ops.

I've only seen foxes here a handful of times, and not recently at that. And it was always red fox that I saw. So spotting the more elusive gray fox was quite a cool surprise. Especially given that, according to my reading, coyotes won't tolerate a fox in their territory. We have a coyote den in the area, and they make their presence known on occasion.

So, this was the second big critter surprise of the season, after the sighting of a large garter snake by the stone wall. (Not the usual pencil-diameter variety.) The snake hung out for at least part of one day because I saw him at two different times one day a few weeks ago, but seemingly left for parts unknown.

It was great to see the fox, though I worry for the many domestic cats that run around here all the time. They seem to prefer the unkempt environs of my property to the tidier lawns and landscapes of their owners' homes.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Paddling the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers Near Derby

I set out on the season's first kayak foray this morning, intent on exploring the Naugatuck and Housatonic Rivers where they intersect in Derby, Connecticut.

I put in at the Derby Greenway boat ramp and headed south on the Housatonic, then turned north on the Naugatuck River to see how far upstream I could get. I'd been warned about possibly shallow water and exposed rocks, but I'm guessing it was the recent heavy rains that made that a non-issue until I reached the Bridge Street overpass in Ansonia.

I was hoping to see some interesting urban landscapes, perhaps some old factory buildings hugging the riverbanks. Surprisingly, that wasn't really the case. In fact, the Naugatuck seemed like a very sterile river, cut off from the communities through which it flows.

While the sound of traffic is ever-present, there was little to see of the old manufacturing towns of Ansonia or Derby, mostly because of the high banks covered with rip rap to stabilize the shoreline.  This is, after all, the site of the infamous Great Flood of 1955, which devastated these communities and swept away many buildings.  If you look closely at the photo below, you'll see two white vertical rulers that measure the water's height.

For a while, the Naugatuck runs parallel to a new paved walking trail  in Ansonia. The trail, which actually runs along the top of a flood control dike, seems already quite popular, judging from the Monday activity. From a boater's perspective, though, there were little, if any views. The river seemed separate from the town. Perhaps one legacy of the flood was to turn the river into something that must be contained and managed than an integral part of the town.  Indeed, I was struck by the fact that none of the homes on the river maintained any kind of river access. Overgrown foliage shrouded a few long-abandoned docks, but it was clear that no one had much use for the river these days.  In my two-and-a-half hour sojourn, I saw not a single other vessel, docked or on the water.

I thought I might be able to paddle as far north as Seymour, but after passing under a series of railroad  and road traffic bridges, I approached what must've been Bridge Street in Ansonia. I was paddling against the current the whole time, but the going got progressively slower. I could see exposed rocks up ahead. I'd been paddling steadily for about an hour at this point, and feeling a little fatigued and fighting a strong current, I decided to turn back.

Now moving with the current, I returned to my starting point in half the time it took me to approach Bridge Street.  I swung right and continued north on the Housatonic, knowing my progress upstream would eventually be halted by the Derby/Shelton dam.  Numerous swallows skimmed the water's surface, searching for insects. I startled an extended family of ducks with little ones, and I watched with sympathy as they struggled to clamber over the rip rap rock until I passed.

Looking north on the Housatonic, Shelton side.

The highlight of my trip was spotting a group of seven large shorebirds perched on a  weeping willow tree branch protruding from the water. Two of the birds were great blue herons and two others looked to be cormorants. I was surprised the fishing was that good, but then, as if to emphasize the point, my attention was drawn to some splashing about in the water, and then a great blue heron swept into the water and emerged with a small fish in its bill.

I'm still curious to see what's further north on the Naugatuck, but I'll save that for another day.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Springtime Means Kayak Time

Geez, I'm really embarrassed to say that I haven't posted about a kayaking trip since 2009. It's not that I haven't been kayaking, but the last time I had a kayak partner was over 3 years ago, and 14.5-foot-long Little Minnow can be unwieldy to handle on my own. So I haven't been out paddling much, and when I do, I tend to take the easy route and head to the Lake Zoar boat ramp here in town.

But serendipitously, I met a friend last week to do a brief walk on the Derby Greenway trail. I was on my way home from New Haven, and the location was convenient to us both. The walk was nice enough, but what I really got interested in was the boat ramp I saw off Caroline Street on the Housatonic. While I have paddled north of the Stevenson Dam on the Newtown/Monroe border, and just south of the Stevenson Dam in Derby, there's a second dam south of the Stevenson that halts your progress a mile or so downriver.

Putting in near downtown Derby would give me three options to explore: 1. Heading north on the Housatonic to cover a section I haven't yet done, although that Derby dam would keep me from going too far up, 2. Taking a quick jog south, then left (north) up the Naugatuck River, which would wind through the valley towns of Derby, Ansonia and possibly Seymour, or 3. Heading south on the Housatonic toward Shelton, and possibly reaching the Charles Wheeler Wildlife Area near Sikorsky.

As I was researching these options today, I came across the blog of a longtime Derby resident and kayaking enthusiast, so I wrote him and was able to get his feedback on possible routes. He warned me of possible shallow water on the Naugatuck, which was a little disappointing, as that was my first choice route. I'm not into portage. Well, never mind, I can explore north and simply turn around and go south if the water gets low.  All a kayaker really needs is a good 12 inches of water. Maybe Friday's rainstorm will have helped.

After checking the weather forecast for next week, I decided to head out early on Monday. I have a very bad habit of always putting "fun" stuff on the back burner and end up not doing what I'd really like to be doing. Since I'm still not working steadily, what the heck! It's free, and I've got the time. I don't like to kayak in the heat of the day, because on the water, there's not often much in the way of shade, and sweating in a hot life vest detracts from the experience.

Monday's high will be just 75 and it should be partly cloudy, which I consider perfect for kayaking. Here's my list of what to bring, because I always seem to forget something:
1. Sunscreen
2. Camera
3. Water bottle
4. Water shoes
5. Plastic bag for collecting trash (hate to see stuff floating around)
6. My lunch
7. PFD vest
8. Watch
9. Map
10. Binoculars

And of course, better not forget this:
11. The kayak with paddle and paddle leash

You'll see my pix Monday night!