Q: I have a question that has plagued me for years: Is there a type of darter [fish] that lives in the streams of the Berkshires?
In the town of West Cummington, there are two small branches of the Westfield River that merge into one. One branch parallel to River Road heading to Windsor State Forest, the other runs parallel to Old Route 9 through East Windsor.
On the branch from West Cummington to the state forest is a "fish" or "darter" that lives in quiet waters of larger pools, never in fast-running waters. It likes clean water with fine gravel sandy bottom, its coloration blends in perfectly with the bottom. If not for the bulging black eyes you would never see them. The only time I spotted them was with a mask and snorkel on (one of my favorite pastimes).
They only grow to about 4 inches or so. I have seen them at this size on a fanned bed with one wrapped around the other, presumably spawning. I have also seen them on the other branch from West Cummington to Baldwin Bridge on Old Route 9.
A: The short answer is, yes. As far as I can determine, there are two fresh-water darters in Massachusetts, but only one, the tessellated darter is found in western Massachusetts in the Connecticut River watershed and to a lesser extent, west to the Housatonic. Its range also extends east.
Four inches is on the large size as 2 to 3 inches is more likely, but without a ruler it is difficult to know size, especially under water.
The tessellated prefers slow-moving water with sandy substrates, and spawning takes place in this area during May to early June. These darters are very abundant in New England and can, according to one source, be found in any stream. I find that hard to believe.
There are other small fishes to be found in Massachusetts streams and rivers such as shiners, minnows, dace, chubs as well as the darter.
I have to add a comment. I once explored one tributary of the Housatonic River flowing under Route 7 in northern Sheffield some 50 years ago, with a face mask and an air tank. I believe I was taking samples of fresh water clams or mussels for a biological laboratory. I would have done just as well with a snorkel as it turned out.
Q: Isn't it early for a male cardinal to be claiming its nesting territory? One has been banging its bill against a window near a line of evergreens next to our home. I had to put down the screen so it wouldn't see its reflection and hurt itself.
A: Apparently not.
A clarification for Canoe Meadows and Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuaries from Becky Cushing, Berkshire Sanctuaries Director:
"I just wanted to clarify that all of our snowshoe programs offer free use of snowshoes to participants for both adults and kids. We don't want to turn anyone away just because they don't have equipment — and we want lots of families to learn that snowshoeing isn't as difficult as it looks. And as always, kids are free for these programs, too.
Thanks, again and hope to see you at one of our sanctuaries soon!"
I read your Naturewatch column today, reading about Cathy in Coltsville, who reported few birds at her two feeders this winter. Here in Schuylerville, N.Y., on the other side of the border, I've got lots and lots of activity at all my feeders, just like in previous winters. Maybe it's because of the type of habitat I offer with woods on two sides of my large yard, where they can roost and nest.