Thursday, July 23, 2009

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: July in the Piedmont

Birds.− This month, the sonorous singing of many bird species tapers down with the heat of July, but the indefatigable indigo buntings and blue grosbeaks will continue to enliven us with their songs. Towards the end of July, crows, blackbirds and robins will begin to aggregate into their winter flocks.

Lucky birdwatchers may catch a glimpse of rare common mergansers, tricolor herons, little blue herons and snowy egrets during the next few months. Also, sandpipers are beginning to return to the Piedmont.

At the end of July, careful observers may notice an increase in strange behavior by birds: perhaps you will see a bird carefully arranged on top of an ant hill or vigorously rubbing its feathers with an ant. This behavior is called anting. No one is quite certain why birds ant, but theories abound. Perhaps the formic acid in ants reduces parasite loads or fungus. Maybe birds ant to remove the formic acid sacs from ants before eating them, although this theory fails to account for passive anting. Anting may even ease the discomfort of moulting. In North Carolina, significant anting activity occurs from mid-May until the first week of October. Summer and year-round residents that are known to engage in anting include the yellow-billed cuckoo, mourning dove, common flicker, brown thrasher and pine warbler.

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

Butterflies.− According to Harry LeGrand, Jr., of the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program and NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, “the annual doldrums of butterfly activity -- at least for grass skippers -- has started in the Piedmont.” LeGrand continues to say that “it is now possible to spend a day in the field…and see no skippers other than a few spread-wings and maybe a Fiery or Sachem.” LeGrand advises avid butterfly watchers to hold on, as these doldrums should end during the last week or two of July.

Grass skippers, members of the sub-family Hesperiinae, are found throughout North Carolina and are represented by the tawny edged skipper, crossline skipper and the southern broken-dash, among a number of others, in Durham County. The adults of most temperate species are orange-hued and are avid visitors of flowers. Caterpillars feed on grasses and often over-winter hidden within tiny leaf nests.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Keep an eye out for snakes and turtles this month, their eggs are still incubating, but some early-birds may hatch towards the end of the month. Fence lizards and skinks are also out in abundance. Large choruses of Cope’s gray treefrogs, green tree frogs, bullfrogs and green frogs can still be heard this month. Also listen for eastern narrow-mouthed toads and eastern spadefoots. Cope’s gray treefrog froglets will continue to emerge from ponds and wetlands this month.

Other Insects.− Cicadas and katydids will be chorusing in earnest this month. Cicadas mate at the peak of summer. Males make their distinctive sound by vibrating membranes in their abdominal cavity. After mating, females lay several hundred eggs at the tips of tree branches. Once the eggs hatch, cicada nymphs fall to the ground and burrow into the soil. Staying underground for two or more years, depending on the species, cicada nymphs feed on the juice of plant roots. Eventually these nymphs emerge as adults, abandoning the hollow shells of their nymph-hood. Also be on the lookout for increased numbers of Japanese beetles, a pest that arrived from Japan in 1916 and damages more than 200 plant species in North America.

In Bloom this Month.− Be on the lookout for some striking July flowers:

In Bloom:
SMALL-FRUIT AGRIMONY – Agrimonia microcarpa
SWAMP MILKWEED – Asclepias incarnata
DOWNY YELLOW FALSE-FOXGLOVE – Aureolaria virginica
AMERICAN BEAUTY-BERRY – Callicarpa americana
GREEN-AND-GOLD – Chrysogonum virginanum
WHORLED TICKSEED – Coreopsis verticillata
TICK TREFOIL(S) – Desmodium spp.
INDIAN-STRAWBERRY – Duchesnia indica
PURPLE-CONEFLOWER – Echinacea spp.
THOROUGHWORT – Eupatorium spp.
WHITE AVENS – Geum canadense
SCARLET ROSE-MALLOW – Hibiscus coccineus
ST. ANDREW’S-CROSS – Hypericum hypericoides
VIRGINIA BUNCHFLOWER –Melanthium virginicum
SUMMER PHLOX – Phlox paniculata
AMERICAN LOPSEED – Phryma leptostachya
BLACK-EYED-SUSAN(S) – Rudbeckia spp.
HOARY SKULLCAP – Scutellaria incana
STICKY ROSINWEED – Silphium glutinosum
STARRY ROSINWEED –Silphium asteriscus
AXILLARY GOLDENROD – Solidago caesia.
STOKES’-ASTER – Stokesia laevis
IRONWEED – Vernonia spp.