Category Archives: Nature Study

Wild Times at Pine Hill Park

Winter 2015/16 Summary

By Tom Estill

In general, the winter of 2015/16 was relatively mild.  While both Rocky and Muddy Ponds were beginning to ice over by mid-November in 2014, it wasn’t until the very end of December 2015, that the ponds were just starting to ice over.  By the end of Jan. 2016, the ponds had finally completely frozen over.  The first major winter storm didn’t occur until the last day of 2015.

Typical birds commonly seen towards the beginning of winter included white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, crows and hairy woodpeckers.  By the second week of Jan., only a few inches of snow covered the ground.  I was surprised to see so many deer and small rodent tracks throughout the whole park.  While walking along the Carriage Trail on Jan. 17th, I came across beaver tracks leading from Muddy Pond to Rocky Pond.  It got me wondering?  More on that later in this summary.

© Copyright 2009,David S. Jenne, All Rights Reserved.

Pileated woodpeckers were heard and seen throughout the forest on a regular basis all winter long.  So glad to see their population is holding strong.  Only occasionally would I hear or see the tufted titmouse, and dark-eyed juncos.  During the third week of Jan., I heard hairy woodpeckers “drumming” for the first time in many months, signaling a change in their territorial behavior.  About the same time I followed some coyote tracks up to a small den which I know in the past was occupied by porcupines.  Didn’t want to peek inside for fear of disturbing any occupants.  By the end of January, warm temperatures had melted so much snow that patches of bare ground could be found throughout the whole park.  On Jan. 31st, a golden-crowned kinglet landed on a branch close to where I was sitting, and a tufted titmouse could be heard singing its “peter, peter” song, another bird establishing its breeding territory.  One week later, a cardinal was heard singing its territorial/courtship song, a titmouse was heard singing its “Jway” call, and a barred owl could be heard “hooting” deep in the forest west of trail marker #24.

By Feb. 6th, snow was pretty much gone from the park, except for a few isolated and sun-protected spots.  Signs of recent beaver chewing activity along the shores of Rocky Pond could be seen from the Shimmer Trail.  I also watched three male gray squirrels chasing a female up and down numerous trees until finally, the lead male seemed to get the attention of the female by making various calls to the female, while the other two males sat quietly on nearby branches.

Feb. 14th saw a record cold temp. for that day of -17F, with a -40F wind chill temp. recorded near midnight.  While walking through the forest that day, I was amazed at the amount of cracking, snapping, and popping sounds I heard as the sap and trapped water in the trees would freeze, expand and then snap the branches and tree trunks.  The second week of Feb. also found me being enchanted by the haunting rumblings emanating from beneath the ice at Rocky Pond, as the ice was shifting and moving with changes in water level, and movement of the water below the ice.  Record low temperatures were once again recorded on Feb. 14, while record high temperatures were recorded two days later on 2/16.  By 2/17, all signs of snow were virtually gone from the park.  On 2/17, I was surprised to easily see from the Shimmer Trail a large, recently built, active beaver den on the West side of Rocky Pond.  That explained the beaver footprints leading to Rocky Pond from Muddy Pond I had seen weeks earlier, and all the recent beaver chewing activity seen along the shores of Rocky Pond.  Many tree branches were seen poking out of the ice near the den where the beaver had been storing food for the winter months.

Morning Cloak butterfly
First robin was seen at the park on Feb. 20th.  And a week later, I received a report of a bald eagle flying near the power lines on the Carriage Trail near Rocky Pond.  During the first week of March, mourning doves were heard “cooing” near the trailhead, streams were running ice free, a large beaver was seen for the first time feeding on a downed tree at Rocky Pond, and chipmunks were seen scurrying among the downed trees along the middle Giorgetti Trail.  March 13th saw the first butterfly of the season, a Mourning Cloak, one of the first butterflies to emerge from their winter hibernation under the bark of trees, and the first Eastern Newts swimming in large numbers along the shores of Rocky Pond.  Both ponds were free of any ice, and moss plants were beginning to grow reproductive stalks.  During Feb. and March, I had noticed the water level of Rocky Pond slowing creeping upwards so was not surprised when, walking along the Carriage Trail; I saw a new beaver dam being built at the outlet of Rocky Pond. I’ve been wondering just how big that dam will become in the future?

By mid-March, Canada geese, common mergansers, mallards, wood ducks and kingfishers could be easily seen from the Carriage Trail on Muddy Pond.  The last day of winter, I went on a hike through the forest and for the first time in three and a half years, I didn’t see or hear a single bird in the forest, but I did see painted turtle sunning themselves at Rocky Pond, and received a report of a pair of barred owls seen near the intersection of the Carriage Trail and the Redfield Farm trail.

The forest is still relatively quiet, and I wait with great anticipation for the arrival of our spring migrant birds, and the first spring wildflowers.

As a reminder, please respect the No Trespassing/Private Property signs and stay on the trails.  Now, go enjoy the arrival of spring at Pine Hill Park.

Night hike for night critters

Join local naturalist Tom Estill on a night stroll along the Carriage Trail as we search for the “night critters” of Pine Hill Park.  We’ll especially be listening to the call of owls, foxes, coyotes, and frogs, and observing the night work of beavers at Rocky Pond.  Wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather.  Bring along water, a small snack and a flashlight, also.
Difficulty:  Easy to Moderate Walk
Ages 11+ – Giorgetti Pine Hill Park

April 16th, 7-9pm

Nature Of the Park – Fall 2015

Thank you to Tom Estill who is doing the live reporting from Pine Hill Park and surrounding trails. 

Pine Hill Park Fall, 2015 •  Natural History Summary

The first official day of fall, 2015 saw a cold front move through the area bringing with it the first noticeably cool weather since spring and beautiful dark blue skies.  During an evening walk on 9/21, crickets could be heard, and many birds were seen including blue jays, robins, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, slate-colored juncos, and pileated and hairy woodpeckers.  Warblers were migrating through the forest, the most impressive to me being the black-throated blue warbler.  Small flocks of migrating waterfowl could be seen at Muddy Pond including mallards and Canada geese.

At the end of Sept. I saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker flying from its perch catching insects passing by, a behavior I hadn’t seen before in sapsuckers.  Though grey squirrels and chipmunks are commonly seen in the park, I was surprised to see a red squirrel near Muddy Pond.  They’re not near as common as the grey squirrel.

It was this time of year that I also saw my first loose association of birds.  Birds of different species associate with one another during the harsh winter season for protection and help in obtaining food.   An association of brown creepers, tufted titmouse, hairy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, pine warbler, and black-capped chickadees was seen slowly flying through the forest together.  In other parts of the forest were seen blue jays, white-throated sparrows, catbirds, many flying insects and butterflies, including mating half-banded tapers.

Only a few flowers remained including New England Aster, Queen Anne’s Lace, goldenrod, and blue wood aster.  All of which were being pollinated by bumble bees, yellow jackets, and bald-faced hornets.

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By the end of Sept., Muddy Pond now had a few hundred Canada Geese resting there, along with a few wood ducks, mallards, and a great blue heron.  Also at Muddy Pond could be seen painted turtles, hermit thrushes, American goldfinches, and a belted kingfisher.  The well known Wooly Bear caterpillar was also seen for the first time.

The first week of October found the forest very quiet.  Asters were about the only flowers left to be found and milkweed seed pods were getting ready to open to release their hundreds of seeds.  Birds typically found in winter were now the most common birds seen including blue jays, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, crows, and hairy woodpeckders.  Hermit thrushes and American redstarts were almost gone, but the population of Canada Geese at Muddy Pond has increased to around 300.  A winter wren and yellow-rumped warbler were also seen.

Oct. 10th brought cool temperatures and a gorgeous fall day.  Fall foliage was at, or near, its maximum. Warblers continued to migrate through the area, with pine warblers, yellow-rumped warblers and golden-crowned kinglets being the most commonly seen migrants.  For the first time, I saw a solitary OTTER feeding on a fish at Muddy Pond.  Haven’t seen it again since then.  Lots of grey squirrels and chipmunks continue to be seen.

On Oct. 12th, I experienced a most enchanting phenomenon.  Fall foliage was at its maximum.  As the sun was setting, its light was filtering through the colored leaves, and  bathed the woods in a most pleasant light.  A truly beautiful, magical, and serene experience.  A pileated woodpecker was the only bird I saw in the forest that day, along with one grey squirrel, but lots of chipmunks.  So many chipmunks were seen this year, that I was wondering if maybe they were at the apex of their population growth cycle, and maybe we’ll see a decline in their numbers in the next few years, along with a corresponding increase in the number of predators.  Also on this day, I observed an interesting behavior of the Canada Geese at Muddy Pond.  As I was watching the geese, a period of relative quietness would be interrupted by a dramatic increase in “chatter” among the geese, followed by a flock of geese flying off in a southerly direction.  This happened over and over again.  Don’t want to get anthropomorphic here, but I had the feeling that the geese were saying goodbye to some of their fellow geese before they took off to continue their trip south.

The first light precipitation of freezing rain occurred on Oct. 17th.  The only plant in flower was witch hazel, giving the forest areas of easily visible yellow.  With the relatively dry August and Sept., I was sure the fall foliage season would suffer, but that was not the case.  We had an absolutely beautiful fall foliage season this year.

Fluffy, the elusive albino porcupine living in the park. Photo by Jen Hogan.
Fluffy, the elusive albino porcupine living in the park. Photo by Jen Hogan.

On the third week of Oct., I received an email from our Parks and Rec. Director Cindi Wight.  She forwarded an email she had received from Jen Hogan.  Jen had come across an ALBINO porcupine on one of the trails and sent a picture of the rare animal to Cindi.  I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was to see that picture.  But as hard as I’ve tried to find that porcupine, I haven’t been able to find it for the last 2 months.  As soon as we get some appreciable snowfall I’m hoping to find some tracks of the porcupine and follow it to its den.

Snowliage - West Rutland Vermont-56
Snowliage, October 18. Photo by David Jenne

On Oct. 20th, I was surprised to see flocks of migrating yellow-rumped warblers flying through the forest, and a very plump, healthy looking garter snake.  Swarms of unidentified small brown insects found along a number of trails, also.(No, they weren’t ants).  Had two different pairs of pileated woodpeckers fly within a few feet of me after calling them in with my bird caller.  Tiny white-colored insects, called wooly aphids were seen in large numbers today.

During the last week of Oct., I was surprised to see a yellow throat bird, and the shoreline of Muddy Pond covered in Goose feathers and down, so much so that it looked like the shorline was covered in snow.  Loose bird associations are a common sight, and so are flocks of migrating robins.  Turkeys heard under the powerlines on the Carriage Trail.  The only ferns with green leaves left in the park are Christmas ferns, spinulosa and marginal wood ferns and rock polypody.  Most leaves are off the trees with the exception of oak and beech trees.  Ruffed grouse seen at Rocky Pond.  Hermit thrushes seen migrating through the forest to my surprise.

The first week of November had Jen Hogan showing me where she saw the albino porcupine, but again, we had no luck in seeing the animal.  Temperatures that week reached 65 degrees F.  The second week of Nov., I received a second report of a sighting of an albino porcupine.  Some hikers seen in SHORTS!!  This was the week most of the oaks trees finally dropped their leaves, leaving the forest floor covered with a thick layer of oak leaves.

By Nov. 15th, temperatures were finally low enough for ice to cover my birdbath, but Rocky and Muddy Ponds were still ice free.  The ponds were completely frozen over for the first time on Nov. 16th of last year.  A migrating red-tailed hawk was seen this week, along with a few loose bird associations, so common this time of year.  I was also surprised to find a Tamarack tree on droopy muffin trail between trail markers #22 and #22A.  They’re usually found in more moist environments.  I haven’t seen any tamaracks around rocky or muddy ponds.  The tamarack was easy to see in the forest with its bright yellow leaves.  Muddy Pond was covered with so many Canada geese, I couldn’t count them.

The last week of Nov. found Rocky Pond with a few shoreline areas iced over, with Muddy Pond almost completely iced over.  The number of Canada geese at Muddy Pond had dramatically decreased.  For the first time, I also noticed a marked increase in the number of trees being chewed on by beavers at Rocky Pond.  I believe beaver are beginning to build a den on the East side of the pond.  As strange as it seems, Nov. 27th saw hikers in shorts once again, but by Nov. 29th, cold temperatures had returned.  Temperatures had climbed so high, that both ponds were once again open water.

The first week of Dec. found Muddy Pond covered with hundreds of Canada geese as I watch flock after flock, after flock fly into the pond one afternoon.  Most of the pond was frozen over, and Rocky Pond was completely frozen over with a thin sheet of ice.

By Dec. 12th, hikers were once again in their shorts, and both ponds were free of any ice.

On Dec. 19th, I took my last hike of the season.   Though there was a dusting of snow on the ground, both ponds were still free of ice, there were about 100 Canada geese at Muddy Pond, and the forest was very quiet with me seeing only crows, and white-breasted nuthatches.  Two deer seen near the ledges.

 

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Summer 2015

It’s Deer Season

Deer season is here. Youth weekend is Saturday and Sunday, November 7th and 8th.

Rifle Season starts Saturday, November 14th and runs through Sunday, November 29th.

Muzzle loading season starts Saturday, December 5th and runs through Sunday, December 13th.

There is NO HUNTING allowed in Pine Hill Park.

Hunting is allowed on the Redfield trails and the Carriage Trail. Please wear blaze orange if you are going to ride these trails.

Nature of the Park Summer 2015

Pine Hill Park Summer, 2015 •  Natural History Summary

By Tom Estill

The first day of summer, 2015 saw the park filled with the sounds of birds establishing and maintaining their territories, mating calls, and baby chicks chirping for food.  Birds COMMONLY seen or heard in the park this time of year included:  veery, American redstart, hermit thrush, ovenbird, Eastern wood peewee, great crested flycatcher, catbird, song sparrow, yellow-bellied sapsucker, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, hairy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, wood thrush, rufous-sided towhee, downy woodpecker, northern flicker, red-eyed vireo, robin, myrtle warbler, and mourning doves.  Near Rocky and Muddy Ponds you’ll typically find red-winged blackbirds and great blue herons, and hear the croaking of the American Bullfrog and Greenfrog.  On June 25th, I was delighted to hear and see the Scarlet Tanager near Trail Marker 24,  the same place I have heard and seen them for the last three years.  This year, I also saw them near Rocky Pond and the first Giorgetti Trail.  So glad to see their population at the park doing well.

By this time of the year, all the 27 American chestnut trees planted at the beginning of June had leaves, except one.  They’ve done very well this summer.  During the “dry/hot spell” of late July and August, I actually carried water up to the plants and gave them extra waterings.  At this point, I’m hoping that at least 26 of them will make it through the winter.  I’ll continue to keep an eye on them throughout the year.

Chipmunks seemed to be in high numbers this summer,  certainly more than last summer, while the population of grey squirrels appears to be steady.

Baby painted turtles were seen at Rocky Pond, along with huge numbers of young bullhead catfish and Eastern Newts.  Also during this time of year, red efts are a common site along the trails, especially after a rainy day.

Butterflies are also a common sight in June, including mourning cloaks, white tails, 12-spotted skimmers, cabbage whites, and sulfurs.

The end of June saw more and more wildflowers making  their appearance including: hop clover, partridge berry, Canada lily, laurel, and Devil’s Paintbrush.  Fern spores were maturing,  and wild strawberries were ripe for picking along with red raspberries.

Green frog tadpoles born in the spring were seen with developing hind legs at Rocky Pond.

The first week of July saw new wildflowers appearing, including: shinleaf pyrola, sheep laurel, pale corydalis, black-eyed Susan, evening primrose, St. Johnswort, purple flowering raspberries, and white sweet clover.  A northern water snake was seen in Rocky Pond, and garter snakes were a common sight all throughout the park, especially near the ponds.  Small American toads and Cedar Waxwings were seen the first time near Rocky Pond.  The baby yellow-bellied sapsuckers fledged at this time, also.

Mid-July found a Yellowthroat under the powerlines on Crusher Road, the same place I’ve seen Yellowthroats there in the last 3 years.    More species of butterflies are appearing, including the great sprangled fritillary, silver-spotted skipper, Tiger Swallowtail, clouded sulfur and northern pearly-eye.  And, of course, new wildflowers included: pointed-leaved tick-trefoil, Queen Ann’s Lace, Golden Alexander, purple loosestrife, and goldenrod. Woodchuck seen feeding on clover, and, upon seeing me, ran into its hillside den on Crusher Road.

Followed up on a report of a Great Blue Heron nesting at Muddy Pond.  Found the nest, and an adult heron standing on the nest, but no young.  I kept a close eye on the nest all summer, but saw no sign of a successful nesting.  And I never saw more than one heron at a time at the nest, or in the pond.

Saw a male and female indigo bunting under the powerlines on Carriage Trail, the same place I saw them last year.  Hopefully, they’ll return next spring.  They’re a beautiful bird.  I played a tape of the bird’s call over my phone, and the male bunting alighted on a branch a few feet from me.  A truly magical moment.

Forest beginning to noticeably quiet down in the afternoon this time of year.  Most birds are finished raising their young, and the birds are no longer establishing territories.

Towards the end of July, I had a broad-winged hawk follow me along the Carriage Trail from Trail Marker 24 to the powerlines.  It would do that for about a month.  I can only guess that my walking was frightening birds and small mammals in front of me, and making them more easily visible to the hawk.

Sow and her cub seen eating berries under the powerlines on Crusher Road.  I was hidden by a small hill, and could see the sow, but was not aware of the cub nearby until it started making some noises, at which point I started back tracking as fast as I could.

The last day of July, I entered a very, very, quiet forest.  Lots of robins gathering in loose associations, in preparation for their upcoming southern migration.  Numerous immature wood frogs found throughout the park.  The common wood nymph butterfly is now a common sight.

The first week of August I saw my first maple starting to change colors.  Noticeably cooler, especially in the evening.  Lots of butterflies with the emergence of the fall asters.  Some flowers still appearing, including:  agrimony, common nightshade, eastern-tailed blue, asters, jewelweed, lobelia, hawkweed, willow-herb, blue vervain and butter-and-eggs.  The forest is now so quiet compared to a month ago.

Mid-August saw the first migrating waterfowl at Muddy Pond, mostly mallards.  Thistle, whorled wood aster, Joe-pye-weed, and rattlesnake root. starting to flower.  Having a “hot spell”.  Hot and humid days.  But, cardinals are still singing near the trailhead.  And a grey treefrog was heard calling.  Migrating warblers are becoming a more and more common sight, including pine warblers and black-throated blue warblers.

Towards the end of August, a barred owl was heard “hooting” at rocky pond, and American goldfinch were becoming more and more a common sight.  New flowers include: white vervain, wood betony, hog-peanut, bottle gentian, turtlehead, and northern bugleweed.  Black chokeberry and winterberries are now ripe, and can be found on the shores of Rocky Pond.

At the end of August, my walks were very quiet, with only a few birds seen or heard, including the pileated woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, cardinal, wood thrush, and a few robins. A New England cottontail was seen feeding under the powerlines on Crusher Road.   For the first time this season, bald-faced hornets seen in large numbers flying close to the ground in search of prey.  I try to keep my distance from them.

The beginning of Sept. found a very quiet forest.  On one walk up to Rocky Pond on Sept.1st, all I saw or heard were a cardinal, Eastern wood peewee, a couple blue jays, and a ruffed grouse which explosively flew off right in front of me, giving me quite the “start”.  Forest is very dry some a long dry spell.  Had to give the chestnut trees extra water.  I was actually worried about the fire danger.  Luckily, no fires were started at this time.

The middle of the month saw a cold front move through bringing rain and dropping temperatures.  What a relief for everyone.  Hawks migrating through the area.  Got a nice view of a red-tailed hawk.  More and more waterfowl seen at Muddy Pond, especially Canada geese and mallards.  Leaves are changing color.  Migrating yellowthroat seen and many crickets heard all throughout the park.  You can sense a change in the forest, as the plants and animals prepare for the long, cold winter ahead.

On Sept. 20th, I took my last walk of the season.  Many crickets could be heard throughout the forest, my hands were actually cold from recent cold fronts moving into the area, robins, along with various warblers, were migrating, the ponds were showing increasing numbers of waterfowl, and the birds of the forest were becoming more and more those species typical or fall and winter, such as the black-capped chickadee, hairy wooodpecker, pileated woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jays, and crows.

Fall Foliage Family Nature Hike

Saturday October 3, 10 am-12 p.m

Join Naturalist Tom Estill as we explore the natural history of Pine Hill Park at the height of the fall foliage season. This easy-moderate hike is designed for hikers of all ages. There will be lots of opportunities to take photos of our spectacular fall foliage and an opportunity to see Muddy Pond covered with hundreds of migrating waterfowl. Bring binoculars, something to drink, and a small snack. FREE

Plant of the day…

…or maybe plant of the month is a better title.

If you visit the park in the next few days or weeks there is one plant you will not miss, even if you try! And that plant is the Canada-mayflower, also called false lily-of-the-valley.

I shot these on a run up Sisyphus this afternoon and thought I’d pass ’em along. They’re not in bloom yet, but just the sight of all that green finally covering the forest floor will make you smile.

They will bloom in couple weeks with a cluster of white feathery flowers that will eventually turn into red berries, which are a very important source of food for birds in the park.

Yep, they’re common as heck—but their timing is impeccable in my opinion 🙂

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