Monday, July 25, 2005

Heat bugs: The sound of money?

Some of us know them as heat bugs, or "dog-day" cicadas. Whatever they're called, the rasping sound of cicadas in July is for many of us the sound of summer. If you're lucky enough to find a certain variety of periodical cicada in the Hartford area in the next five days, you might just be able to claim a $50 reward.

The cicada's familiar buzz is a sound male cicadas make to attract females by rapidly expanding and contracting a membrane found under their hind legs. There are over 150 species of cicadas in the US. Certain periodical cicadas, such as insects belonging to the genus Magicicada, emerge from underground burrows just once every 13 or 17 years.

"Magicicada septendecim" hasn't been found in Hartford, Tolland or Windham counties since 1954, and is thought to have gone extinct. John Cooley, Asst Professor at UConn, is eager for someone in the region to find and bring him a live specimen, but there are only five days left to claim the prize.

Even if you don't win, there are lots of great web sites available to tell you everything you want to know about cicadas. Check out Cicada Central or UConn Professor Chris Simon's site for more info.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Fish: Electric rays in Block Island Sound

Mario Tirone, maker of Mario’s Squid Strips and fluke rigs, held on while Bob Sampson snapped this photo of the electric ray Bob hooked into off Misquamicut Beach, RI. Photo by Bob Sampson.

by Bob Sampson

Here’s a photo of a torpedo ray, or electric ray that I caught off Misquamicut Beach three weeks ago. This fish was about 40 inches long and weighed around 30 pounds. They can grow to over 100 pounds, but if you catch one, DO NOT TOUCH!

Torpedo rays are identified by their fish-like tail (not spikey like a southern ray or skate), round body that is very soft and blubbery looking, and their color, which is like chocolate pudding.

These fish pack an electric shock that one reference described as “benumbing” after a small one was handled by biologists. Larger fish had been measured producing 170 to 220 volts, quite a shock to an unsuspecting angler who may catch and grab one thinking it to be an big oddball skate.

We think of rays as being a southern migrant, and most are. However, this fish is a cold water species that travels south from the Gulf of Maine. They are seldom caught south of the hook on Cape Cod, but due to the cold water temps we’ve had for the past three seasons a few are making their way to the waters of Block Island Sound, so be aware!

Editor's note: Bob Sampson is renowned as the outdoors columnist for the Norwich Bulletin as well as his local radio and television programs. Regarded by many as the state's top angler, he is also famous as perhaps our top multi-species fishersman. "In Connecticut, there is a different fishing experience to be had everyday," he likes to say.

Bob's guidebook, Best Fishing Trips in Connecticut makes it easy for families and weekend anglers to experience the best fishing Connecticut has to offer, fresh water and salt, month by month, practically all year long. These are the trips Bob began taking with his kids years ago and that they enjoy sharing together even more today.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Eco: Five-lined Skink, CT's only native lizard

Only one lizard, the Five-lined Skink, is native to New England. Skinks are rare throughout their range, including Connecticut. They are found in a few, isolated populations, leaving them vulnerable to localized environmental disturbances or catastrophes such as fire.

A Five-lined Skink showing the red coloration males take on around their jaws and head during breeding season. Photo by herpetologist Brian Kleinman, made in Connecticut. © Perry Heights Press 2005.

Younger individuals can show five, distinct, yellowish stripes or lines down their backs and tails. Juveniles can also show a deep blue color on their tails. During breeding season, males heads turn bright red, but skinks' colorations tend to fade as the season progresses, and as individuals grow older. Evidence collected by herpetologist Hank Gruner, of the Science Center of Connecticut, suggests skinks are insectivorous, and eat a variety of bugs such as flies, ants, and beetles.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Eco: Fungus Among Us

The walk up to the Heublein Tower, at Talcott Mountain State Park in Bloomfield/Simsbury, offers great views, a castle-like tower to explore, and on this day in mid-July, many kinds of fungus for mycology fans to enjoy. Fungi such as mushrooms belong to a kingdom of life all their own, one defined by their unique forms, growth patterns, reproduction, and the functions they perform in forest ecosystems.

Summer humidity helps bring out the best in mushrooms, but partially obscures the Heublein Tower Trail's famous views. On the day the boys and I were there it was so hot and humid that even the rocks were sweating.

Fungi grow cells in string-like filaments, and when conditions are right, produce masses of these cellular strands such as mushrooms. They play an essential role in helping to recycle nutrients in forests. Many actually secrete digestive enzymes that accelerate the decomposition of plant and animal remains, releasing carbon dioxide and minerals that are absorbed by living plants or returned to forest soils. Fungi also form symbiotic relationships with the roots of plants, increasing the roots' ability to absorb moisture and nutrients.

Along with mushrooms such as varieties of gilled mushroom like the one pictured above, we found plants commonly known as Indian pipe or more formally as Monotropa uniflora. This plant lacks chlorophyl, the green pigment usually found in photosynthetic plants. The fact that it grows on the forest floor along with many mushrooms, and the plant's white color can lead hikers to think it's a fungus, but Indian pipe's unique beauty is unmistakable.

The forests and soils of the Connecticut Valley's traprock ridges, such as those at Talcott Mountain and Penwood State Park, support many different kinds of fungus. The remains of ancient lava flows that flooded central Connecticut and parts of the northeast some 200 million years ago, these basalt ridges today stand hundreds of feet above the valley floor, and offer some of the best views and most enjoyable hikes in the state. All along the trail we found gilled mushrooms, bracket fungi growing on fallen limbs, puffballs, and more.

The ridges seem to stir something in humans as well, leading to the construction of observation towers at several high points in Connecticut, such as the one Gilbert Heublein had built here beginning in 1911. Others can be found atop Castle Craig in Meriden, and Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden.

The Heublein Tower viewed from the picnic area, a great spot to sit and have lunch after hiking up, and ascending the tower to the observation room.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Eco: It wasn't always so dangerous

Turtles have moved about according to their annual cycles for hundreds of millions of years. It's been only recently that crossing paved roadways has become so dangerous, and begun taking so heavy a toll on long established native populations. The painted turtle pictured above was run over and killed by a passing vehicle along a suburban road in Fairfield County.

Some of Connecticut's box turtles are old enough to remember when there were few roads and fewer motor vehicles, and their annual treks from a breeding pools to nearby woodlands were rarely interrupted by much activity at all. As more and more old fields and open spaces are developed, once safe turtle crossings are now more heavily trafficked, putting the famously slow moving animals at great risk.