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)
EASTERN YELLOW STAR-GRASS (Hypoxis hirsuta)
COLONIAL DWARF-DANDELION (Krigia dandelion)
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.

1 comment:

David Steen said...

My first green tree frog was heard this week, and there was few individuals calling last night outside my house. On Friday, I heard my first barking tree frogs of the year, a full chorus in Henry Co. Alabama. The warm weather is coming...

Looking forward to hearing what's waking up in NC.