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.
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.
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.
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.