December 7, 2022

CT Naturalist: Barred Owl vs. Blue Jay

Connecticut backyards never cease to provide amazing encounters with wildlife. This week we highlight an amazing interaction between a Barred Owl and a Blue Jay.

It’s rare enough to encounter an owl in your backyard, but the feud with the blue jay adds a whole new dimension to this sighting.

A Barred Owl perched above an open lawn at twilight, browsing the grass for small rodents and large insects. But this owl is not alone; there is still enough afternoon light for blue jays to remain active. And when a blue jay discovers an owl, it declares a major turf war.

This blue jay dive bombs, flanks, and screams at the quite Barred Owl.  Although, the owl appears harmless, Barred Owls have been known to feed on blue jays, if the jays are on the ground during the owls hunting hours.

Barred Owls are difficult to find in the wild because of their nocturnal behavior and camouflage plumage. However, of all the owl species, Barred Owls are the most likely to be active during daylight hours.

If pileated woodpeckers are present in the area, there is a good chance a Bard Owl may nest nearby, as owls often take residence in the woodpecker’s abandoned tree cavities.

A Barred Owl has a distinct call that has cadence that resembles the phrase, “”.

Be on the lookout for Barred Owls in your community. They are one of Connecticut’s most amazing birds!

CT Naturalist: Caterpillar’s Encore

The month of September provides an encore for butterfly, moth, and caterpillar activity. Although frequently associated with spring and summer, there are many species caterpillar that are active during the autumn, feeding on seasonal plants.

The best places to view caterpillars this autumn are in open fields with plentiful golden rod and/or milkweed. Golden rod is a common host plant to many caterpillars including Asteroids, Loopers, Flower Moths, Tussocks, and more. (See video for two examples of September caterpillars from Connecticut)

Patches of Golden rod can be found in open fields or along the roadside. These locations are easily accessible for family outings with easy hiking trails.

Milkweed is another plant that often grows in open fields. During the autumn it is recognized by its large pod-like seed casings, now bursting open with large dandelion-like seeds. A favorite food of the famous monarch butterfly caterpillar during the summer, the milkweed leaves now serve the Milkweed Tussock caterpillar. They have long hair-like structures called setae that cover their body with bright orange, white, and black colorations.

If you’re planning on taking your children out for an autumnal walk, these caterpillars are easy to find and will provide much gratification for young naturalists to encounter. All caterpillars have a degree of camouflage, but identifying their location and host plants are more than half the challenge. Once discovered, they don’t run away, making them a perfect specimen for children to observe and learn from.

If you can’t make a trip to the parks mentioned above, keep your eyes alert to any area in your community where golden rod is prevalent. You may find some of the most colorful wildlife of the year, rivaling that of the fall foliage that will soon color our landscape.



CT Naturalist: Why do Snakes Have Forked Tongues?

One of Connecticut’s most common and non-venomous snakes is the garter snake. Although familiar and often taken for granted, this snake can help us learn the truth behind a snake’s notorious forked tongue! (See video below):

The statement that snakes “smell with their tongues” is often uttered without enough explanation. This generic phrase is somewhat misleading as it gives the impression that a snake’s tongue acts alone in the smelling process.

Snakes have an olfactory (scent) sensor called the vomeronasal, or Jacobson’s organ.  This organ is located inside the nasal cavity above the roof of the mouth. Each time a snake whips out its tongue, it captures chemicals from the air or water and carries them back into its mouth. The tongue then rubs against the vomeronasal organ where the scent is processed. So the tongue does not do the smelling; rather, it aids in the smelling process.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting.

On the roof of the mouth are two holes where each tip of a snake’s forked tongue touches the vomeronasal organ. A snake is able to comprehend which direction a scent is coming from based on which tine of its tongue (left or right) has captured a stronger scent.

Directional smelling is an advantage when a snake is hunting prey or avoiding predators. A key function of the vomeronasal organ is detecting pheromones, helpful when searching for a mate.

CTNaturalist: Baby Racoon Rescue

Raccoons are one of the most common wild mammals found in Connecticut. This animal is among the most intelligent and social in the animal kingdom, yet an appreciation for their behavior is often overshadowed by fear and misunderstanding.

This week, CT Naturalist productions had a unique opportunity to visit an orphaned baby raccoon. His parents fell victim to automobile mortality. Now, he is in the custody of an animal rehabilitation center where he learns basic raccoon skills that he’ll need when released back into the wild. Take a look one of his training sessions in the following video.

Welcome to the Fog Pocket Raccoon shelter, where orphaned raccoons a rehabilitated, raised, and released back into the wild.  Our guest today is Meeky.  His family fell victim to vehicle mortality on the highway. Meeky was the only survivor.

Today he’s being taken into the forest for a training session, where he practices and sharpens his natural raccoon instincts and abilities.

Before he begins to explore, animal rehabilitator, Joe, carries him into the forest. When he’s on the ground his session begins.
Running along the path, he exercises his legs, lungs, muscles.  Preparing for times when he may need to flee a predator or chase prey.

As Meeky approaches a stream, his next lesson will commence. Raccoons hands are always at work probing their surroundings.  Outside of the primate family, raccoons have arguably the best dexterity in their fingers and hands than any other animal.  In fact, the English word Raccoon, is derived from a Native American word meaning “to feel with the hands”.

Meeky is right at home in the water of the steam.  He runs along the bank and swims in the shallows. Staples of a raccoon diet include crayfish, frogs, minnows, larval insects, mollusks, salamanders, and other invertebrates that live along the riverbank.
Raccoons are primarily nocturnal, so their sharp sense of touch helps when hunting at night. Additionally, they have a keen sense of smell and can locate food, scents of other raccoons, and predators easily at night.

During his daily training sessions, Meeky also practices climbing trees. His sharp claws are perfect grappling hooks and he can scale up or down a tree trunk with ease. However, Joe can’t let him climb to high at this young age. Once in the upper limbs, Meeky might remain in the tree for several hours and disrupt the rest of his training schedule.

Each day Meeky gains confidence and ability and strays farther away from the trail and his handler.  Someday he’ll be released permanently into the wild where he can live a normal raccoon life.  But for now, after a day’s adventure, Meeky is content to sit in a shoulder bag as Joe carries him back towards the car and home.

CT Naturalist: Wasp vs. Wasp Fight for Food

The second article in our series from CTnaturalist  looks at a common Connectcut resident, the paper wasp.

Many Connecticut residents have backyard gardens during the summer. Gardens commonly provide fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs that many families enjoy throughout the summer and autumn. Yet some of the most amazing wildlife activity occurs in our backyard gardens without us even knowing!

Today we have captured a remarkable insect battle between two paper wasps on film. Click the video below to see live action!


Although paper wasps are often considered pests because of their sting, they are extremely beneficial to gardens. They spend their days hunting around the leaves of plants. They seek out garden pests to kill and bring back to their hive to feed their young.

Most often, they are observed devouring moth caterpillars or beetle larvae that can ravish a plant’s leaves.
In this week’s video, a paper wasp has killed a caterpillar that was infected with parasites. When the wasp killed the caterpillar, the parasites within spilled out over the leaf. Now the wasp feeds on all of its victims. The worms are the larval form of smaller wasp that lays its eggs inside caterpillars, when the eggs hatch they feed on the caterpillar from the inside out.

The paper wasp snatches the worms and roles them into round balls, mixing in some saliva to help mold and preserve the shape. The wasp is intently focused on this task because this meal will be brought to its hive and fed to its young.  The balls of food will be placed in the hive chambers where the its larvae reside . Hence, the care in preparing the meal, it must be provide enough nutrition for the young to develop into mature wasps.

The wasp flies away to deliver its goods to the hive. It returns, but in the world of nature, a free meal doesn’t come easy and it isn’t long before a yellow paper wasp finds the black wasps kitchen. The yellow wasp attempts to steal the kill and the black wasp fights it off.

This micro-battle is only of many stories happening in gardens throughout Connecticut. Take time this summer to observe your own garden; you never know what you might find!