First Cape Cod mayflowers now blooming

It didn’t take spring long to wake up the trailing arbutus, also known as the mayflower, our state flower.

Look for them along sunny banks in pine and oak woodlands. They sprawl across the ground with tough woot leaves and are sporting buds in most areas.

Just this morning I found my first blooms and in an old abandoned wood lot in Hyannis so you never know where they may show up.

Some areas should be just gorgeous with these sweet smelling flowers very soon.

Cape Cod Walking Groups

It’s spring, finally! That means it is time to get outside, explore old favorite paths but find new paths and new places to explore as well. I grew up here on the Cape and am familiar with many, many places and yet every year I find new places that become new favorites. There are probably enough places to explore, even in a small place like Cape Cod, that I will never find them all.

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So how do you find new places? Go off the beaten path and take a road you’ve never taken before. The Cape is only so wide and only so long. You can only get so lost!

Joining a group or signing up for a nature walk with any of the many wonderful nature minded organizations is also fun and you’ll make some new friends as well.

I learn new things every time I take a walk with another naturalist, birder or botanist so I try to mix it up and go on all sorts of walks throughout the year. Check out Mass Audubon at Wellfleet Bay and Mass Audubon at Long Pasture for seasonal walks. The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History has weekly walks with Connie Boyce that are very popular and the Green Briar Nature Center has bi-monthly Wild Women Walking walks with Mary Beers. There are many others as well. Mashpee runs public walks as does the Harwich Conservation Trust, the town of Barnstable and the Barnstable Land Trust (an independent group, not town run.)

The other day I went on one of Mary Beers’s walks at the East Sandwich Game Farm. Mary is so knowledgeable you’ll gather all sorts of interesting information.

This walk is not for exercise as much as it is for natural history so don’t plan on any serious hiking. You can go back by yourself for that. I know the game farm pretty well, having worked with Mary there many times over the years but we found a few things I never knew before…

Like there is a special patch of reindeer lichen there…

052 Not only is reindeer lichen a favorite food of reindeer in areas where they live–which is not on Cape Cod–but a close up will show you that the little branches look like reindeer antlers. I have seen this in a lot of places but not in a big patch like this one! Mary told us the patches are few and far between on the Cape…053We also found little holes like these on a sunny hillside path….the sun had gone in but it was still warm when we found them….

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Mary thought they might be the little nesting spots of solitary bees and as we looked carefully on the ground we started to see the bees coming out of the dirt. Most were just waking up from the winter! 048They lay their eggs in these tunnels and bring pollen in that will feed the larvae when they hatch. How cool is that?

We heard and saw the usual birds but a belted kingfisher gave us a nice close look and we watched both osprey and a Cooper’s hawk fly overhead.

Check the links that are highlighted to find more information about each group’s walks. If you’d rather just go walking by yourself, there are also lots of good books out there as well, with maps and info.

Just get outside. And take a kid or two or three!

 

I went looking for spring in the  Cape Cod woods…

But what I found was more winter…

I  started my day at the Lowell Holly Conservation Area in Mashpee. This is usually a delightful place to walk but it had many icy and snowy areas along the trails that were tricky to navigate.

There were many lovely vistas however

  

You find lots of white pine, beech and of course, American holly here. I also found a nice little stand of Princess pine and tea berry .

Carpet moss is nice and green but the lake is still mostly frozen.

Later, at the Jehu Pond Conservation Area I saw lots of trailing arbutus leaves so mayflowers will be blooming soon!

I saw my first pine warbler of the season and courting hairy woodpeckers but the woods were pretty quiet.

One thing that becomes obvious as the snow melts is how tough winter was for birds and other wildlife. I found signs and remains of multiple birds and even those of a hawk .

But I also found this– a little reminder of the hope that is spring!

Finding spring on Cape Cod….

After a week of being sick and housebound and watching the snow blow yet again outside my window I went in search of spring this week. 

  

Where is the best place to find spring? At a farm! Every year about this time I pop on over to Peterson’s Farm in Woods Hole to see the little lambs. It doesn’t get much cuter than little lambs jumping and running about. No matter how grumpy or out of sorts you may be feeling I think it would be hard to stay that way while watching little lambs frolic. 

   

 

I even got to visit with Harley, the llama and his older charges. That Harley is one patient dude, hanging out with the chickens as well as those persnickety old sheep.

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Birds were singing all about,  none as brightly or loudly as this happy song sparrow, though.

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Robins and grackles were everywhere in the fields, some even finding worms or grubs. It’s late for worms and grubs but there is still snow on the ground in many places. In the warmer spots, however, worms and grubs were nearer to the surface.

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A rabbit watched me as I watched it, hidden well within the brambles…

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It gave me a nice little flash of white tail as it made its exit.

016The shrubs and vines are showing life and were full of birds…

  

   

 

 In another few weeks it will be full on spring at the farm. I can’t wait! Happy Spring, everyone!

 

A morning in Beech Forest

If you’ve never been to Beech Forest, part of The Province Lands Park of the Cape Cod National Seashore in Provincetown, you might want to add it to your list of places you must visit on the Cape.

Because it is one of the oldest original hardwood forests remaining on the Cape it is a mecca for wildlife but especially for migrating songbirds. May is an amazing time to visit Beech Forest and I try to get up there at least once or twice during the warbler migration.

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At this time of year the trees are just starting to leaf out and the forest floor is full of the small early blooming plants that always make my winter weary heart sing…

There are the sunny little star flowers….

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interspersed with the Canada mayflowers,  not to be confused with trailing arbutus, also called mayflower….unnamed (2)We even saw our very first Lady’s slippers of the season….

unnamed (5)High bush blueberries were in bloom….

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And the water lilies were just starting to emerge on the pond…

unnamed (7)The grasses and other pond plants against the bright water almost looked like impressionist paintings on the morning we were there…

unnamed (8)We ran into lots of friends along the way such as these geese…

unnamedand this little red squirrel…

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and of course, one of the very tame chickadees that abound there. Someone started feeding chickadees and titmice at Beech Forest years ago and they will follow you and land on your head looking for seed. This one chose my hand instead. I always consider it an honor when a bird wants to hang out that close to me…

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We took our time looking and listening and I did a fair amount of sketching while I walked as well. Later I sat under the trees at a picnic table there and finished off the sketches with watercolors.

unnamed (6)What a great way to spend a morning! I highly recommend it! And oh yeah, it was filled with birdsong and all sorts of warblers….but my phone camera was not up to the task of photographing them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gardening with weeds

No, you didn’t read that wrong….I sort of garden with weeds. I can’t help it. I sort of like the cheekiness of weeds. They grow in spite of all our best efforts to keep them down. They’re tough. They don’t need much and yet they flower profusely. To be honest, I haven’t used anything stronger than my own hands, clippers and a trowel to control the weeds on my property in the almost 30 years since I’ve been here. I also compost but in a rather haphazard way so I have all sorts of interesting plants popping up all over.

This is my vegetable garden. In the last few years it has been taken over by strawberries, red clover, evening primrose and believe it or not, tomatoes thrived here last summer. This winter I moved the bird feeders over by the garden but soon I will be taking those down for the summer. I have actually transplanted most of the strawberries and cleared most of the violets and other things that moved in this spring. I will be planting other things there over the next few weeks after I turn it all over, add compost and manure and clean it up a bit.

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When we moved into the house almost 30 years ago there were violets in one tiny part of the yard and I happily transplanted them around, hoping they’d spread….well, they did. So did the lilies of the valley….they are everywhere….thousands and thousands of plants.

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We have an ongoing battle with the dandelions. The more we dig them out, the more move in. I think we have even more than usual this year. I’m pretty sure my neighbors, who pay all sorts of fancy landscape people, hate them. Oh well. The goldfinches love them and so do I. We do try and dig them out but they outnumber us by thousands….

118In the middle of this rather modest dandelion patch (you don’t want to see the big ones) you will see some of my runaway forget-me-nots. I planted a few of these a few years back and now they are popping up all over. I like them. There will be no mowing where they are flowering.

This is one part of one of my herb gardens but they all share the same neighbors. I will pull out some of these–especially the stock since it already grows in abundance elsewhere in my yard. I also will pull out a lot of the Queen Anne’s lace and evening primrose since I have a lot of those, too, but I will also leave some. The butterflies, bees and birds all love them and they serve as food almost all year long.

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I  know this hurts some of you to see, especially the really neat and compulsive among you but I garden because I love plants. For me, most weeds are beautiful and all summer long I have a yard full of bees, butterflies and birds as well as flowers. All fall and winter I have tons of wild seeds which feed the birds better than my bird feeders.

It’s true that my vegetable garden suffers a bit, but not too much. I usually grow more herbs, lettuce, swiss chard and tomatoes than I can use and if I can beat the squirrels to them, I get a good long lasting strawberry crop as well. As for the violets, red clover and dandelions? I add the young leaves to salads and the blossoms of violets and clover as well. This year I have so many dandelions in bloom all at once I may look up my great grandmother’s recipe for dandelion wine….

Our lot is tiny and in the middle of Hyannis. We have a lot that is less than one fifth of an acre yet it is full of plantings. We have spruce, maple, holly, dogwood, kousa dogwood, oak, lilac (white and purple), quince and more. It’s a busy place.

And in the middle of it all, we have orioles and hummingbirds, smack dab in the middle of town.

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Field sketching for birders

This past weekend I was at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to teach an intensive two day Field School focusing on Field Sketching for Birders. I never know who will sign up for such a class or what their expectations will be so it is always a bit of a challenge setting up the schedule.

Drawing birds seems like a simple thing but it is actually quite challenging to get them right.

photo 2The weather forecast was for rain and cold wind for both days which made it difficult to work outside. The first day we worked indoors but we did manage to get out several times on Sunday.

In the classroom we began by drawing bird shapes from memory and then worked on drawing bird silhouettes, as correct shape and form is important for bird identification. The students had different goals and different levels of ability but this exercise went well for all.

photo 3We worked on drawings of bills and feet, bird anatomy and then from bird pictures in field guides before venturing out to the feeder area. Drawing live birds is quite a challenge but these folks were up to it! They worked very hard and although the birds were in constant motion the sketchers were able to pin down characteristic moves and postures.

photo 1At 7 a.m. on Sunday we headed out in a cold drizzle to see what we could see for birds with naturalist and birder, David Clapp. A great egret was a highlight as were several green winged teal in Goose Pond. The rain got heavier and we returned to the classroom where Melissa had prepared a wonderful hearty continental breakfast for us. Warm beverages were especially appreciated.

photo 4We drew from feathers and from the bird mounts in the WBWS collection. We returned to the feeders but also worked on bills and feet from the mounted hawks and songbirds on display in the exhibit area.

All this drawing was pretty intense and some people began to fade. Unless you’ve actually sat or stood and drawn something for almost 8 hours it is hard to describe the concentration and attention required and how tiring it can be. Also, drawing small moving targets can be frustrating. And yet, the students put on their brave faces and kept on drawing. I was impressed with their attitudes and their willingness to really work hard. Their drawings were impressive, even if some of them were frustrated by the results of their own labors. This is not easy stuff! They did great.

At one point one of the students mentioned she and her mother had seen a nest on the ground with a broken egg. She thought the nest was woven into the grass. I was curious and she took me out to see it. I photographed it as well as drew it and showed it to the bird experts when we returned to the building. After some discussion it was decided it was….

photo 5a woodcock nest! It had not survived a predator attack but it was still cool to see such a thing. I brought all the students out to see it and it made a nice little finish to the workshop.

My next field school session will be in July and will be Nature Sketching for Scaredy Cats.

 

 

 

 

Nest building

Even though it has been chilly out there this week the birds are already busy declaring territories, courting and some are already building their nests.

Last week we were out walking when we noticed a pair of chickadees keeping an eye on us. They also had their eye on the end of a branch that seemed to be hollow. Knowing that chickadees often choose such sites for nest building we pretended we weren’t watching and just hung around quietly.

This is what we saw.

022The chickadees were using old cattail fluff to line the nest. The cattails were growing in the nearby swamp which would also be a great place to catch insects to feed a growing family.

023You can’t see it in these photos but the chickadee is patting down the fuzzy warm fluff to line the nest in there.

024The chickadee also used its breast to shape the nest inside the hole in the branch. Both chickadees took turns doing this.

021These stills don’t really show the movement made by these busy birds but hopefully you sort of get the idea. Here is some more information about our state bird, the black capped chickadee. Most of us can recognize them but knowing more about them will let you observe what they are up to more easily.

 

First butterflies of spring

Over the past week here on Cape Cod you may have begun to see our first butterfly of the season, the mourning cloak. The mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa is a fairly large butterfly that is dark brownish puplish with light bands on the outer edges of the wings. These butterflies are usually seen in lightly wooded areas where the sun can reach them but where they are well camouflaged against the old leaves and bare branches.

030Some people think they are seeing bats or small dark birds when they first see them, as the flight of these butterflies can be a bit erratic and sporadic in the early spring. Believe it or not, mourning cloaks actually hibernate here throughout the winter and emerge as the air warms up.

Often they seem to come out of nowhere because they blend into the background so easily…

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Looks sort of like a twig, huh?

Some fun facts about mourning cloaks

  • In early spring they mate and lay their eggs in circles on host plants such as willows, elms and birches
  • Their caterpillars live communally in tents and can be a problem in shade loving trees
  • By late summer the caterpillars have pupated and the butterflies have emerged
  • Some mourning cloaks migrate though many hibernate

You can find more information and photos at Butterfliesandmoths.org

 

Searching for spring on the upper Cape

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It was a beautiful day yesterday so I packed up the camera, sketchbook, pen and watercolors and headed out to see what signs of spring I could find. I chose Bourne, mostly because I wanted to look for the king eider that has been seen hanging out with the common eiders in the canal and I wanted to see it if I could.

See if you can spot the king eider in this flock…

002I didn’t spot him either though I looked at each and every bird more than once through binoculars.

We headed over to Four Ponds Conservation Area which is one of my favorite places. We found lots of signs of spring there.

009By the little stream we found skunk cabbage and watercress. We also spotted a mourning cloak butterfly. I got out my sketchbook and we did the rest of the walk in slow motion as I stopped to sketch along the way.

001Although I love to take photos and take a lot of them, the sketching slows me down and allows me to really look at the details.

We saw our first painted turtles of the year, and a lot of them.

018and the first buds of mayflower or trailing arbutus

026I spied some whimsical things like these

002and then, at the end of our day we stopped by Peterson’s Farm to see the new baby lambs just because…

032I’ll be posting more of my favorite first signs of spring over the next days and weeks. What are some of yours?