Category Archives: Nature

A Hidden Sanctuary in Central Park: Hassett Nature Sanctuary

We had some time to pass in NYC a few weeks ago and decided to go to Central Park.

Rather than wandering aimlessly, which is easy to do, we checked out a guide for interesting things to do.  Up popped the 4 acre Hasset Nature Sanctuary in the southeast corner of Central Park. Perfect!

We didn’t even know this place existed and for good reason. It was just this past April that it opened to the public for the first time since 1934. Back in 1934, it was closed to the public and designated a protected bird sanctuary. The sanctuary was left untouched until 2001, when the Central Park Conservancy took up its restoration and maintenance. Invasive species were removed and native plants reintroduced making this little forested haven once again a healthy and diverse ecosystem.

You enter the sanctuary through this beautiful wooden gate just south of Wollman Rink (Sixth Avenue and Central Park South is the closest Park entrance). From there you enter onto meandering woodchip covered trails and you’d never know you were in the city if it weren’t for the skyscrapers peaking out.

It was early spring when we visited, so the Sanctuary was full of colorful spring flowers and shrubs. As a bonus, most specimens are labeled making identification easy. Here’s just some of what we saw.

Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum)

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum) and Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum)

Yellow/Orange Azalea

In addition to wonderful plant life there’s plenty of birds to see.  Some common, like these kissing cardinals.

Others like this White Egret and Catbird, are less common in an urban setting.

I also saw an Eastern Towhee (the drink-your-teeeaa bird) and White-Throated Sparrow. Not bad for no binoculars.

If you want more information, you can take a guided tour of the Hallett Sanctuary and lots of other parts of Central Park.  Hallett Nature Sanctuary is closest to Central Park South and Sixth Avenue (find directions here) and is open daily from 10:00 am until 30 minutes before sunset. It’s informally restricted as to how many visitors can enter at one time and no dogs, bicycles, or strollers are allowed. While we were visiting, park naturalists were observing the flora and fauna and recording their observations. Hopefully the addition of people don’t spoil the environment.

What else did we do on this trip to NYC?

We visited the Freedom Tower and went up to the One World Trade Center Observation Deck.

No lines that day!

Truly amazing 360° view!

We also went to the quirky New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. Fun and interesting for all ages!

And we went to the Brooklyn Museum to see The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago which celebrates 39 important woman from history at the table, and 999 more women who have their names inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below table.

Of course I had to find the names of the Grimke sisters, who’s fascinating story was told in the novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Really enjoyed the book and made for a great book club discussion.

What’s your favorite place to visit in Central Park?

PS Need to share photo credits on this post with my husband Steve!

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Hoping for Bats: Installing a Bat House

I have a love/hate relationship with bats. I find them a bit creepy because they carry rabies and who isn’t scared by these nocturnal flying mammals, but I also know they are vital in keeping night flying insects like mosquitoes in check.

By Marvin Moriarty/USFWS – This image originates from the National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8126465

 

For now, I’ll take my chances with the rabies and opt for helping our local WI bats survive by putting up a bat house. Bats are under attack from loss of habitat and the fungus causing white-nosed syndrome. In nesting areas that white-nosed syndrome has spread, 30-100% of bats have been wiped out. This has been, and still is, catastrophic to the species.

 

 

 

 

One way to help the species is to conserve existing bat habitats and provide new ones.

Bat House in Peninsula State Park, WI

When I was out at my local Wild Bird Unlimited store I happened upon bat houses for sale. How could I pass it up for our cabin in Door County, WI?

Since we are in a northern climate, it helps to paint the house black to retain heat. Using black spray paint, Steve made quick work of painting the house black.

It was so beautifully made (in the USA btw), we had to leave some if it unpainted.

Now came time to install.  Ideally the house is placed in a southern facing direction on a tall pole with no obstructions underneath or directly in front of it and at least 15 feet up. Originally I thought the best location for the house was on a utility pole along the driveway, but I realized that really wasn’t a great idea. If we ever needed a service call during nesting season, I don’t think I’ll find a repairman who’ll go up that pole! Installing a freestanding pole, tall and strong enough, is also not in our DIY repertoire.

So, while not ideal, we settled on a tree that was in a pretty open area and faced south. This became a family event with my husband and boys all pitching in to get this installed.

The house comes with a screw eye for easy hanging.  We bought a large hook, screwed it into the tree and hung the house.  To keep it from swinging, we also added a couple of screws at the bottom to secure it to the tree.

Now we’ll wait for the bats to find it. Generally takes a little longer for them to find it in a tree, but I’ve seen them in the area at dusk so I’m hopeful.

Do you have a bat habitat near you, or have a bat house? If you do, have you noticed a decline?

Any good bat stories? I’ll always remember the bat in my college attic apartment!

Since we didn’t hang the bat house on the utility pole, it became the perfect place for hanging a beautiful bluebird house handmade by my mom, Peggy.

Bat Resources:

 

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Audubon Bat Shelter Model NABAT


New From: $30.03 USD In Stock

Who Knew? Porcupines Climb Trees!

Porcupines are truly odd creatures, and one definitely best watched from afar.  Recently at dusk at our place in Wisconsin, one came to visit that provided an evening of entertainment!

When he realized we were watching, he headed off towards the woods.

They are not the speediest of animals, but in his own lumbering way he was hurrying.

First he tried to become invisible behind a tree. When we got a little closer he began to climb the tree.

I never really thought about where they lived, but I guess I assumed they lived on the ground.  Maybe a burrowing animal?

But, they are actually quite adept at climbing trees. They have long claws and hairless palms and soles to help them climb. Their strong gripping ability also allows porcupines to stay in trees looking a bit like a koala or sloth, using their forelimbs to reach for tender shoots.

He just kept going…

I don’t know how he didn’t fall!

Interesting porcupine facts:

  • The North American porcupine is a New World Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum).
  • Porcupines are the second largest rodent in North America.  The largest is the beaver.
  • Porcupines don’t shoot their barbed quills, but the 30,000 quills are very loosely attached making them come off easily into the skin of an attacker.
  • Porcupine habitat varies geographically The live in open tundra, deciduous forest, and desert chaparral. Depending on their specific environment, they can vary from spending most of their time on the ground, to areas where they are found mostly in trees.
  • Porcupines are general herbivores. Their diet varies throughout the year depending on their needs and what is considered edible. They’ve also been known to kill a tree by feeding too heavily on a single tree in winter.
  • Porcupines have an antibiotic in its skin protecting itself from infection when it falls out of a tree and gets stuck with its own quills.  Apparently this is a frequent occurrence, since they often go too far out on a limb trying to get those tender spring buds.
  • A baby porcupine is called a porcupette.

This was actually our second porcupine interaction at our place in Wisconsin. I had gotten up early one morning with Daisy, only to have her run off out of sight. I quickly found her face to face with a porcupine, with a second one a couple of feet away. They did a little dance, nose to nose, nose to tail, but by some miracle no one was quilled. Always an adventure in WI

PS Thanks to my son Alex for some of the pictures!

 

Chickadees Are Back in the Nestbox

While I was hoping for bluebirds this year in the nest boxes, this little chickadee popped her head out and seems to be making it her home for the spring. Luckily Steve had his camera handy and could get some pictures of this cute little bird.

She was just so entertaining to watch. It was like she couldn’t believe her good fortune in finding this amazing nesting spot.

When we came back a couple of weeks later I was happy to see that they were actually moving in.

This is a very typical chickadee nest. A base of moss and then softer material like rabbit fur for the top layer. Check out my blog post from last year that followed nesting chickadees in Who’s in my Nestboxes and Checking on the Bird’s Nests.

The Eastern Phoebe couple is also back nesting on the front porch!

Woodlink Wooden Bluebird House – Model BB1


New From: $20.95 USD In Stock

Orioles? Fingers Crossed!

I saw on my local Wild Bird Unlimited Facebook page today that Baltimore Orioles have been spotted in the area. I tried to attract them on their spring migration last year but no luck. They are in the area only 4-6 weeks unless they nest nearby.

But, last year I was a couple of weeks later putting the oriole feeder out with grape jelly and oranges. Also, I hung it on the feeder pole with all my other feeders and I later learned that they can be intimidated by other birds.

This year I hung it by itself and more out in the open by the hummingbird feeder. Orioles are attracted to orange and this time of year they love nectar, grape jelly and oranges. Later in the summer, they need more protein and you can switch to mealworms.

Hopefully they find my little haven and stop by.  Maybe even build a nest?

The only time I’ve seen Orioles in the area was a few years ago on a nearby golf course.  They were nesting high up in the trees and it was fun to see them each week.

Want to see if they are in your area? Check out eBird by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Audubon Society. Journey North is another citizen science site that monitors both seasonal change and migration of a wildlife species including some birds. Or, drop by your local Wild Bird Unlimited to find out what they are seeing.

Nature Walk on Earth Day

It was a beautiful day for a walk, so I headed out to the Morton Arboretum to walk and celebrate Earth Day.  Spring flowers were in abundance!

Here’s what I saw:

White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum)
Immature plants produce a single leaf and no flower, while mature plants produce a pair of leaves and a single flower. Colonies often have far more leaves than flowers.

Prairie Trillium (Trillium recurvatum)

This poisonous plant never really “opens” like other trilliums. The drooping sepals and stalked leaves are clues that you have this trillium and not the very similar Toad Shade.

Virginia Springbeauty (Claytonia virginica)

This small flower is a sure sign that spring has arrived! You’ll find them open on warm sunny days and closed during cloudy weather and at night. These are stunning as a sweeping sea of pink in the forest.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Wild geraniums are easily identified by their large palmately lobed leaves and their beak-like seed capsules that point upwards.

Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata)

This fragrant flower is easy to spot and identify by its toothed leaf pattern. By the end of spring, both the flowers and foliage will disappear until next year.

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

While I often find these as weeds in my yard, their deep purple flowers are a cheerful find amidst all the decaying fall leaves.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)

This escaped ornamental plant, which can be mistaken for Wild Leeks (Spring Leeks (aka Ramps), will soon show it’s distinct white flowers.  Unlike leeks, all parts of this plant are highly toxic.  If it doesn’t smell like onions or garlic, don’t eat it!

After my hike in the spring woods, I stopped by my local Wild Birds Unlimited store to stock up on sunflower seeds and suet for the birds and to buy a bat house to encourage bats to our place in Wisconsin. The staff at WBU is a great source of info for what’s going on in your local bird world, and I find the best birding supplies there. Today, I heard the hummingbirds are back already so time to get the feeders out (Hummingbird Nectar)!

Then as a last fun nature day stop, I went by a local nursery to buy some Summer Beauty Allium (Allium tanguticum).  I have a hot, dry sunny spot where oddly nothing seems too happy to grow.  I’ve been seeing these in similar locations in public gardens so I’ll give them a try. They produce a pretty pom-pom flower display mid-summer, are sterile so aren’t invasive, are pollinator favorites, and rabbits stay away from them.  All around sounds pretty good to me.

Did you get out and enjoy this spring day!

 

 

Who Won The Squirrels vs Feeder Contest?

I’ve had an ongoing issue with squirrels ravaging my bird feeders. I bought a great Squirrel Stopper pole, but because I wanted to see the birds from my kitchen window, and despite clear instructions not too, I placed it too close to a nearby tree and arborvitaes. So, those very acrobatic squirrels have had fun feasting at my feeders!

In a post earlier this winter, I wrote about finally investing in some well reviewed squirrel proof feeders to try and attract more birds than squirrels to my yard (Happy New Year’s To My Backyard Birds!).  So did they work?

I am so excited to say YES! Continue reading

Up Close With A Pileated Woodpecker

We were out winter hiking in Peninsula State Park, when we thought it’d be fun to take a short cut through the interior on the little used Trail Trampers Delight trail.  Someone had fun naming that trail!  Just beautiful and so quiet after a fresh overnight snowfall. Yes, there’s a trail there 🙂

Lots of animal trails snaking through the fresh snow…like this coyote catching up to friends.

and this Canadian Goose apparently taking a trip to the outhouse 🙂

But the most exciting part of the trip was the Pileated Woodpecker that didn’t show any fear of us and just went about his business. We had seen one earlier on the walk, but he was a little too far and high to really get a good look.

But this one flew in front of us and landed about about 30 feet away at eye level.  He went hungrily to work. You can see all the large chunks of wood that he’s been pecking out suggesting a lot of very recent activity.

Steve headed in for a closer look. Wish he had bought his good camera but in this case the handy iphone will have to do.

Getting ready. There’s a lot of power behind that hit.

They also carve out the distinctive rectangular hole quite purposefully. We watched him at times pecking from the side to wedge out a loose shaving.

The male Pileated has an entirely red crest, and the female a dark forehead. The male also has a red stripe on his face that is missing on the female. So this one is we’ve been watching is a male. There was another nearby, probably his mate. Pileated Woodpeckers stay together as a pair all year round, and rarely tolerate others in its territory.

I decided I wanted a closer look and the Pileated and I began a little game of hide and seek. I wasn’t quite as stealthy so he moved around back and kept poking his head out to see if I was there.

Movie time!

Watching this makes my head hurt and would certainly give me a concussion, or kill me, if I tried to strike a tree with that kind of force. Scientists estimate that a woodpecker may strike the tree with forces greater than 1000 G’s, far more than a human can withstand. We can certainly learn some things from a woodpecker.

To begin with, their strong neck muscles diffuse the blow and a third eyelid protect their eyes.  A woodpeckers brain and skull and also specially designed to withstand the G forces. The brain is surrounded by trabeculae, tiny beamlike projections of bone that form a spongy bone mesh that protects the brain, and the brain fills the skull so there is no “sloshing around” on impact. There’s also a hyoid bone, which in humans it is found in the middle of the neck. In a woodpecker, this bone wraps around the skull to act as a seatbelt to keep it in place and further minimize the impact on the bird’s brain.  Even the beak itself helps in minimizing brain injury. While the outer beak appears longer than the lower, the actual bone structure of the lower is longer and stronger, sending much of the impact to the lower parts of the skull, away from the brain.  Scientists are continuing to study these amazing birds and hopefully learn from them to protect human brains who sustain repeated impacts, like football players.

Of course, I have to show one of my mom Peggy’s backyard photos.  This female (note the gray on the cap and no red cheek bar) was visiting her suet feeder. How lucky she is to have these spectacular visitors to her backyard.

Photos by Peggy

Photo credits:  most photos by Steve; last picture is a Photo by Peggy

A Hawk at My Feeders

As I was reading comfortably on the couch one afternoon, out of the corner of my eye something BIG went by the window. Now there’s always a gaggle of birds out there because of the feeder I have hung in that area, but they don’t usually make me think, “What was that!” Of course I have to investigate, hoping whatever it was remained nearby. It did!

A beautiful Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) had landed on the top of my feeder pole and sat there surveying the area. Presumably looking for food, but smartly everyone had scattered. He posed for a while so I could see his beautiful blue gray back and get a good look at his tail. The rounded tail is a pretty strong marker that it’s a Cooper’s Hawk and not the very similar Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) which has a straight, squared off tail.

Then it turned around so I could see it’s breast which was mottled rust and white.

It’s actually can be pretty difficult to tell the difference between the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Cooper’s Hawks tend to be larger, more the size of a crow, Sharp-shinned, more the size of a Blue Jay.  Cooper’s Hawks have a much bigger, distinct head in proportion to their body and look as though they are wearing a dark cap because of the light coloring of their nape. They are typically woodland birds, but are increasingly likely to be found in suburban areas.  Sharp-shinned Hawks nest almost exclusively in conifers and heavily wooded forests and are less frequent visitors to the suburbs.

A Cooper’s Hawks main diet is primarily small to medium birds and occasionally mammals like chipmunks, rabbits, mice, squirrels, and bats. They can be an unwelcome visitor to in a yard if they seem to have taken up residence because of the abundance of birds attracted to feeders. Removing the feeders for a few days should be enough to have them move on. But, honestly if having a hawk around  helped reduced the squirrel population, I may not mind having it visit occasionally.

Fortunately this one didn’t stick around long, although I know it lives somewhere in the area since it’s been to my yard a few times this winter.  Luckily, I saw it in the neighborhood over the weekend and could report it as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

After flying off the pole, it rested on a patio table, then moved on.

It was fun to see, but I hope I’m not providing dinner by attracting songbirds to my yard with feeders.

Wondering what I’m reading? See the latest list of books I’ve read (and liked) on the right.

Any Hawks in your yard?  Or a favorite book you’ve read lately?

 

This Was The Summer of Wasps!

This was our first summer in Door County, WI, so when the hornets and wasps appeared we thought it was normal.  Then more came, and everyone in line at the hardware store was buying wasp spray.  We had the normal small nests that appeared in the eaves and under the deck rail, and we seemed to be able to keep them in check.

But the mother ship was in the kindling box.

wasp nest

Early in the summer we saw a few wasps coming in and out of the box, but by midsummer it became apparent that we really shouldn’t open it any more until it got cold.  Fall came and it seemed like it was finally time to inspect what was going on.  What a treasure we found!

wasp nest

Because of how it had been built inside the box, we were able to pull the whole nest out intact and see some of the interior architecture.

This was the front.  Such beautiful scalloping and shades of color.  To the touch it was soft, papery and deceivingly strong.

wasp nest

wasp nest

The wasps entered from the canal at the top that spiraled down into the interior layers.

wasp nest

When the nest was pulled away from the box, it exposed some of the interior scaffolding where the young are hatched and food is stored.

wasp nest

wasp nest

Since this seemed so interesting, we dropped it off at a local nature center so all can enjoy.

wasp nest

I’m not entirely sure if this was a yellow jacket or bald-faced hornet nest, both of the wasp family Vespidae.  They are closely related social wasps and build similar nests.  There were just so many flying stinging insects around, I didn’t pay close enough attention to what was actually going in and out of the wood box.  We also had plenty of paper wasps, but they build very different types of nests.

After finishing our little nature exploration, we’ve had enough of raising wasps so the box was partially dismantled and used as frame to corral my expanding composting pile.

Want to learn more?  Here’s some useful links from local midwestern university extensions: