Sunday, March 27, 2005

Geo: Connecticut minerals at the Peabody

For anyone with even a passing interest in minerals, a trip to the mineral room at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven promises many surprises and treats.

The mineral room is one of my boys' favorite stops when we visit this wonderful museum (along with the collection of strong and sometimes foul odors to be sampled in the displays of animal musks and scents in an adjacent room), as we did yesterday.

Minerals are defined as inorganic chemical compounds with their own, distinctive crystalline structure, and that can be identified by their chemical composition, crystals and molecular arrangements. Rocks are usually composed of one or more minerals.

Many that seem ordinary under normal light can display remarkable colors when viewed under a different spectrum. Be sure to press the button to view examples in the case to the left as you enter the room.

Just past this display are cases containing Connecticut minerals. One includes a display of limestone and marbles, formed from minerals deposited in the mud of ancient seafloors as the shells of ancient marine animals. There are several from the state's northwest hills, including Diopside and Tremolite from Canaan.

Another case displays minerals associated with the ancient lava flows we recognize today as the traprock ridges of Connecticut's central valley. In it are specimens of Anhydrite, Aragonite, and Chalcocite from Meriden, and Amethyst and Calcite from East Haven. Copper ore is also associated with basalt, one of the primary types of rock associated with the traprock ridges, and there is a very large, 192-pound mass of copper also found in East Haven near the entry to the mineral room.

There is also a case dedicated to hydrothermal minerals. Most, including small deposits of gold, formed with heat supplied by ground water that rose from deep in the earth's crust. A spectacular specimen of Barite from Cheshire can be seen in the case in the entryway, labeled as number 10.

At the back of the mineral room is an astonishing collection of minerals, including a great many species known from Connecticut. Here are fine examples of pegmatites, igneous rocks characterized by large minerals, and that have been changed under the tremendous heat and pressure of metamorphism.

Many are from Branchville, a small Fairfield County locality (east of Ridgefield) where a great variety of minerals have been found, including Albite, Beryl, Columbite, Microcline, Muscovite, and Rose Quartz. Other Connecticut pegmatites on display include Lepidomelande and Quartz from Haddam. There is Ilmenite from Litchfield, Cordierite from Plymouth, Samarskite from South Glastonbury, and Stilbite from Thomaston.

Speaker: Family trips start with a plan

It cuts into the time he could spend fishing, but Bob Sampson doesn’t mind. He loves to be out on the water, but likes talking about fishing nearly as much. Bob gives the kids who come to hear him special attention, and so far, lots of kids, parents and grandparents have turned out for the series of family fishing talks he is giving at Connecticut libraries and nature centers this spring.

The renowned outdoors columnist for the Norwich Bulletin, radio host for WICH, and a featured angler for the cable show “On the Water” on NESN, few people know local waters better than Bob. His guide to family fishing in Connecticut, Best Fishing Trips in Connecticut, from ponds to pounding surf, was written to make it easy for parents and grandparents to learn to enjoy fishing with their kids.

The secret to successful family fishing trips, Bob says, is to go with a plan. In his days as a fisheries biologist working for the state, Bob learned that those who are out “to catch anything” usually catch nothing. Anglers who go after a specific fish, and even with a backup species in mind, have little problem “putting a bend in the rod.”

With that in mind, Bob describes what he's found to be the best family fishing trips, month by month, to both fresh water and salt. He shares ideas about catching trout (and state run trout parks are ideal places for families and beginners to try their luck), large and small mouth bass, and striped bass in the spring, fluke in Long Island Sound in the summer, and pike and walleye in the fall.

Bob also brings a variety of rods and reels to help parents understand what they need to equip their family for a trip. He describes everything from basic rods and reels, to lines and lures, as well as what he has found to be good, all-around rigs for kids and beginners.

The real crowd-pleaser is when Bob pulls out a fiberglass mount he had made as a souvenir of a giant pike he caught in Mansfield Hollow. He kept the fish itself only long enough to have a photo snapped, and then released it back into the lake to catch another day. “I want to catch him again when he’s twice that size!” he explains.

One day, he probably will. The day after he spoke with a large group of experienced anglers, beginner parents, and interested grandparents at the Cragin Memorial Library in Colchester, Bob was back in Norwich Harbor on a quick trip to go after a striped bass or two. It wasn’t long before he had one worthy of a photo, or before he returned that fish to the water, where it could be caught again another day.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Speaker: Painting Truth in Nature

The place simply called to her. Barbara Lussier returned to a bog in Killingly many times this winter to paint the colors and patterns seen there through bare limbs and under the weather. She spoke at the Connecticut Audubon Center in Glastonbury recently about her experiences painting the bog, and natural setting around the state.

Barbara is not “weather-whipped,” as she describes other, more fair weather plein air painters. Connecticut’s landscapes call her in weather fair and foul. And so she sets out to tell of them what she can, driving a tan PT cruiser personalized with the marks and aromas of oil paint, and equipped with a seemingly spindly contraption of an easel, but one she can assemble to stand up even to nor’easters.

All this to search for what she finds to be the truth in nature. On good days, she is carried away by the work, the act of portraying moments like those she spends at the bog in Killingly, and the weather, rain or cold, rarely matters. When everything is right, she says, scenes paint themselves.

Her portraits capture more than just the beauty in our surroundings; the scenes are also familiar. We recognize in them our own experiences and interpretations of Connecticut places. The color of the snow can convey the feeling of a bite in the air. Pine needles appear to bend and whistle with a cold wind.

She is joined on many outings by her husband, Connecticut ecologist Dr. Robert Craig. Dr. Craig was one of two biologists who conducted the first ecological survey of the the state in 1975. Last summer, Barbara and Robert collaborated to produce their guide to the state's most extraordinary natural places, Great Day Trips to Connecticut's Critical Habitats, realizing a dream they had long shared.

The book includes Dr. Craig's descriptions of the ecology of 16 habitat types vital to sustaining the state's native wildlife, field trips to examples of each of the 16 habitats, as well as reproductions of the paintings Barbara created about each of the sites. Included among them are hikes to many different local forests, swamps, bogs, beaches, traprock ridges, and more.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Fish: A trip to the Burlington trout hatchery

The boys and I enjoyed a trip to the Burlington trout hatchery on Sunday. Located adjacent to the Nassahegon State Forest, the water circulating through the hatchery's ponds and tanks is largely gravity fed, redirected from the large brook beside the complex, and then directed down from the higher ponds, through the tanks inside the hatchery building, through more ponds on the other side, until it is eventually returned to the brook.

The trout looked happy the day we were there, with the cold winter and nearly a foot of snow keeping the water nice and cold, just the way they like it.

Fish range in size from recently hatched fry, up to ten inches or so, the larger ones destined to be stocked in rivers and lakes around the state in coming weeks.

An apparently ravenous rainbow trout on display in a large tank was a big hit with the boys. The fish followed their fingers back and forth across the glass, ready to go after anything that moved.

Also popular were two mounts, one of a Kokanee salmon, a fish the state experimented with stocking for a few years, and above it an enormous brown trout.

This great fish was hatched at Burlington in 1961 and stocked in Wononscopomuc Lake in Salisbury after it reached 10" in 1963. By 1966, it had nearly tripled in size, to about 27". It measured three feet long and weighed nearly 27 pounds when it was found dead in July, 1969, either from natural causes or perhaps the stress of fighting to escape one last angler (they must have thought they had hooked on to a whale).

Speaker: Peering across time and space

Every artist’s perspective is unique, and few have as unique a view of the Connecticut River Valley as Will Sillin. Will spoke recently about his experiences painting the valley as it appears today, and how it may have looked hundreds of millions of years ago, at the Connecticut Audubon Center at Glastonbury.

Will's talent may have come naturally, but in order to develop his skills Will Sillin hiked in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, camped beside Alaskan glaciers, and climbed in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. He learned to be resourceful, and fashioned special equipment to tote paintings while still wet, and rigged tent flies so they would dry.

Recording the marks time left on the land, nature made its impressions on him. Will became adept at painting landscapes on grand scales, with only minutes to capture fast changing conditions. He grew to develop his own sense of earthly shapes and forms, and the effects of light and shadow, as they interacted with his subjects.

By the time he returned to paint his native Connecticut River Valley he had mastered the plein air style of painting. Will has continued to portray its beauty by drawing from the many images, impressions, visual references and experiences he now keeps catalogued in his mind, and that give his work its enlightened perspective.

His paintings caught the eye of an Amherst College geologist who commissioned Will to apply what he'd learned about the earth in the present to paint a mural of how the world may have looked in the ancient past, during the Mesozoic, or the "middle ages" of life on earth.

Based on the success of that painting, Will had an opportunity to speak with Rich Krueger, then the supervisor of Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, about an idea Rich had to create a large mural of the Connecticut Valley in Late Triassic time.

Since fossils and rocks are all that remain of that times, Will began the mural by making field trips with renowned paleontologists Drs. Paul Olsen and Bruce Cornet, two leading experts on the Connecticut Valley of some 200 million years ago. The results of that research, seen through Sillin’s eye, are paintings like the magnificent mural seen at the park today.

Last year, Will began exploring a new media, creating computer generated, 3-D illustrations of dinosaurs known from Connecticut Valley fossils for our book, "Great Day Trips in the Connecticut Valley of the Dinosaurs."

These days, he is working hard at clearing his schedule to focus solely on his art. Where his work will take him next Will isn't sure. His next new experience may well be another journey into the past.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

March fishing talks & book signings

Connecticut's leading fishing writer, Bob Sampson, will talk about the state's best fishing trips and sign copies of his book, "Best Fishing Trips in Connecticut, from ponds to pounding surf," at several venues during March.

"Every day there is a different fishing experience to be had in Connecticut," Bob says. A former fisheries biologist, and lifelong enthusiast, he is an expert on all the state has to offer anglers, from beginners to experts. His book is perfect for parents who are interested to give fishing a try with their families, and filled with tips experts can use to put more bends in the rod as well.

It includes an annual calendar of Bob's favorite family fishing trips, to both freshwater and salt, month by month. All tried and tested by Bob himself, the calendar makes it easy to pick which trip you and your family want to try, and then plan to have a great outing.

Bob will be talking about the trips at the Cragin Memorial Libary in Colchester on Saturday, March 12th, at 2 pm, and at the Ridgefield Public Library in Ridgefield on Sunday, March 20th, at 2 pm.

If you're one of those parents who have it in mind to get out and try fishing in Connecticut, but are unsure where to start, here's your chance. Few know Connecticut waters better than Bob Sampson, so come and find out everything you want to know!

March earth science talks & book signings

I will present my slideshow highlighting many of the most remarkable discoveries about geology, paleontology and ecology of Connecticut over the past two centuries at several venues in March. The talk is based on material published in our guides to notable geology sites, dinosaur fossil sites and natural places.

Earth science guides include "Great Day Trips to Discover the Geology of Connecticut," "Great Day Trips in the Connecticut Valley of the Dinosaurs," "Great Day Trips to Connecticut's Critical Habitats."

I will be interviewed on Connecticut Public Radio's Faith Middleton show to air on Monday, March 14th, and appear with Kristen Cusato on WTNH TV Channel 8's Noon Show the following Monday, March 21st.

That evening, the authors will be signing books following our program at RJ Julia Booksellers, on the Post Road in Madison, on March 21st at 7pm.

Barbara Lussier, one Connecticut's outstanding plein air painters, and the illustrator of "Great Day Trips to Connecticut's Critical Habitats" guide will present a show of her work and talk at the Connecticut Audubon Center at Glastonbury on Friday, March 18th at noon. Bring a sandwich, the Center provides dessert and beverages as part of their new, noontime, "Art in Nature" series.

On Thursday, March 24th, I will be presenting my slideshow for members of the Lillinonah Audubon Society and to the public at the CH Booth Library, Newtown, at 7:30 pm.

All are welcome. Please join us!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Eco: Ice water in their veins

News that bacteria frozen in Alaskan ice for 32,000 years began to stir as soon as it was thawed created a stir among scientists from microbiologists to cosmologists recently.

The discovery of the new species, Carnobacterium Pleistocenium, in a brownish patch of ice dating from the days of Wooly Mammoths and Saber-toothed tigers, led to speculation that some microbes might be able to slowly metabolize locally available nutrients and maintain the viability of their DNA under extreme conditions.

“It greatly enhances the possibility that there may be life existing on Mars today,” NASA scientist Richard Hoover, who discovered the microbe in 2000, told CNN. “Unicellular bacteria might have remained alive, frozen in the Martian sea.”

Whether Hoover is on the right track, or his find was tainted by a modern contaminant, as some suspect, there are many other remarkable examples of life’s ability to adapt to cold environments that can be found on the earth today.

Here in Connecticut, we have several amphibians and reptiles with cold weather adaptations of their own. According to Dr. Ken Storey, of Carleton University, several "freeze tolerant vertebrates" are native.

Two of the first frogs to emerge following cold snowy winters like this year’s are the Wood Frog and Spring Peeper. Both are able to tolerate some freezing, but the Wood Frog is the amphibian Ice King.

“Frozen [Wood] Frogs have no heart beat, no blood circulation, no breathing, no detectable brain activity and cannot move yet miraculously all vital functions return within 1-2 hours when frogs thaw.” writes Storey. He says that as much as 65% of the Wood Frog’s total body water may be converted to ice, and they can survive days or weeks of freezing.

Grey Tree Frogs, which have the ability to change color while active, turn blue when frozen.

Painted Turtles are among local reptiles able to survive a freeze. Young turtles hatch in fall and have to be freeze tolerant to survive their first winter. Adults are able to survive several months under pond ice without breathing oxygen. Among other freeze tolerant reptiles Storey lists Box Turtles and Garter Snakes, able to survive a day or so outside burrows or dens at sub-freezing temperatures.

Whether there turns out to be life frozen in Martian seas or not, there are likely a number of species lying frozen under the snow and ice in Connecticut, waiting practically motionless for the spring thaw.