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Saw-whet owls overwinter along the shoreline in evergreen thickets. They nest in northern areas. (Photo courtesy of A Place Called Hope )
The red eft is a native salamander that is active in April near vernal pools, streams, and ponds. Salamanders help control mosquito populations in May and June. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Quinn )
This owl peers from a large opening in its nest box at A Place Called Hope in Killingworth. The opening hole is only one way that owl nest boxes differ from those of wrens, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. (Photo courtesy of A Place Called Hope )
Possibly the most common owl in Connecticut, the barred owl is an avid hunter of rodents—many of which are vectors in the life cycles of disease-carrying ticks. (Photo courtesy of A Place Called Hope )
This wood frog, an amphibian, has permeable skin. Because amphibians can absorb toxins, frogs, toads, and salamanders are reliable indicators of environmental quality. When their populations are robust, something is going right. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Quinn )
Spotted salamanders are sometimes seen crossing roads during March and April. Take care to avoid these creatures, which play multiple roles in regional ecology. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Quinn )
Trees with large holes are usually well past their prime as living trees, but they are crucial life support for birds, small mammals, and insects. If snags are not a danger to humans, let them stand. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
A queen bumblebee visits bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), a May-blooming native shrub. (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Stoner, Ph.D )
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April offers many opportunities to do some little things that can make a big difference in the lives of the small creatures that share the shoreline with us. Don’t mistake their small size for lack of importance to our quality of life. Some pollinate plants, others control tick-carrying rodents, and yet others manage mosquito populations, and more. This week, let’s consider the roles of bumblebees, owls, frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, and snakes in the local landscape.
Flowers for the Queen
Queen bumblebees are among the earliest insects to emerge in our area. If you imagine that gives them a leg up on the rest of the bees, think again. It actually poses a problem. The queens are their species’ sole support in April, but very few plants blossom at the same time they emerge.
According to Dr. Kimberly Stoner, an entomologist and bee specialist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, “The queen needs her own weight in nectar each day. She needs native plants that provide April and May blossoms.”
Stoner chairs a Pollinator Habitat Conference each year. At this year’s event, she emphasized the importance of native plants to support native bees, of which Connecticut has more than 300 species. Stoner also reported, once again, that research shows a clear link between bee populations and the use of pesticides.
“We need to reduce the use of all pesticides as much as possible, and especially avoid insecticides highly toxic to bees,” she says.
Bumblebees are among the few “buzz pollinators” in the bee world, making them uniquely important visitors to tomatoes, eggplants, and blueberries, among other plants. (See a short, remarkable Smithsonian video to learn more: bit.ly/buzz-pollination.)
What can we do for bumblebees? Plant early-blooming trees or shrubs such as American hazelnut, pussy willow, red maple, serviceberry, chokeberry, native cherries, and highbush blueberry. Apple trees, though not native, can help, too. Among native perennials, we can plant golden Alexanders, golden ragwort (not the same as ragweed), lupine, harebell, blue-eyed grass, Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, beardtongue, and woodland strawberries. Dandelions, though not native, also help.
If you want to see some of these early native flowers, visit woodlands, stream-sides, and rocky ledges before mid-May when the tree canopy becomes dense. Or join a walk at Connecticut College Arboretum in New London on Friday, May 3 at noon. A children's walk is scheduled for Friday, May 10 from 4 to 5 p.m. Both walks are free of charge. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com or call (860) 439-5020 for more information.
Assistance for Amphibians
Frogs, toads, and salamanders are hungry for mosquitoes and other insects. Need we find any more reason to want to add a few to the neighborhood? But they play more than one role in the local landscape, according to environmental scientist and herpetologist Dennis Quinn from Plantsville.
“They are critical in natural food chains,” says Quinn. “Yes, they are predators of insects, but they are also prey for a variety of species.”
Owls, for instance, dine on frogs.
“Furthermore, at the larval stage, frogs feed on algae and help maintain water quality in the aquatic environments where they spawn,” he says.
Frogs also alert us to contaminants.
“As amphibians, frogs have permeable skin. This makes them great barometers of environmental quality, especially for the water we drink and air we breathe,” says Quinn.
Salamanders rank with frogs as reliable environmental indicators, according to Quinn.
“They, too, play a crucial role in food chains, with one distinct difference from frogs,” he says. “As aquatic larva, salamanders do not feed on algae, but on insects such as the aquatic larvae of mosquitoes. They play a large role in managing spring and early summer mosquito populations.”
Respect for Reptiles
Turtles are appealing, and their presence in backyard and community landscapes is often welcomed, according to Quinn.
“Yet, when we use our lawnmowers, we create one of the biggest threats to turtle populations,” he says. “It’s particularly true in May and June when the females move around to find their egg-laying locations.”
In addition to eating snails, beetles, and grubs, Quinn says turtles play a role in cleaning up the environment by scavenging dead animals. They also eat mushrooms and fallen fruit.
If you find a turtle in the middle of a road, “it’s okay to move it across the road,” says Quinn. “But never move turtles far from where you found them or turn them in a different direction. They have strong geographic ties to their homes and often do not fare well if moved to a new location.”
He adds, “Please, never lift a turtle by its tail. This can do irreparable damage to its spine.”
Snakes, unlike turtles, come up short on charisma for most people.
“That doesn’t minimize their role in a balanced ecosystem,” says Quinn.
“Timber rattlesnakes, an endangered species in Connecticut, feed primarily on small rodents,” he says. “Research shows that where this snake lives, there’s a reduced incidence of Lyme disease. Non-venomous snakes, such as the eastern ratsnake, also feed on small rodents and probably have the same impact.”
The appeal of tick reduction is hard to deny.
To make life a little easier for snakes, eliminate the use of synthetic netting and mesh in gardens and around fruiting shrubs. “Snakes get entangled in these products, which often leads to their death,” says Quinn. “Remember, snakes are docile and are not out to hurt or startle people, if you give them their space and do not harass them, they make really great neighbors.”
If you are ready to encourage frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, and snakes, the steps are remarkably straightforward.
“If your property is adjacent to a wetland or woodland, leave the edge unmowed. Plant native low-growing vegetation. Reduce or eliminate pesticides and herbicides,” says Quinn. “You’ll provide a safe haven for them all, where they can forage for food and bask in the sun.”
To help the public better understand the state’s reptiles and amphibians, Quinn publishes www.CTHerpetology.com, a photographic atlas for creature identification as well as a related Facebook page, @ctherpetology.
Give a Hoot about Owls
Lots of people put birdhouses in the backyard, particularly for small songbirds and bluebirds. Why not owl houses? Owls have a keen appetite for mice and other rodents, critical vectors of the disease-carrying tick population.
And if you’re among the many who think that moles ruin their lawns, here’s an exciting twist: Moles tunnel to find insects, not vegetation. Field mice, also called voles, occupy mole tunnels and eat grass roots. Owls eat voles. Some owls also hunt shrews, skunks, rabbits, among other prey.
Connecticut has long been home to several owl species. Populations of the barred owl, an avid nocturnal hunter of mice and skunks, are thriving, creating some problems when some owls seek new territory to hunt and nest. A Place Called Hope, a raptor rescue organization in Killingworth, has housed and nursed more than 60 injured barred owls since January, according to spokesperson Vicki Silvia.
The barn owl, a handsome bird once common in the Connecticut River Valley, is now endangered. The diminutive saw-whet owl often overwinters here, but nests farther north. The state also hosts the short-eared owl, long-eared owl, eastern screech owl, and the great-horned owl.
How can we help? Some owls are cavity nesters, according to Peter Picone, a wildlife biologist at Sessions Woods in Burlington, part of the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP).
“They prefer to nest in snags, which is the name we use for dead or dying trees,” says Picone. “People usually take these trees down, but snags are make-or-break habitat for some of these birds, particularly barred owls. If snags are located in a wetland or another place where they pose no danger to people, we recommend leaving them to stand.”
Some owls are willing to take up residence in nest boxes.
“Of all these species, the eastern screech owl is probably easiest to attract to a next box,” says Picone. “They readily accept artificial cavities.”
He notes that owl houses are entirely different from more simple birdhouses, and each owl species has its own preference. If you are adept in the woodshop, visit bit.ly/Cornell-owl-nest-boxes to download owl house patterns. Picone highly recommends Woodworking for Wildlife by Carrol L. Henderson, published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Picone is the author of Enhancing Your Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, a free download published by DEEP at bit.ly/backyard-wildlife-habitat. He offers nest boxes specifications in the book.
According to Picone, another way to create owl habitat is with thickets of evergreens. Native eastern red cedar, spruce, arborvitae, and white pine provide the little saw-whet and much larger great horned owls both safety and thermal insulation during winter.
Finally, Picone says, “If you want to help owls, stop using poison to get rid of rodents.”
Small but Mighty
None of these creatures weighs more than two pounds individually; most are less than an ounce. Most of the time, they are out of human sight and mind. We are generally unaware of the powerful ways they make life more comfortable for us, though we are sometimes keenly aware of the rare moments we have cross encounters.
Sometimes the public news cycle begins to make me feel as though there’s nothing an individual can do to help. That’s when I seek inspiration from a quote by Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
This earth month, let’s join together to do small things for small creatures, with great love. Will you join me?
Kathy Connolly is a landscape writer and speaker from Old Saybrook. Reach her through her website, www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.
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