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"

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Eno River State Park (Few's Ford Access): Birding Trail

Overview: Eno River State Park hosts a number of easy to moderate trails, and a few more difficult ones, for the weekend hiker. If you're looking for an easy hike through a variety of habitats, try the "Birding Trail" (see map below). This trail starts at the Few's Ford parking loop and can easily by completed in 40 minutes. To begin, find the gravel maintenance road at the beginning of the parking lot loop (again, see map below). Continue down the gravel maintenance road until you find an opening in the woods. Continue through the woods, until reaching a clearing for electrical lines. At this clearing, notice a variety of ephemeral wetland pools (often hopping with frogs). Continue to the river and walk along the river until reaching a more heavily traveled trail. This trail will take you back up to the parking area.

Directions: The park is divided into five access points. The "Birding Trail" is found at the Few's Ford access, located just at the northern end of Cole Mill Road (maps & directions here).

Observations & Ponderings: On October 4, 2009, we enjoyed a lackadaisical hike along the birding trail. At the beginning of the hike, walking along a gravel road past full red cedars, we were greeted by the calls of northern mockingbirds, American crows, bluejays and northern cardinals. Before entering the dense canopy of the woods, a yellow shafted flicker zoomed by us.

The forest path offered an additional sign of wildlife: fox scat peppered with persimmon and hair. Soon a wood nymph fluttered by. We walked past some tall pines where we had seen yellow bellied sapsuckers flitting around busily in years past. Soon we came across a large mushroom and striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata).

As we left the wooded area, and came to the wetland filled power-line cut, we saw a number of fall flowers in bloom, including thistle, gerardia, an aster and Eupatorium species.

After traversing the power-line cut, we arrived at the slow flowing and shallow Eno River. Yellow-bellied sliders sunned on logs, carp with young hovered in small territories along the river bottom and a large mouth past eased on by.

Our lazy hike not only provided us with a glimpse of the autumnal deceleration of the natural world, but also allowed us to experience it ourselves.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: October in the Piedmont


Birds.− October brings a number of winter residents back to the Piedmont, but also expect diminishing numbers of broadwing hawks, chimney swifts, most swallow species and ruby-throated hummingbirds. Migrant warblers continue to pass through North Carolina as they head towards the neotropics for the winter; they can often be found with vocal winter residents such as Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice.

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), an active and expressive songbird in the tit and chickadee family (Paridae), is a common resident of the eastern United States. This chatty bird demands attention as it darts through trees, searching for insects and caterpillars in spring and summer, and nuts and berries in winter and fall. In fact, titmice will often hoard food from bird feeders in winter and fall, usually stashing their stores within 130 feet of the source. Tufted titmice nest in the cavities left behind by woodpeckers and favor deciduous or mixed forest and suburban yards. Birdwatchers recognize the tufted titmouse by its prominent gray crest and dark eyes.

Butterflies.− Butterfly watchers can expect a decline in butterfly sightings this month, with the exception of some of the sulphurs and whites (family: Pieridae). Monarchs continue to migrate southward this month to their winter residence in Mexico.

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 the spread-wing skippers (subfamily: Pyrginae). Members of the Pyrginae are normally plain and dark brown or black, and some have light spots on their forewings. A number of species land with their wings open or half open. Female pyrgines take nectar from flowers, and males often obtain salts from mud-puddles and animal droppings. Caterpillars in the subfamily Pyrginae often live in shelters constructed of rolled or webbed leaves. Most pyrgines are found in the neotropics, but a number of species can be found in North Carolina, including Hayhurst’s scallopwing, dreamy duskywings (mountains only), southern cloudywings, mottled cloudywings and northern cloudywings. Larval hosts include birches, bush clovers, lamb’s quarters, milk vetch, New Jersey tea, poplars and willows.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Continue to keep an eye out for snakes and turtles. Although you may still hear frogs and toads calling this month, large choruses won’t start up again until January.

Other Insects.− This month, the work of twig girdlers (Oncideres cingulata) becomes evident in the form of neatly broken twig ends littering the forest floor. In late summer, female twig girdlers – large, dusky beetles – lay their eggs at the tip of a branch, and girdle the twig so that eventually it falls off, allowing her offspring to overwinter in and eventually feed on the twig and surrounding debris. Also, expect a decline in spider sightings, but keep an eye open for garden spider and praying mantis egg cases. Also, dragonfly numbers are declining this month, although you may see some species migrating to winter territories.

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

In Bloom:
WINGSTEM – Actinomeris alternifolia
BLUE MISTFLOWER - Conoclinium coelestinum
COMMON SNEEZEWEED - Helenium autumnale
SCARLET ROSE-MALLOW – Hibiscus coccineus
BLACK-EYED SUSAN – Rudbeckia sp.
GREAT LOBELIA – Lobelia siphilitica
DOWNY LOBELIA – Lobelia puberula
ROSINWEED(S) – Siphium spp.
GOLDENROD(S) – Solidago spp.
IRONWEED(S) - Vernonia spp

In Fruit:
HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus
MUSCADINES – Vitis rotundifolia

Historical Anecdote: American Beech – Fagus grandifolia
“[The] Beech is identifiable by the gleam of its wondrously smooth bark, not furrowed even by extreme old age. Here it will be free of branches for full half its height, the sturdy boughs then gracefully down-sweeping. The gray bole has a further beauty in the way it flutes out at the base into strong feet, to the shallow, wide-spreading roots. And the luxuriant growth of mosses on the north side of such a tree, together with the mottling of lichens, add to the look it ears of wisdom and serenity.” – Donald Culross Peattie, 1948, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America

Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife profile is the LADY BUG (Family: Coccinellidae), in honor of the many lady bugs that you might find in your home at the end of the month, trying to survive the winter. Ladybugs are tiny, domed insects (ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm long) with bright red or orange wingcovers and black wingspots, legs and antennae. Some species are entirely black or brown.

Over 450 species of lady bugs, also known as Coccinellids, are found in the United States. Most of these beneficial insects are predators that feed on common garden pests, such as scale insects and aphids, and they are often used as part of integrated pest control programs. Many Coccinellids have developed curious mechanisms for warding off predators, including bright red coloring (indicating to predators that they taste bad) and “reflex bleeding.” Reflex bleeding occurs when ladybugs are handled and results in the excretion of a toxin through the joints of their legs.

Did you know?
• The number of spots on the back of a lady bug sadly does NOT indicate its age.
• Some lady bugs are herbivorous and introduced species can become major pests.
• Many ladybug species overwinter as adults, but some, especially species in California, are known to migrate!
• Ladybugs beat their wings an average of 70 to 90 times per second.
• A female ladybug will lay more than 1000 eggs in her lifetime.