Monday, April 20, 2009

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: April in the Piedmont

Birds.− Avid birders may have already noticed the arrival of some early warblers, perhaps catching a glimpse of the Louisiana waterthrush’s “bubble-gum” pink legs or hearing the melodic song of the yellow-throated warbler. This month, more spring migrants are headed our way. These species may be seen during the next couple months, as they head north: some wood-warblers (including golden-winged, Nashville, chestnut-sided, magnolia, black-throated blue, black-throated green, bay-breasted and blackpoll), herons (e.g., little blue heron, black-crowned night heron, cattle-egret), thrushes (e.g., veery, grey-cheeked and Swainson’s) and sandpipers (e.g., spotted and solitary). Also be on the lookout for sora, Virginia rail or a rare glossy ibis.

Some species will be arriving this month with the intention of staying the summer and breeding here in the Piedmont; these include: whip-poor-wills, chimney swifts, ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern wood-pewees, Acadian flycatchers, eastern kingbirds, northern parulas, prairie warblers, summer and scarlet tanagers and yellow-breasted chats.

Butterflies.− In April, butterfly watchers may begin to find some of the skippers (e.g., zabulon, dusted, pepper and salt), duskywings (mottled, zarucco), cloudywings (southern, northern, confused), satyrs (gemmed, Carolina) and pearlyeyes (southern and northern). Silvery checkerspots can be spotted in moist floodplains or sometimes near drier woodland borders, where adults glean nectar from, and caterpillars feed, on sunflowers (Helianthus) and rosinweeds (Silphium spp.). Look for red-spotted purples in hardwoods forests and forest edges; adults may be found taking sustenance from tree sap or damp ground, while caterpillars feed on cherries (Prunus spp.) and other members of the Rosaceae. Butterfly aficionados will continue to see a number of sulphurs and hairstreaks this month, as well as questionmarks and commas.

This month, the most spectacular visitors may be the monarchs, which can be found in a variety of habitats. Adult monarchs feed on the nectar of milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and other flowers, while later in the year, monarch caterpillars will strictly feed on milkweeds. Also be on the lookout for the viceroy, a monarch mimic. Viceroys have adapted the same orange and black coloring of monarchs that warns predators of their toxicity (cardenolides are the bitter compounds in milkweeds that make monarchs toxic to vertebrates), but these mimics are normally found in wet areas near their primary foodplant: willows (Salix spp.)

Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, you may start to hear northern cricket frogs, eastern narrow-mouthed toads and Cope’s gray treefrogs. Also, expect to continue hearing American and Fowler’s toads, spring peepers, bull frogs, green frogs, southern leopard frogs and eastern spadefoots. The large choruses of southeastern chorus frogs will begin winding down this month. Be on the lookout for basking yellow-bellied sliders and painted turtles. Snakes will be out as well, be sure not to step on the diminuitive and well-camouflaged northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi) when walking on preserve trails.

In Bloom this Month.− April is a wonderful month to test your tree identification skills. Try to identify trees by their bark or buds before they flower and leaf out!

In late March and early April, woodland hikers may notice a robust small tree or large shrub, with large hand-like leaves (i.e., palmately compound) and upright clusters of tubular yellow flowers. What is this vigorous woody plant? Most likely, you are seeing the painted buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica), a southeastern Piedmont endemic (i.e., exclusively found in the Piedmont of the southeastern United States). The moniker “buckeye” is derived from the similarity between the seed of the buckeye to a male deer’s (or buck’s) eye. These same seeds are quite toxic, and in the past they were ground up and thrown into creeks to stun fish. Some animals, including deer and squirrels, are resistant to the toxin (called aesculin, which destroys red blood cells) and can eat the seeds. The showy flowers are visited by ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies (e.g., eastern tiger swallowtail) and bees.

In Bloom:
BUCKEYES (Aesculus spp.)
WINDFLOWER (Anemonella thalictroides)
SWEET-SHRUB (Calycanthus floridus)
MUSCLEWOOD (Carpinus caroliniana)
FLOWERING DOGWOOD (Cornus florida)
RATTLESNAKE-WEED (Hieracium venosum)
QUAKER-LADIES (Houstonia caerulea)
DWARF CRESTED IRIS (Iris cristata)
CORAL HONEYSUCKLE (Lonicera sempervirens)
HAIRY WOODRUSH (Luzula echinata)
VIRGINIA PENNYWORT (Obolaria virginiana)
MAY-APPLE (Podophyllum peltatum)
EARLY SAXIFRAGE (Saxifraga virgininiensis)
AMERICAN BLADDERNUT (Staphylea trifolia)
GIANT CHICKWEED (Stellaria pubera)
FOAMFLOWER (Tiarella cordifolia)
CATESBY’S TRILLIUM (Trillium catesbaei)
LITTLE SWEET BETSY (Trillium cuneatum)
MAPLE-LEAF VIBURNUM (Viburnum acerifolium)
DOWNY ARROW-WOOD (Viburnum rafinesquianum)

Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife profile is the BROWN SNAKE (Storeria dekayi). Brown snakes, small secretive brownish-gray ophidians, are found throughout the eastern United States. Two subspecies of the brown snake are found in North Carolina. The midland brown snake (Storeria dekayi wrightorum) can be found in western North Carolina and also occupies much of the American Midwest and Deep South, while the northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi) is found in the northeastern portion of the state and the Northeastern U.S. In most of the state, these two sub-species probably interbreed, making the sub-species especially difficult to differentiate.

This common snake, which is mostly found in spring and early summer, prefers mixed hardwoods, pine flatwoods, swamps and riparian (i.e., the edges of rivers and streams) habitat, but it is also found in vacant lots and suburban backyards. This snake is often found beneath cover, whether it be logs, rocks or discarded tin and boards. Brown snakes feed primarily upon slugs and earthworms, but will also take small salamanders, grubs and beetles. When captured, the brown snake will never bite, but they may flatten their bodies and release a harmless, but odoriferous musk.

Brown snakes mate in both fall and spring. The male brown snake will start courtship by following a pheromone trail left by the female. Then the male uses his tongue to collect chemical signals from his potential mate, seemingly making sure that she is indeed female. Males will then begin a jerky courtship display before mating commences. Female brown snakes generally give birth to between 6 and 26 live young between late July and early September in North Carolina. Although the young do not receive maternal care, they may stay close to their mother for a little while after birth. The lifespan of brown snakes in the wild is unknown, but captive individuals can live up to 7 years old.

Did you know?
• Brown snakes extract terrestrial snails from their shells before eating them.
• Its predators include frogs, toads, other snakes, birds, rodents and domestic cats and dogs.
• Brown snakes help homeowners by reducing a common garden pest: the slug.
• Brown snakes are common, but pollution and habitat loss threaten their populations.

Identification: Small (9 to 13 in.) brown snake with two rows of black spots down the back, a thin dark blotch on the neck and a dark streak behind the eye. The belly is often pale pink or brown. Young brown snakes will have a yellowish collar on the neck.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail (Hillsborough, NC)

Overview: The Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail (HOST), a 44-acre preserve and historical site, includes three miles of trails that take visitors around the original speedway (open from 1948-68), or alternately, along the banks of the Eno River. This trail is set to join the statewide Mountains to the Sea Trail.

Directions: Travel south on I-85. Take exit 165 and turn right onto NC 86. Continue straight through the first stop light (intersection of NC 86 and US 70) for 0.5 miles. The entrance to the park will be on the right hand side, across from the Vietri glass store.

Observations & Ponderings: A walk along the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail can transport visitors back to the NASCAR's inaugural 1949 season. Sitting on the original stands, visitors can almost hear the crowd roaring and the tires squealing. Sitting on those same stands, listening to hawks overhead, can also transport you further back in time, when the Occaneechi indians roamed the Eno River valley.

Starting at the HOST entrance, along Elizabeth Brady Road, visitors are greeted by large box elders (Acer negundo), spleenwort ferns and coralberries just beginning to leaf out. White throated sparrows zip in and out of the shrubby understory. Further down the trail, just past the little creek, giant worty hackberries (Celtis laevigata) and solid cherries (Prunus serotina), with their potato-chip bark, encourage visitors to head towards the old speedway.

Black cherry (Prunus serotina) bark, Hillsborough Occoneechee Speedway Trail, Hillsborough, NC, March 29 2009 (© Nicolette Cagle)

After passing the cherry-bark oak (Quercus pagoda), continue down the gravel path and hang a right at "future trail east." Here, you will be greeted by the open blooms of spring-beauties, the babbling of the Eno River and, if you're lucky, a slithering snake!

Brown snake (Storeria dekayi), Hillsborough Occoneechee Speedway Trail, Hillsborough, NC, March 29 2009 (© Nicolette Cagle)
Spring-beauty (Claytonia virginica), Hillsborough Occoneechee Speedway Trail, Hillsborough, NC, March 29 2009 (© Nicolette Cagle)

Within a few minutes, you will hit the old track. This easy to walk, gravel path offers up singing migrants, including yellow-rumped warblers, yellow throated warblers and Louisiana waterthrushes, as well as a plethora of spring flowers (e.g., cutleaf toothwort, early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginica), hairy woodrush and giant chickweed).

Cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), Hillsborough Occoneechee Speedway Trail, Hillsborough, NC, March 29 2009 (© Nicolette Cagle)

From Triangle Naturalist

Hairy woodrush (Luzula echinata), Hillsborough Occoneechee Speedway Trail, Hillsborough, NC, March 29 2009 (© Nicolette Cagle)

From Triangle Naturalist

Giant chickweed (Stellaria pubera), Hillsborough Occoneechee Speedway Trail, Hillsborough, NC, March 29 2009 (© Nicolette Cagle)

After enjoying the natural wonders of HOST, feel free to sit down in the old stands and envision this place as it once was, whether that be with a crowd cheering on speeding stockcars or with American indians furtively stalking a deer...

From Triangle Naturalist

Old stands on the Hillsborough Occoneechee Speedway Trail, Hillsborough, NC, March 29 2009 (© Nicolette Cagle)