Saturday, May 23, 2009

Glennstone Preserve (Durham, NC)

Overview: Glennstone Nature Preserve, an 82-acre natural area in Durham, North Carolina that is protected by the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, offers visitors a hike through successional habitat favored by woodcocks and bottomland forests underlain by diabase soils that nurture unusual plant species.

Directions: Going northbound on I-85, take the Glenn School Road exit (#180), turn left onto. Glenn School Road. Go 0.4 miles to Glenn Road and turn right onto Glenn Road. Continue 1.3 miles to Glennstone Drive, which is the second left into the housing development. Go 1/4 mile and park near Little Valley Ct. which is across from the gazebo, storm water detention pond and the entrance to the Glennstone Nature Preserve.

Entrance to Glennstone Nature Preserve (23 May 2009, Durham, NC, © Nicolette Cagle)
Observations & Ponderings: Standing on the wooden gazebo, overlooking a cattail and woolrush filled water retention pond, visitors are greeted by the "coo-co-quereee" call of red winged blackbirds. To northern visitors, this cacophony of birdsong may be reminiscent of lakeside picnics and tall corn fields. Venturing onto the Honeysuckle Trail, however, disavows any northerner of the notion that they are back home: this trail smacks of early successional habitat found only in the southern Piedmont, brimming with loblolly pines, eastern redbuds, sweetgums and downy arrowwood viburnum.
The shrubbery is so thick, one can hardly see more than a foot in. Yet, patient observers will be rewarded. Hiking farther down the trail, the lemon yellow, four-petaled blooms of southern sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) are revealed. This primrose was once used by early settlers as a remedy for whooping cough. It is also an invasive in Scandanavia, having reached Europe by 1614. Continuing down the Honeysuckle Trail, and then turning down the Woodcock trail, beware of fire ants. This Brazilian native creates mounds in open areas with direct sunlight and will attack interlopers with painful bites. Also, keep your eyes open for winged sumac (Rhus copallina), a striking plant that used to be smoked by the settlers of Appalachia to treat asthma.
If you are adventurous, you might find the narrow path cut into the woods and take a path that crosses a boulder filled creek. These boulders are made of diabase - a rock rich in magnesium and calcium - that weathers to create a soil that is unusually basic for the Piedmont. One of the unusual plants that this soil nurtures is anglepod or oldfield milkvine (Matelea decipiens). This plant, a vine with wide heart-shaped leaves, gets its name from its milky white sap. Its beautiful dark purple flowers are vanilla-scented and in fall, this plant will carry beautiful downy-filled seedpods, like those found on the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Also, look for indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), a white chlorophyll lacking plant that gets in nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi associated with nearby tree roots, as well as partridgeberry, a tiny twin-flowered plant that sports one red berry in fall that was once used by American Indians to ease the pain associated with childbirth.

Oldfield milkvine (Matelea decipiens) at Glennstone Preserve (23 May 2009, Durham NC, © Nicolette Cagle)
The Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association offers an annual Memorial Day hike through these woods to one of the Piedmont's largest great blue heron rookeries. Great blue herons are fascinating: they are North Carolina's largest heron, sporting 6 foot wingspans. They nest in monospecific (i.e., only great blue herons) colonies of up to 500 nests. A mating pair only stays together for that breeding season, but together they will construct a nest (dad finds the sticks, mom puts the nest together), incubate three to five eggs and riase one to four young. Yellow-crowned night herons and green herons are the only other heron species known to breed in the Triangle.
If your looking for a quick, but interesting hike in Durham County, be sure to check out Glennstone Preserve. If you're interested in history, keep your eyes open for the remains of an old stone-lined spring and the ruins of an old summer cottage.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Howell Woods (Johnson County, NC)

Overview: Howell Woods, located in Johnson County, offers over 25 miles of hiking trails through diverse North Carolina habitat types, including coastal plain bottomland hardwood forest, cypress-gum swamps and pine/scrub-oak sandhills. Visitors can enjoy the Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center or explore the preserve via canoe, horse, bike or on foot.

Directions: From Raleigh take US 70 East, exit onto I-95 South and continue to exit number 90 (US 701). Turn right onto US 701 and continue for approximately 6.3 miles before turning left onto Stricklands Crossroads (SR 1143). Continue for 3.4 miles and turn left onto Devil's Racetrack Road. Howell Woods preserve will be located about 2/10 of mile down the road on the left.

Observations & Ponderings: Howell Woods offers visitors a friendly nature center, surrounded by frog-filled ponds and numerous bird feeders. Before even heading out on the trails, one can spot bullfrogs, mockingbirds, northern cardinals, American goldfinches, downy woodpeckers, purple martins and even an elusive fox squirrel!

Bullfrog, 10 May 2009, Johnson County, NC (© Nicolette Cagle)

Fox squirrel, 10 May 2009, Johnson County, NC (© Nicolette Cagle)

Take a gander down Leopold Loop for a glimpse of black swallowtail butterflies, six lined racerunners, prickly pears and the delicate pink blooms of Tradescantia rosea. Listen for the sounds of field sparrows, eastern bluebirds and red tailed hawks soaring in the distance.

Tradescantia rosea, 10 May 2009, Johnson County, NC (© Nicolette Cagle)

Continue down the Bartram trail and then make your way into the swamplands of warbler way. Look for overcup and swamp chestnut oak here, along with jack-in-the-pulpit. You might also hear common grackles and pileated woodpeckers. At the end of Warbler Way, turn right down the plantation road and see if you can find a big black rat snake stretched across the gravel path!

Black rat snake, 10 May 2009, Johnson County, NC (© Nicolette Cagle)
Make another right onto the Pine Bottom trail to find Acadian flycatchers and beautiful Atamasco lilies in bloom. From here, you can head back to the visitor center via the Bartram trail, keeping your eyes and ears open for red-eyed vireos, blue-grey gnatcatchers, tufted titmice, as well as blooming blue-eyed grass and golden ragwort and skitterish eastern five-lined skinks.

Atamasco lily, 10 May 2009, Johnson County, NC (© Nicolette Cagle)

BACKYARD NATURE: Treefrogs & More

One humid evening last week, I went out in my own backyard to commune a bit with nature. I was greeted by a vociferous chorus of grey treefrogs looking for love. I was also surprised by a Fowler's toad, hopping furiously away from me, as well as a beautiful sphinx moth. Sometimes nature truly is right outside your own backdoor.

Sphinx moth, 6 May 2009, Durham NC (© Nicolette Cagle)

Fowler's toad, 6 May 2009, Durham NC (© Nicolette Cagle)

Grey treefrog on river birch, 6 May 2009, Durham NC (© Nicolette Cagle)

Grey treefrog on eastern redbud, 6 May 2009, Durham NC (© Nicolette Cagle)
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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

ROADTRIP: Lake Waccamaw State Park (Columbus County, NC)

Overview: Lake Waccamaw State Park is located in Columbus County, about 160 miles from the Triangle. It headlines one of North Carolina’s most unusual natural features: a pH neutral bay lake, named for the abundance of bay trees (e.g., sweet bay and red bay). No one knows for sure how these bay lakes were formed, but hypotheses abound, e.g., they were formed by meteor showers, wind or wave action or underground springs.

Enjoy nearly 9 miles hiking trails at Lake Waccamaw or try your hand at canoeing in the vast 8,936-acre lake.

Directions: Here is the directions & map provided by the North Carolina state park system. Observations & Ponderings: Standing at the edge of an immense, tea-stained bay lake in North Carolina’s coastal plain, I can only wonder at what it must have been like for its first inhabitants: Waccamaw-Souian Indians that canoed these for over 1,000 years. How tall and thick were the looming cypress trees that they saw? Did they see just one alligator or tens or even hundreds each day? Were the large, half-dollar sized land snails even more colorful then?

Lake Waccamaw SP, NC, 31 May 2005 (© Nicolette Cagle)

Hypnotized by the lapping waves, I can hardly pull myself away from the shore. But I do and I begin to walk. At first, each step through the shrubby bay forest elicits a dry crackle that I fear will frighten away the northern parulas I hear buzzing overhead. They don’t seem to mind. Even the vivid green Carolina anoles, hanging onto the smooth bark of a sweetbay magnolia, barely seem to pause as I walk by.

Carolina anole, Lake Waccamaw SP, NC, 31 May 2005 (© Nicolette Cagle)
The Lakeshore Trail winds through the desiccated forest, and finally brings me closer to the shoreline, which I end up walking along for nearly five miles. The delicate, blushing blooms of rose spiderwort (Tradescantia rosea) erupting alongside the narrow footpath can only be a harbinger of good luck. Within minutes, while I’m still lost in the sensation of the warm breeze coming off the lake, I hear rustling in the grass a couple feet ahead – I catch a glimpse of a long black tail: snake! My heart beats faster and I rush ahead, as stealthily as I can manage…yes, yes…the black racer has stopped and is staring me down with its strangely sentient black eyes. I snap as many photos as I can, afraid that this primitive animal will soon slip away...and it does.

Northern black racer, Lake Waccamaw SP, NC, 31 May 2005 (© Nicolette Cagle)
My senses are enlivened now, my snake vision activated. My eyes focus about eight feet ahead, traversing side to side, waiting to catch a glimpse of the next snake. Only minutes later, I spot another rubbery, black crescent ahead where some small trees are growing next to the water. “It has got to be a snake,” I think to myself, but it doesn’t move. “Huh, maybe it’s a piece of shredded tire.” No! It’s another black racer warming itself in the dappled sunlight. I frantically snap more pictures. The hike continues, my search continues. About 4 feet ahead, my eyes converge on a coppery, semi-coiled form in the dry grass. I walk slowly, hunching slightly, stopping to take a picture every couple steps. The pattern of this much maligned ophidian is bewitching: salmon pink mottled with bronze. I get closer, focusing my camera lens on the copper eye and black slit of the pupil. This copperhead is savagely beautiful. I’m mesmerized, tempted to take one step closer. I close my eyes for a second and then, reluctantly, take two steps back and continue on my way.

Southern copperhead, Lake Waccamaw SP, NC, 31 May 2005 (© Nicolette Cagle)

I walk deliberately, always searching, always hopeful. The hunt is addictive. The path widens and is covered with dry brown leaves. A bright sinusoidal shape sharpens into focus. Another copperhead perhaps? This snake is long though and comparatively thin-bodied. I rush ahead – a corn snake! It retracts into an exaggerated S-shape, its upper body is held above the ground revealing a perfect the checkerboard pattern of the belly. Click, click, click, I photograph the snake quickly, the images hardly look real.

Corn snake, Lake Waccamaw SP, NC, 31 May 2005 (© Nicolette Cagle)

By the time I reach the dam and the flooded Waccamaw Creek, and then hike back to my little blue Jeep, I have seen 12 snakes of four different species (northern black racer, southern copperhead, red-bellied watersnake and corn snake). I thank the snake-hunting gods above, greedy for more snakes and wondering what my next adventure will yield.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: May in the Piedmont

Birds.− This month migration season continues. Most of the brilliantly colored warblers are just passing through, but some migrants stop and stay in North Carolina. Local breeders include the scarlet and summer tanagers, ovenbirds and prairie warblers.

This may be the last opportunity (at least for a couple of months) for birders to see some of the plovers (e.g., black-bellied and semi-palmated) and sandpipers (e.g., spotted, solitary, least, white-rumped and upland). Also, be on the look out for lingering snowy egrets, little blue herons and black-crowned night herons.

Many birds also fledge this month. Bluebirds, ruby-throated hummingbirds, brown thrashers, northern mockingbirds, cardinals, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls are just some of the species documented to fledge in the Piedmont in May.

Most common songbirds and woodpeckers hatch naked and helpless, relying on their parents for food until they fledge, i.e. have the ability to fly. Songbird fledglings are very curious and pick up various objects with their bills, eventually learning appropriate food choices by watching their parents. Fledgling woodpeckers may stay with their parents for several weeks, learning the ropes of insect gathering and hole drilling. Eventually, both songbird and woodpecker parents may have to resort to some tough love, via aggression (commonly seen among cardinals) or by simply ignoring their offspring (in the case of sapsuckers), to drive begging fledglings away and ensure their independence.

Remember: Give those fledglings a fighting chance by KEEPING CATS INDOORS.

Butterflies.− This May, butterfly watchers will delight in the appearance of more skippers, quick and darting butterflies in the family Hesperiidae, including the swarthy, clouded, least, fiery, tawny-edged and crossline skippers. Skippers are often challenging to identify, but careful observation and quick photography can help butterfly watchers discern the differences among species. Still, some species, like the tawny-edged and crossline skipper, are so similar in appearance that even photographs may prove difficult to differentiate.

Also, expect to see some hairstreaks (e.g., coral, banded and striped), great spangled frittilaries, northern pearly eyes, Appalachian browns, common wood nymphs and little wood satyrs.

The hackberry emperor, one of our brushfooted butterflies in the family Nymphalidae, can also be found in North Carolina’s piedmont this month. This dark-brown butterfly is locally abundant in areas with hackberry and sugarberry trees, the food plants for the horned green caterpillars. Adults do not nectar on flowers, but feed on sap, carrion and even human sweat! The adult butterflies seen this time of year over-wintered as partially grown caterpillars. As adults, males will perch, awaiting the females before mating commences. Pale green eggs are laid on hackberry plants and caterpillars will feed communally on the hackberries, sometimes becoming a serious pest, before entering their chrysalis stage. Another brood of adult butterflies will emerge between late June and late August, and in the Piedmont a third brood will emerge between late August and late September!

Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, expect to find snakes even during the day. The hot weather of mid-summer makes must of our snakes crepuscular (i.e., active at dawn and dusk), but this time of year many snakes will be out in the middle of the day. Large choruses of northern crickets frogs, Fowler’s toads, eastern narrow-mouthed toads and Cope’s gray treefrogs can also be heard this time of year. Also expect to hear bullfrogs and the characteristic three beat banjo-like call of the green frog.

Other Insects.− The first fire-flies often appear in May. Also, be on the look-out for hummingbird moths, a species of moth that hovers and makes an audible humming noise as it feeds. At the end of the month, one might find annual cicada shells clinging to tree trunks.

Mammals.− A number of bat species, including the little brown myotis, silver-haired bat, red bat and big brown bat are courting this month. Also, expect to see some young rabbits and opossums.

In Bloom this Month.− As the spring ephemerals disappear, May floral displays may initially seem less impressive, but there are some gems among the flowers blooming this month, including the high-contrast green-and-golds and the pitcher-shaped jack-in-the-pulpits.

In Bloom:
JACK-IN-THE-PULPIT (Arisaema triphyllum)
SMOOTH SWEET-SHRUB (Calycanthus floridus var. glaucus)
GREEN-AND-GOLD (Chrysogonum virginianum)
HEART'S-A'BUSTIN' (Euonymus americanus)
LITTLE-BROWN-JUG (Hexastylis arifolia)
BEAKED HAWKWEED (Hieracium gronovii)
RATTLESNAKE-WEED (Hieracium venosum)
BLUETS (Houstonia caerulea)
SUMMER BLUET (Houstonia purpurea)
WOOD-SORREL (Oxalis sp.)
RUNNING FIVE-FINGERS -(Potentilla canadensis)
BLACKBERRY (Rubus sp.)
LYRE-LEAF SAGE (Salvia lyrata)
SKULLCAP (Scutellaria sp.)
MAPLE-LEAF VIBURNUM (Viburnum acerifolium)

Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife profile is the BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCH (Sitta pusilla). Brown-headed nuthatches, tiny affable songbirds with blue-gray wings, white breasts and brown caps, are found in long-leaf and loblolly pine forests in the southeastern United States, as well as the Bahamas. These energetic little birds are non-migratory (i.e., they remain in the southeast year-round) and subsist on arthropods and pine seeds.

Brown-headed nuthatches use dead pines for nesting, and usually nest in tree cavities between February and April. Brown-headed nuthatch nests are often attended by “helpers,” young males that may be older off-spring of the nesting pair. Young brown-headed nuthatches will fledge about 20 days after hatching.

Brown-headed nuthatch populations are declining throughout its range. The destruction of the pine forests of the southeast pose the biggest problem to the success of this species. Commercial logging reduces the foraging and breeding habitat of brown-headed nuthatches and it can take 12 to 25 years of forest regeneration before the habitat is again suitable for these charismatic birds. Conservation management for the red-cockaded woodpecker (e.g., maintaining long-leaf pine forests via fire at Fort Bragg in the Sandhills) may support brown-headed nuthatch populations by increasing the number of large, dead pines.

Did you know?

  • Brown-headed nuthatches are one of a few bird species known to use tools: they use small pieces of wood, manipulated by their dexterous beaks, to pry up pine bark under which they can find insects for food.
  • Brown-headed nuthatches move very short distances after breeding, making them more susceptible to the negative affects of habitat fragmentation.
  • These birds feed by hopping along tree trunks often hanging upside down.

Identification: Small (3.9 to 4.3 in.) blue-gray bird with white breast and brown cap. Its black bill is long and thin. The call of this bird is reminiscent of a rubber-duck, but they also make soft squeaking sounds.