Norcross Wildlife Foundation Sat, 22 Jul 2017 19:39:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Summer Flowers Wed, 19 Jul 2017 14:53:44 +0000 Spring is an exciting time in the woodlands, there are so many spring or ephemeral wildflowers blooming that it is it is hard to keep track of them all – each corner offers a new surprise if you look carefully.   Of course, many of these flowers are small, some are even insignificant (although still very cute).  Summer still holds many surprises and you should not feel like there is nothing new in the woods right now.

Summer wildflowers can be large and imposing and yes, some are still small.   The woodlands offers cool shade, drops in temperature as you want down a hill into a ravine.   Small breezes blow through the woodlands keeping you cool and comfortable in the summer.   The woodland wildflowers tend to be white rather than any other color.  Right now goats beard, black bugbane and tall meadow rue are blooming. Tall meadow rue is just that, tall.   It blooms at over 6 feet tall, it has lovely white, airy flowers.  I have seen a it as a common roadside plant along the wooded lanes.   Goats beard is often referred to as Astilbe on steroids.   It grows to over three feet tall and has foot-tall flowers that do look like Astilbe.   Black bugbane is just starting to bloom and is one of my favorites.   The full, bushy perennial sends up white spike flowers that are, again, over 6 feet tall.   My summer crew feels that its down-fall is the scent of the flowers.   It is kind of strange, something like faint moth-balls, but I don’t mind it considering the plants imposing structure and tall white flowers.  The goats beard and the black bugbane both make great border plants in shade conditions.  They also create something of a living fence if needed.  It is only fence-like in summer, however.

Summer wildflowers are not limited to shady locations.   The fields and meadows are filled with beautiful, very colorful plants in summer.  Black eyed susans, bee balms (we have 5 different species), milkweed and butterfly weed, daisies and Queen Anne’s lace are all found in sunny locations.   Butterflies are often found along with the field flowers adding to the color and interest in the gardens. Sometimes I like to take my butterfly guide with me out to the meadow to identify the insects flying around.   It is a great way to become familiar with the differences between some of our common butterflies.   Of course, Monarch butterflies are attracted to the various kinds of milkweed and I have seen a few in my gardens.  Meadows don’t have to be large expanses of old fields, you can plant meadow flowers in a border or a small, sunny section of your yard and still be successful in attracting butterflies as well.

Pareidolia Wed, 21 Jun 2017 17:09:20 +0000

The Old Man, before he fell.

Have you ever gazed up at the clouds and saw a whale, a ship, or maybe even a unicorn? What about faces staring at you from the old knotty pine in the cabin? Or a rock that really, really looks like a beagle? Have you seen the man in the moon? Were you lucky enough to meet the Old Man in the Mountain (Cannon Mountain, NH) before his demise on May 3, 2003?

Don’t be afraid to answer “yes” because you’re not crazy! You are experiencing pareidolia, a phenomenon caused by your brain doing its job. Before you are even aware of it, your brain is interpreting what you see, reviewing millions of bits of data that is has been collecting all of your life, and seeking a recognizable pattern. Once a match is made, viola! You see a stick in the pond that you would swear was a great blue heron.

Dog Rock: See the beagle?

Dog Rock: See the beagle?

So now that we know what it is, why is pareidolia in the Naturalist’s Corner?

When I present a talk or walk on animal tracks and sign, I always include an aside on pareidolia. I do this for two reasons: A great book and personal experience. Tracking and the Art of Seeing (by Paul Rezendes) encourages the observer to take in the whole picture and truly see what you are looking at. Don’t assume you are right, look around. Don’t jump to conclusions. Question your observations and look for what you might be missing. My own personal experience is that people jump to conclusions and assume they are right.

This doesn’t only apply to tracking, but it sticks out in my mind because my cat can make a perfect deer print in the snow. My point is, when observing, take an extra moment and try to see what is really there. You might be surprised!

See the deer track? It's actually my cat sitting, with her belly warmth melting snow by her back feet

Happy Tree along the trail directs you back to the Visitors' Center.

Garden Visits Thu, 15 Jun 2017 16:53:13 +0000 My daughter is heading up to Maine this weekend to go camping with her roommates.   She texted me this morning and was asking about a garden we visited on a summer trip to Maine.   She was asking about the Asticou Azalea gardens that I visited while in college and then took her to visit in mid-summer quite a few years ago.   This is probably one of the best times to visit that garden as I am sure that all the azaleas are in full bloom, but it reminded me that now is the perfect time to go out and visit some gardens.

My garden chores are mostly done – all the gardens have been weeded and mulched.   The annuals went in a couple of weeks ago  and we have had plenty of rain to keep everything looking good.  There are a couple places that I, personally, like to go including Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Tower Hill in Boylston or Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield.   The latter is great on a hot weekend as it is along the Housatonic River and tends to be cool.   I also love it for the unusual ferns that you can see growing there.

For you, my readers, that could also mean the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary.   The gardens are in tip-top shape!  The yellow lady’s slippers are still in bloom (although not for long) along with many of the spring wildflowers.   The short trail garden is full of plants in bloom – they change a bit from week to week, but it is always interesting.  We are coming up on a time of change in the garden – switching from spring to summer flowers.  Our plants have held on longer and some things have bloomed a little later this year due to the cool temperatures and the rain.   However, the rose garden will be in full bloom later in June and some of the summer flowers will start to pop out in the meadow.  I love our gardens because there is always something new to see – even for me.   Each year brings something just a little bit different.

Most of our hard work is over in the garden for a few months.   Get out and enjoy!  Our area offers many natural areas, gardens – both formal and informal, and great hiking.   Take the time to enjoy it.

Birds! Thu, 01 Jun 2017 19:18:22 +0000 Migration may be over, but I had a whopper of a list after birding this morning. 60 species!   Most of these birds can be found along our walking trails (a few hints are below if you want to come and have a look).  I’ll admit the ducks were not on the Pond trail.  I’ll also admit that the Bobolink was at a large, grassy meadow owned by Norcross in Monson, where I went to see them and hoped to see an Eastern Meadowlark.  Unfortunately, there was no Meadowlark but I did learn a wonderful useless fact of the day: The latin for Eastern Meadowlark is Sturnella magna, which means “large little starling” and I hope that is on Jeopardy tonight!

Wood Duck
Wild Turkey
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture (look up)
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Woodcock (be observant in the Pine Barrens and also near the Visitors’ Center)
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo*
Yellow-billed Cuckoo*
*A note on the Cuckoos this year…Cuckoos like caterpillars, and we have plenty of gypsy moth caterpillars for them to eat.  Cuckoos are also called “rain crows” by some, and are said to call before showers.  Between the gypsys and the weather, no wonder we’ve seen them both!
Barred Owl (listen, especially as the train goes through Monson.  We can hear the whistle it all the way up here and often it gets the owls  hooting)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-peewee
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe (over the front door)
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird (best spot for viewing is in front of the Trailside Museum)
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Parula (good luck)
Yellow Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart (everywhere)
Louisiana Waterthrush (lower trail)
Common Yellowthroat (Pine Barrens)
Scarlet Tanager
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting (Pine Barrens)
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow (sorry)

Bluebirds Thu, 25 May 2017 14:33:35 +0000 When I was in grammar school I remember singing a song at recess, “Bluebird, bluebird through my window” and now that I think of it I never recall seeing a bluebird (let alone one flying into my house). Now I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to see bluebirds every single day at Tupper Hill. I have been maintaining a bluebird “trail” here for over fifteen years. It’s not actually a trail but approximately twenty sites of open, grassy habitat where nestboxes are placed for the birds.
The boxes are put up in pairs about 20 feet apart. The reasoning behind this is that the happy-go-lucky bluebirds will nest in one box and the more aggressive, nest defending tree swallows will move in next door. Sometimes a wren takes over, packing a box with twigs, and occasionally I see a chickadee move in. For the most part, along our trail, its bluebirds and tree swallows. This year I seem to have a house sparrow problem- more about them in the future- but for those of you who also have this issue remember to be persistent.
The boxes were cleaned out and replaced (I try and replace one box at each site, the bluebirds seem to prefer the newer boxes) in early March. The bluebirds are here year round so long as there is enough food, and they do start house-shopping early. The first completed nest was observed on April 13th, with other nests under construction. At the beginning of May, beautiful blue eggs were present.
It’s been a long, cool spring (no complaints here!) and everything from the blooms in the gardens to the arrival of our migrant birds has been late and drawn out. As for the bluebirds, they were not in a rush, either. They are doing quite well along our trail.
As of May 23rd, we have active nests at 13 sites. Combined, there are 20 eggs being incubated, 27 birds ranging from just hatched to about to fledge, and this morning I watched as one brave bird (from that early nest) made its first flight out of the box and into an old apple tree. Our numbers might actually be higher, as two boxes had hens on the nest that refused to budge!

A male eastern bluebird watches over his nestbox.

Bluebird nest with eggs


Lady’s Slippers! Sat, 20 May 2017 14:27:28 +0000 The number one plant that people call the Sanctuary about are the lady’s slippers. This is the week to come see the small yellow lady’s slippers in our gardens. There are beautiful clumps of these small yellow orchids in several of our gardens and they are about to be at peak bloom.

Lady’s slippers are a rare sight, and the small yellow one is quite beautiful and quite reliable in our gardens.   We used to say that they bloom around Memorial Day, but that date is moving closer to the middle of May in recent years.   Yellow lady’s slippers are found in neutral, or limestone soils – something we don’t often find in this part of the state.   If you are lucky, this plant can be seen in Berkshire county where the mountains are actually former sea bed that was heaved up due to plate tectonics around 480 million years ago.   Berkshire county is the place to find many of our lime-loving wildflowers (Bartholomew’s Cobble is a good example). Here at Norcross our plants are living in a limestone-spiked garden where the pH of the soils remains above 6.0 and they are truly a sight to see.

Pink lady’s slippers are more typically found in this part of the Massachusetts, where our soil pH hover around 4.5 -5.5.   Unfortunately, we do not have many pink flowers along our walking trails.   Pink lady’s slippers are plants of disturbance.   They like an area that has been logged or where the canopy has been disturbed.   Despite the damage that they cause and the nuisance that they are the Gypsy moths caterpillar causes the kind of disturbance these orchids prefer through defoliation of the canopy trees.   If you know of an area where there was severe defoliation last year, keep an eye out for more pink lady’s slippers in the next week or two. As rare species and orchids, do not dig or remove any of these plants from the wild.   Pink lady’s slippers grow in conjunction with mycorrhizae in the soil and although the plant moves easily, the fungus does not.  

Get out on the trails! Enjoy this beautiful weather.   We are coming into the peak bloom time for all wildflowers and even if you do not see the lady’s slippers, there are plenty of other wildflowers to see.   The gardens at Norcross will be at their spring peak from now through about mid-June.   Come visit us Tuesday through Saturday, 9am to 4pm.

Spring III Wed, 10 May 2017 17:50:06 +0000 Spring has arrived, slowly but surely.   This has been a perfect spring season for me as I have been able to keep up with changes in the garden over the last month. Many wildflowers are blooming and now is the perfect time to start visiting the gardens at the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary.

Of course, some of the earliest flowers like snow wakerobin, bloodroot, twinleaf and Oconee bells have already gone by, but new flowers are emerging daily and there is a lot to see.   Spring wildflowers are not about large showy swaths of color across the garden, it is more about the secret surprises that you come across every few steps.   Wildflowers in spring are small and fleeting, but there is always something new to see. Over the next few weeks we will build to a spectacular show of so many plants blooming, you will have to look closely to see them all

Peak bloom in our gardens usually lasts from mid-May through mid-June. Most wildflowers bloom for anywhere from a week to a full month, so you can imagine the changes that will occur.   The cool moist weather is good to slow things down.   Hot humid weather causes flowers to bolt, that is, they open quickly and wither just as fast. Right now I expect our yellow lady’s slippers to be in full bloom around the 20th of May. This is always a popular time to visit our gardens. Of course, at this time of year it is hard to be disappointed by any of the wildflowers blooming.

Feel free to check our bloom list which is usually posted every Friday to see what flowers are blooming.   The list (tries to) contains plants at the very beginning, peak, and end of bloom and can be helpful if you are looking for a particular plant to see.

What is it? Sat, 06 May 2017 17:40:57 +0000 Mouse over the images for the answers.

Cedar Apple Rust on Red Cedar

Did someone decorate the cedar trees?

Cedar Apple Rust on Red Cedar

The bright orange, gelatinous telial horns look like tentacles.

Wood frog on left, spotted salamander on right (note extra jelly like membrane).

These were observed in a vernal pool. What critter laid these eggs?

The injury is a Granite Kiss (great book by our winter lecture guest Kevin Gardner about stone walls) and that's a HUGE cone from a Sugar Pine (courtesy of the Wickman's in Lake Tahoe)

Ouch! This one is a two-for. What do you call this injury AND what kind of pine cone is that?

POISON IVY vine with aerial roots. Stay away!

Seen climbing up a tree.

Bat Guano

This can be seen on the back steps at the museum.

The Intruder Fri, 07 Apr 2017 18:55:45 +0000

Spermatophores look like breadcrumbs at the bottom of the pool

Curiosity: It drives us to do curious things like look under rocks and logs, peek into tree cavities or to don waders and grab a net and see what you can fish out of a pool or pond.  This morning I was curious to see if any spotted salamanders moved last night during the rain.  I grabbed the camera and a pair of polarized sunglasses but I left my net behind.  Things are getting underway slowly and I don’t want to interrupt the magic.

The wood frogs have been quacking in the pools, although not quite making a ruckus yet.  It was cool, about 40°F, and sunny.  I started out and the clouds moved in, which makes it hard to see underneath the water’s surface and darn near impossible to get a nice photo.  I did manage to check a dozen or so spots.  To sum up my findings, some pools had some spermatophores in them, but not all pools.  The pools that did present this evidence of salamander movement didn’t have a lot compared to what I’ve seen in the past.  So last night was a small to medium sized big night.

What struck me this morning was that each woodland pool had at least one pair of wood ducks dabbling about the pools surface.  Not that this is unusual, wood ducks love vernal pools!  It was how much I felt like I was interrupting; that these creatures have waited so long for spring and what business does a nosy naturalist have spooking the courting pair out of the pool!

Once, while tent camping at Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park a very large, shiny RV pulled in.  They parked their enormous bus in a rather unfortunate place- my view of the creek upstream and the wilderness beyond.  As if this wasn’t enough, the occupants proceeded to start their generator.  The sun was setting and I could see silhouettes inside in plush leather recliners watching TV.

Then I noticed it.  The name of the RV was The Intruder.  How fitting.  Not once did they come outside during their stay.

This morning, I was the intruder.  I moved quietly and slowly, trying not spook the creatures as I checked for salamanders.  I kept my distance and let the ducks dabble.  At 10:26am a few wood frogs began to chorus as the sky really became overcast, spitting rain.  The ducks, the weather and the frogs were all telling me that it wasn’t quite yet time for the show, but it is close.


Spring II Thu, 06 Apr 2017 16:01:52 +0000 In the last blog I talked about spring – and a little about the factors that determine what (and when) spring starts. In this blog I want to talk about personal observations I have made about the arrival of spring.

Over my life, mostly spent in New England, I have noticed that spring can be everything.   It can be snowy, rainy, sunny, windy, muddy or dry.   In recent years I have noticed that spring is changing.   Our weather is more erratic – most notably, it gets hot (not warm) for long enough so that the plants burst forth.   Buds, flowers, leaves – the whole gamut- comes alive quickly.   Shortly after the high temperatures, we have a hard frost.   Orchardists complain this happens far too often these days. The warm weather encourages the fruit trees to bloom, but the frost will kill those blossoms causing poor fruit set and diminished harvests. I often say that native plants are used to our changeable weather, but these sudden cold spells can affect wildflowers as well.   If it gets too hot and then freezes hard, no plant – native or not – can escape undamaged.

Another thing I notice is that the timing of the rain has changed quite a bit. In the last few years with the early hot weather we also have had little rain.   New England and especially our region is currently suffering through a prolonged drought.   There was a lack of snow last winter and we didn’t get much snow cover this year either. We have also seen that hot, dry spring is followed by torrential rain storms.   Ten-ish years ago we had several deluges that ran off and eroded the soils. These short hard rains run off into local streams, carrying silt and sand rather than infiltrating into the ground to recharge the soils.

Bloom times have changed, and our USDA hardiness map has changed due to our unusual weather. Yellow Lady’s Slippers are always a popular sight in our gardens. I used to tell people to come around Memorial Day to see them in bloom, in the last several years that time has moved to mid-May.   Many of our flowers appear earlier as spring gets warmer. As our weather (and our climate) changes we will also see many changes in our gardens.