Saturday, October 31, 2009

Great Expectations: November in the Piedmont

Birds.− By November, the fall migration has usually ended. The wood thrushes have disappeared, replaced by the melodic hermit thrush until springtime. November also marks the return of juncos and a number of sparrows, including tree, fox, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. You can also expect to see more duck species, especially common goldeneyes and hooded mergansers. If you are very lucky, you might catch a glipse of short-earred or northern saw whet owls, which are sometimes spied in the Triangle during the winter months.

Woodpeckers make their home in the Piedmont year-round, with one exception, the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). These active birds can be recognized by their black and white back and wings, red forehead and yellow breast; males also have a red throat. Found throughout the eastern United States, this woodpecker in well-known for drilling a series of small wells in trees, from which it laps up sap and feeds on the cambium of the tree. These wells also attract insects and are used by other birds species.

Butterflies.− Butterfly watchers can expect a decline in butterfly sightings this month, but you might still see some of the sulphurs and whites (family: Pieridae).

Remember: The Carolinas are home to five families of butterflies: the skippers (Hesperiidae), gossamer wings (Lycaenidae), brush-foots (Nymphalidae), swallowtails (Papilionidae) and the sulphurs and whites (Pieridae). Each of these families can be divided into a number of sub-families, each having distinct identifying characteristics.

This month, we will consider a sub-family of the brush-foots, the milkweed butterflies (Danainae). Members of the Danainae are boldly colored with black and orange wings. Males have distinct black spots or patches called andoconium on each hindwing that release pheromones. Caterpillars are finely striped with black, white and yellow. Three species of milkweed butterflies are found in North Carolina: monarch, queen and soldier. Queen and soldier sightings are mainly limited to the coast, although queens have been recorded in Durham County. The food plants for the caterpillars are strictly those in milkweed family, including the genera Asclepias (e.g., butterfly weed, common milkweed), Matelea (e.g., common anglepod, maroon Carolina milkvine) and Cynanchum (e.g., sand-vine on the coast). Plants in this family are poisonous, making the caterpillars and adults mildly toxic and extremely distasteful to potential predators. Adult Danaids take nectar from a variety of flowers.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Expect to find a few copperheads warming themselves on the roads at night this month. Also, look out for redbacked salamanders and box turtles.

Other Insects.− This month, the crickets and cicadas will quiet down for the winter, and the orb weavers will certainly disappear. Watch out for wasps and yellow jackets while hiking and exploring this month.

In Bloom this Month.− Be on the lookout for these November fruits and flowers:

In Bloom:
BLUE MISTFLOWER - Conoclinium coelestinum
WHITE WOOD-ASTER – Eurybia divaricata
WITCH HAZEL - Hamamelis virginiana
SCARLET ROSE-MALLOW – Hibiscus coccineus
BLACK-EYED SUSAN – Rudbeckia fulgida
GOLDENROD(S) – Solidago spp.
FROST ASTER(S) - Symphyotrichum spp.

In Fruit:
PERSIMMON – Diospyros virginiana
BEAUTY BERRY – Callicarpa americana
HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus
CORAL HONEYSUCKLE - Lonicera sempervirens
PASSION FLOWER – Passiflora spp.
FOX GRAPES – Vitis labrusca (thanks Katie Rose!)
MUSCADINES – Vitis rotundifolia

Historical Anecdote: Sassafras – Sassafras albidum
“Yellow or orange, or blood-orange, or sometimes softest salmon pink, or blotched with bright vermillion, the leaves of the Sassafras prove than not all autumnal splendor is confined to the northern forests. Deep into the South, along the snake-rail fences, beside the soft wood roads, in old fields where the rusty brook sedge is giving way to the return of forest, the Sassafras carries its splendid banners to vie with the scarlet Black Gum and the yellow Sweet Gum and the other trees of which the New Englander may hardly have heard. The deep blue fruits on thick bright red stalks complete a color effect in fall which few trees anywhere surpass.” – Donald Culross Peattie, 1948, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America

Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife profile is the NORTHERN REDBACK SALAMANDER (Plethodon cinereus). The northern redback salamander, often found wandering across warm Piedmont roads in November, comes in two distinct color morphs: gray with tiny white spots and well-defined red stripe on its back (called “redback”), and all gray-back with tiny spots (called “leadback”). This tiny salamander is usually between two and four inches long and occurs throughout the woods of the Piedmont.

Unlike more conspicuous salamanders (e.g., spotted salamanders, marbled salamanders), the northern redback salamander is terrestrial, completing its entire life cycle away from water. In North Carolina, northern redback salamanders will mate between October and April. In early summer, females will lay 8-10 eggs within the cavities of decaying logs; the female will guard these eggs until they hatch in late summer. These salamanders are ravenous predators, consuming termites, ants, flies, springtails, spiders, snails, slugs and a number of other arthropods.

Did you know?
- Northern redback salamanders will sometime eat the eggs of their own species.
- Redback salamanders can be found under rocks, logs and decaying leaves in the Piedmont.
- North Carolina is also home to the southern redback salamander (Cinereus serratus), but this species is only found in the mountains south of the French Broad river.

Cook, Dave. 2001. The Piedmont Almanac. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Mystic Crow Publishing.

Daniels, J.C. 2003. Butterflies of the Carolinas – Field Guide. Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, MN.

LEGRAND, H.E., Jr., and T.E. Howard, Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina. Sixteenth Approximation. 197 pp. [Online] Available:

Martof, B.S., W.M. Palmer, J.R. Bailey, J.R. Harrison Jr. III. 1980. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Website: Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina. “Redback Salamander”

Website: Cornell Ornithology Lab. "Yellow Bellied Sapsucker"

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