Thursday, December 9, 2010

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: December in the Piedmont

Birds.− By December, the fall migration has decidedly ended, and the celebration following the arrival of winter juncos, kinglets and creepers has dissipated. The woods and brush are eerily quiet, except for the sharp warning calls of cardinals and the flitting of sparrows. The most common sparrows that visit the Piedmont in the winter months, often extending into early spring, include the fox, swamp, savanna, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows.

The fox sparrow, with its rusty tail, is often seen kicking and scratching beneath winter feeders. The shy swamp sparrow, identified by its gray cheeks, unadorned gray chest and russet wings, may be observed dunking its head into shallow water in search of macroinvertebrates (e.g., the larvae of insects like stoneflies and dragonflies). Savanna sparrows sporting heavily streaked breasts and yellow marks between their eyes and beak cavort in open habitats and are known to return to their specific birthplace somewhere in Canada or the northern United States each summer, a phenomenon termed “natal philopatry.” The quite common white-throated sparrow also dons yellow marks near the beak, but its clear breast, white throat, and black-and-white striped head easily distinguishes it from the savanna sparrow. White-throated sparrows often flock in winter and will continue to croon “oh sweet Canada” on crisp winter days. The heads of the white-crowned sparrow are also black-and-white striped, but they lack the yellow markings of the white-throated sparrow and their throat and chest are a consistent medium gray. They also tend to flock and will scatter into the shrubs as hikers approach.

Butterflies.− Even in December, the rare butterfly is sometimes observed. In the Piedmont, the following species have been observed in December: black swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, checkered white, American lady and a number of sulphurs.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Red-backed salamanders can be found in large numbers on Piedmont roads in December. Chorus frogs are often heard calling in the middle of the month.

Other Insects.− This month, large American bird grasshoppers spring to life on warm days. Sensitive to the heat of North Carolina summers, American bird grasshoppers often migrate north in summer. They prefer grassland habitat and forest edges, feeding on grass, leaves and other herbaceous plants. This species lays eggs in a mass in the soil, where the nymphs gradually work their way to the surface.

Meteor Showers.- Three meteor showers occur in December: the Phoenicids (Dec. 5; with an average of 25 meteors per hour), the Geminids (Dec. 13-14; 60/hr) and the Ursids (Dec. 23; 20/hr). Conditions are favorable for the Geminids this year, which can be viewed starting at around 10 pm on December 13 and will peak around 2 am on the 14th.

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

In Bloom:
WITCH HAZEL - Hamamelis virginiana
FROST ASTER(S) - Symphyotrichum spp.

In Fruit:
PERSIMMON – Diospyros virginiana
BEAUTY BERRY – Callicarpa americana
HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus
AMERICAN HOLLY - Ilex opaca
PASSION FLOWER – Passiflora spp.


References:
Cook, Dave. 2001. The Piedmont Almanac. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Mystic Crow Publishing.
Discover Life “Lynx rufus”. Available at http://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?search=Lynx+rufus [accessed 5 Dec 2010].

LeGrand, H. E. Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina. Available at: http://149.168.1.196/nbnc/

Wheelwright, N. H., and J. D. Rising. 1993. Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 45 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Crowders Mountain State Park (Kings Mountain, NC)

The forest floor was littered with fallen leaves; some were big and brown like the finely-lobed leaves of chestnut oaks, others were bright red like the cheery leaves of red maples. We hiked up and up, past car-sized boulders encrusted with bright green lichens. Soon, the forest was only densely populated with trees, the Virginia pines became short and scraggly, the chestnut oaks were half their normal size. Finally, a view of the Piedmont in all its autumn splendor greeted us. The shadows of Charlotte teased the edge of the horizon. Other mountains, King's and Spencer's, welcomed us stoically. We had arrived at the summit Crowders Mountain.


Hiking to the Summit of Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)

View from the Summit of Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)


Near the North Carolina-South Carolina border in Gaston County, Crowders Mountain State Park preserves two stunning examples of Piedmont monadnocks: Crowders Mountain (elevation 1,625 feet) and The Pinnacle (1,705 feet). At one time these peaks, which stand 800 feet above the surrounding Piedmont plateau, demarcated the boundary between the hunting lands of the Catawba and Cherokee. Today, they stand as the main attraction of a State Park established by the efforts of the Gaston County Conservation Society, eager to protect the mineral-rich peaks from strip mining, in 1973.

Roughly 450 million years ago two supercontinents collided, Laurentia (now North America) and a broken off piece of Gondwana (an amalgamation of parts of Africa and South America). The intense heat and pressure resulting from the collision transformed the African silica and aluminum into the distinctive metamorphic rocks that define Crowders Mountain today. Over time, the surrounding areas of softer mica-rich schist rock eroded, leaving the pronounced kyanite-quartzite peaks. Kyanite, an elongated blue-gray crystal given the descriptive moniker “blue daggers” by miners, infuses the rough quartzite rocks of the monadnock. This tough mineral was mined from nearby mountains in South Carolina for use in ceramics and electronics.

Kyanite crystals at Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)

The unusual geologic history of Crowders Mountain translates into unusual ecology. In 1901, botanist and taxonomist John K. Small (1869 – 1938) recorded stunted trees at the summit, including three to six foot tall chestnuts (Castanea dentata) laden with fruit (only a few examples of which remain today), Virginia pines (Pinus virginiana) and persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Small noted that other plants appeared in their normal form, such as Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) with its big, round purple blooms and dangleberry (Gaylussacia frondosa) a blue berry bearing shrub with green leaves dotted with tiny golden resin glands on the underside. The dwarfed trees provide cover for Fowler’s toads, slimy salamanders and a number of snake species, including scarlet kingsnakes, ringnecked snakes and copperheads, while the rocky outcrops house roosting black and turkey vultures.

References:
NC Division of Parks and Recreation. “Crowder’s Mountain State Park - History” http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/crmo/history.php

Stewart, K. G. and Roberson, M. 2007. Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Small, J. K. 1901. The Summit Flora of King’s Mountain and Crowder’s Mountain, North Carolina. Torreya 1: 7-8.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

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 glimpse of short-eared 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.

Copperhead, Orange County, N.C., November 2007 (by N. Cagle)


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:
BEARDED BEGGARSTICKS - Bidens aristosa
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
AMERICAN HOLLY - Ilex opaca

CORAL HONEYSUCKLE - Lonicera sempervirens

PASSION FLOWER – Passiflora spp.
FOX GRAPES – Vitis labrusca
MUSCADINES – Vitis rotundifolia

References:

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

Daniels, J. C. 2003. Butterflies of the Carolinas. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc.

LeGrand, H. E. Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina. Available at: http://149.168.1.196/nbnc/

Monday, October 4, 2010

Flat River Impoundment (Durham, NC)

This past weekend, I brought my family to a Lepidopteran wonderland: the Flat River Waterfowl Impoundment in north Durham county, North Carolina.


Variegated Fritillaries, Flat River Impoundment, NC (photo by M. Cagle)

Butterflies (Order: Lepidoptera) abound at the small, goldenrod rimmed wetland, originally created to mitigate the loss of bird habitat after the Neuse River was dammed to form Falls Lake. Recent sightings by Rougement resident, Randy Emmitt, include scores of Variegated Fritillaries, Pearl Crescents, Common Buckeyes, and Common Checkered Skippers. Our own expedition also yielded a number of migrating Monarchs, Cloudless Sulphurs and a Variegated Fritillary caterpillar feeding happily on a passionflower vine.

Variegated Fritillary caterpillar, Flat River Impoundment, NC (photo by M. Cagle)

Our favorite location at the impoundment was "the butterly tree" -- a large willow loaded with Buckeyes, Viceroys, as well as some Question Marks, Red Admirals, and Red-Spotted Purples. Butterflies often congregate on willows to lay eggs (e.g., Viceroys and Red-Spotted Purples) and to glean sap (e.g., Question Marks and Red Admirals). We were also lucky to see a number of Great Egrets and a low-flying, white-rumped Northern Harrier (aka: Marsh Hawk).

The butterfly tree, Flat River Impoundment, NC (photo by N. Cagle)
Common buckeye butterfly, Flat River Impoundment, NC (photo by N. Cagle)

Great egrets, Flat River Impoundment, NC (photo by N. Cagle)

Warning: Make sure to visit on Sundays, when hunting is off limits at this popular fowling spot.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

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) – Silphium 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

Additional References:
National Audobon Society. 1980. Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders. New York, New York: Chanticleer Press.

Conant, R., and J.T. Collins. 1991. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA.

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

Daniels, J. C. 2003. Butterflies of the Carolinas. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon & Schuster.

LeGrand, H. E. Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina. Available at: http://149.168.1.196/nbnc/

Palmer, W. M. and A. L. Braswell. 1995. Reptiles of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Piedmont Savanna Ecology Course

Some spaces are still available for Piedmont Savanna Ecology, a new course offered by the UNC Botanical Gardens.

Course title: Piedmont Savanna Ecology
Course location: UNC Botanical Garden

Date/Time: Saturdays, Oct 2, 9, 16, 23; 1:00–4:30 pm
Instructor: Nicolette Cagle, Ph.D.

Course description: In this course, students explore the rare Piedmont savanna plant community: its ecological history and the relative roles of climate, disturbance, and humans in grassland establishment and persistence. Students learn about the soil, flora, and fauna of the Piedmont savanna, emphasizing rare and threatened species, and examine current and future status of this rare Piedmont plant community. We end with a field trip to two restoration sites. No pre-requisites. Fee: $125 ($110 NCBG members)

If you have any questions or need a registration form, please feel free to contact me at nicolette.cagle (at) gmail.com.


Echinacea laevigata at Penny's Bend, Durham, NC (July 2008; Photo by N. Cagle)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Laurel Bluffs Trail along the Eno River (Durham, NC)

Overview: Located in north Durham, the Laurel Bluffs Trail offers a 5 mile out-and-back hike. The trail winds through Piedmont forest along the Eno River, starting at Eno River State Park's Pump Station trail and ending at Guess Road. The trail tightly hugs the river, deviating over ridge tops for only a couple short stretches. Highlights include large (2 - 2.5 ft in diameter) tulip trees and beeches, as well as the ruins of an old hunting lodge and the Guess Mill dam. Hiking on a Sunday morning, we encountered only one runner and one bustling hiker from a nearby neighborhood.

From Laurel Bluffs trail


Directions: The trail can be accessed from Eno River State Park's Pump Station trail (see map). To arrive at the Pump Station trail, take Guess Road north about 0.9 miles from exit 147 off I-85. Turn left at Carver Street, and continue 1.7 miles. Turn right at Rose of Sharon, go 0.6 miles and turn left at Valley Springs Road. Continue on Valley Springs for 0.4 miles, turning left at Rivermont, the first gravel road on the left. Pump Station trail will be half a mile down on the righthand side of the road, immediately before the bridge.

The trail can also be reached by descending a steep set of steps on the west side of Guess Road at the bridge that crosses the Eno River (see satellite image).

Observations & Ponderings: The Laurel Bluffs trail provides a quiet walk back through time, when the Eno River had a bustling mill economy. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, mills along the Eno River ground grain into flour and turned raw timber into usable lumber. According to Duncan Heron (see article here), below Hillsborough, NC there were about 15 mills along Eno River, strategically located in stretches where hard igneous and metamorphic rock jutted out into the river, making it easier to construct a dam and mill.

Jean Anderson (see article here), writing about old Orange County mills, states that mills were "viewed as good investments" and cost between $1,000 and $6,500 to start up. Mills usually took about 10% of the market value of the grain they ground, and Piedmont mills were known to make an annual profit of around $1,000 - $2,000. Despite their profitability, Eno River mills were extremely vulnerable to heavy rains and their associated flooding. According to local lore, Synott's Mill, the first built along the Eno River in 1752, fell victim to a devastating flood.

Anderson goes on to write that mills were once central to 19th century Piedmont society. Local mills provided a place for men to swap stories, politicians to garner support and postal riders brought news from outside the rural Piedmont. Although these mills are no longer crucial to the Piedmont community, they do provide a charming backdrop for considering our rich history, while allowing us to revel in the beauty of our boulder-strewn, forest-fringed Eno River.

Below are photos of the Laurel Bluffs trail (photos by Nicolette Cagle, taken on 5 September 2010):

From Laurel Bluffs trail

Upland stretch of the Laurel Bluffs trail (Photo by N. Cagle, Sep 2010)

From Laurel Bluffs trail

Fish Dam Island along the Laurel Bluffs trail (Photo by N. Cagle, Sep 2010)

From Laurel Bluffs trail

Remnants of the old hunting lodge along the Laurel Bluffs trail (Photo by N. Cagle, Sep 2010)

From Laurel Bluffs trail

Remanants of Guess Mill Dam along Laurel Bluffs trail (Photo by N. Cagle, Sep 2010)

From Laurel Bluffs trail

Old mill stone along Laurel Bluffs trail (Photo by N. Cagle, Sep 2010)

From Laurel Bluffs trail

Spill way of the mill along Laurel Bluffs trail (Photo by N. Cagle, Sep 2010)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: September in the Piedmont

Birds.− September brings a number of winter residents back to the Piedmont, including the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, an occasional red-breasted nuthatch and a number of wrens (winter, sedge, marsh) and sparrows (swamp and white-throated). Migrant warblers continue to pass through North Carolina as they head towards the neotropics for the winter. Birders may even see snowy egrets, little blue herons and tricolored herons, which won’t return again to the Piedmont until early April.

Butterflies.− Expect to see a pulse of cloudless sulphurs, little yellows and sleepy oranges this month. Swallowtail sightings will likely drop-off by mid-month, with the exception of the black swallowtail. Butterfly watchers can also expect to see gray and red-banded hairstreaks, gulf and variegated fritillaries, as well as an increased number of viceroy sightings. Monarchs may be seen as they migrate southward to their winter residence in Mexico.

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 sulphurs (subfamily: Coliadinae), some species of which are on the rise this month. Members of the Coliadinae are normally some shade of yellow, often having dark markings on their wings. Males and females usually differ in appearance (i.e., they are sexually dimorphic), and their coloration may vary with the seasons. For example, the sleepy orange if often bright yellow in the summer, but their hindwings often become rust-colored in the fall. Male sulphurs can often be found congregating around mud-puddles, where they obtain water and salts. Sulphurs are found in open, disturbed habitat and they over-winter as larvae.

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

Other Insects.− This month, expect an increase in praying mantis and spider activity. Female garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) will be guarding egg cases this time of year. In fact, garden spiders breed only once a year. Males garden spiders will court the females by plucking strands on her web, and die after mating, sometimes being consumed by the female. The female garden spider will then lay her eggs (usually at night), covering them in layers of silk. One to four egg sacs, with thousands of eggs inside, are usually suspended in the middle of her web, where she guards them against predation until she dies with the first hard frost. In spring, young garden spiders will emerge from the brown-silk sac. Some offspring may remain closeby, but others exude a strand of silk that gets caught in the wind, carrying them to a new home.

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

In Bloom:
WINGSTEM – Actinomeris alternifolia
WHITE SNAKEROOT – Ageratina altissima
PARTRIDGE PEA – Chamaechrista fasciculata
TURTLEHEAD – Chelone glabra
BEECHDROPS – Epifagus virginiana
DEVIL'S-GRANDMOTHER - Elephantopus tomentosus
BONESET – Eupatorium perfoliatum
BLACK-EYED SUSAN – Rudbeckia sp.
TRAILING WILD BEAN - Strophostyles helvula
GREAT LOBELIA – Lobelia siphilitica
DOWNY LOBELIA – Lobelia puberula
SMALL SKULLCAP – Scutellaria parvula
AXILLARY GOLDENROD – Solidago caesia
GOLDENROD(S) – Solidago spp.

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

Historical Anecdote: Sweet gum – Liquidambar styraciflua
“This sweet gum is a noble tree, that might well impress anyone new to the sight of it. And the sight is a common one, for it grows along any fence row, in piedmont Virginia, beside any country road of the Carolinas, in any field abandoned by agriculture and growing up to scrub pine and dogwood. It comes up in company, in these upland sites, with sassafras and red cedar, and may be known by its beautiful star-shaped leaves. Their upper surface has a star-like glister, but unlike most shining leaves, those of the sweet gum are not dark at maturity but a light, gay yellow-green. Crushed in the fingers, they give out a cleanly fragrance; on the tongue they have a tart taste. Foliage so odd and yet so attractive would make any tree conspicuous.” – Donald Culross Peattie, 1948, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America

References:
National Audobon Society. 1980. Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders. New York, New York: Chanticleer Press.

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

Daniels, J. C. 2003. Butterflies of the Carolinas. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc.

LeGrand, H. E. Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina. Available at: http://149.168.1.196/nbnc/

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Piedmont Savanna Ecology Course at UNC Botanical Garden

Interested in local ecology? Curious about the once and future prairie and savanna communities of the North Carolina Piedmont? If so, check out a new course offered by the UNC Botanical Garden:

Course title: Piedmont Savanna Ecology
Course location: UNC Botanical Garden

Date/Time: Saturdays, Oct 2, 9, 16, 23; 1:00–4:30 pm
Instructor: Nicolette Cagle, Ph.D, Department of Ecology, Duke University

Course description:
In this course, students explore the rare Piedmont savanna plant community: its ecological history and the relative roles of climate, disturbance, and humans in grassland establishment and persistence. Students learn about the soil, flora, and fauna of the Piedmont savanna, emphasizing rare and threatened species, and examine current and future status of this rare Piedmont plant community. We end with a field trip to two restoration sites. No pre-requisites. Fee: $125 ($110 NCBG members)

If you have any questions or need a registration form, please feel free to contact me at nicolette.cagle (at) gmail.com.

***********************
Nicolette L. Cagle, Ph.D.
http://www.duke.edu/~nlc4

Friday, June 18, 2010

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area (Hillsborough, NC)

Overview: Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, located in Hillsborough, North Carolina adjacent to I-85, is widely appreciated for its geologic uniqueness and unusual plant and animal species. Occoneechee Mountain is one of North Carolina's renowned monadnocks, i.e., an isolated mountain rising above the peneplain of the Piedmont. Its high elevation and relative isolation provides a home for a number of species usually reserved to our western mountains, including Galax, mountain witch-alder and Rhododendron catawbiense, as well as the brown elfin butterfly and silvery checkerspot.

Hiking Opportunities and Directions: A number of hiking trails (ranging from about 1 -3 miles, often over steep, rocky terrain) allow you to explore the natural wonders of Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area. A fairly new trail, completed in 2007, allows you to walk around the entire mountain. Other trails take you through the heart of monadnock, including the Brown Elfin Knob and Overlook trails.

To reach Occoneechee Mountain, take exit 164 off of I-85. Then, turn north on Churton Street, turn left at the next traffic light onto Mayo Street, and turn left onto Orange Grove Road. Finally, turn right at the second turnoff onto the gravelly Virginia Cates Road, and head to the parking area (conveniently supplied with toilets).

Observations: On Sunday, June 6, 2010, my husband, 16 month old son and I began a hike at Occoneechee Mountain State Park. We had visited the park numerous times before, enthralled by black oaks, lowland forests replete with ferns, pyrophyllite crystals and numerous reptiles. We had also worked hard in the summer heat to complete a footbridge on the new trail in 2007 along with some friends and volunteers.

On this particular trip, we hardly made it beyond the parking lot. Along the road, leading to the trail heads, was a stand of flagrantly showy common milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca) in bloom. Pollinators and pests abounded, and my husband and I couldn't help but stand there awestruck. Then, we broke out the camera, attempting to capture the variety and beauty of the insects associated with this relatively commonplace stand of milkweed.






Tiger swallowtail butterfly and common milkweed (Occoneechee Mountain SNA, Hillsborough, NC, 6 Jun 2010)





Pennsylvania leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) and common milkweed (Occoneechee Mountain SNA, Hillsborough, NC, 6 Jun 2010)





Common milkweed (Occoneechee Mountain SNA, Hillsborough, NC, 6 Jun 2010)





Bumble bee and common milkweed (Occoneechee Mountain SNA, Hillsborough, NC, 6 Jun 2010)





Beetle (to be identified) and common milkweed (Occoneechee Mountain SNA, Hillsborough, NC, 6 Jun 2010)





Silver-spotted skipper and common milkweed (Occoneechee Mountain SNA, Hillsborough, NC, 6 Jun 2010)




Red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) and common milkweed (Occoneechee Mountain SNA, Hillsborough, NC, 6 Jun 2010)




Swamp milkweed beetle (Labidomera clivicollis) and common milkweed (Occoneechee Mountain SNA, Hillsborough, NC, 6 Jun 2010)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

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.

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.

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)
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)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Where Have All the Naturalists Gone? | Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy

An interesting article about the lack of naturalists, and respect for them, was recently posted on the Nature Conservancy's Conservation Blog (see link below). In my own experience, the role of naturalists in science has greatly declined. In the field of ecology, where naturalists once reigned, attention has shifted to the human-nature interface. Once we observed the breeding habits of birds, now we quantify the ecosystem services of the wetlands they inhabitat. Once we developed theories about succession, now we monitor human carbon emissions and ponder the impacts of global warming.

These new avenues of study in ecology are explored because ecologists not only recognize the pressing environmental issues that the current generation must face, but also because budding ecologists seem to think that all of the observational work of naturalists has already been completed. Unfortunately, this isn't necessarily true. As this Nature Conservancy post suggests, the work of naturalists is still needed, both to enhance conservation and advance scientific knowledge.

Finally, the Nature Conservancy post fails to mention one salient point: educational opportunities are dwindling for those who are naturalist-inclined. Even at Duke University, with it's renowned graduate program in ecology, natural history classes are lacking. To take a course like mammalogy or ornithology, not to mention the natural history of North Carolina, one has to look elsewhere -- and this is despite having a talented staff and respected faculty.

Where Have All the Naturalists Gone? Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy

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ROADTRIP: Galapagos Island, Rabida edition

by Nicolette L. Cagle (written 15 February 2010)

Overlooking a pock-marked landscape dominated by grim volcanic scoria partially covered with a crust of scrubby verdure and rimmed with a thick band of maroon sand, for a moment I felt like a visitor to the strange, red planet that is now prominent in North Carolina’s evening sky. Instead, I stood firmly on Rabida, a tiny island covering less than two square kilometers that sits in heart the Galapagos archipelago.


Rabida Island, Galapagos, Mar 2004

Scoria with crabs on the shore of Rabida Island, Galapagos, Mar 2004

Hiking to the interior of the scorched island, Opuntia cacti and sparse Palo Santo trees provided meager refuge from the mid-morning sun. Lava lizards with coarse, russet scales seemed to meld into the ground. A small and slender brown snake, a type of West Indian racer with pale yellow stripes running its length, attempted to avoid our gaze. Intimidated by the desolate and parched landscape, we walked back to the Red Beach.

Here, Galapagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) with the thick tan fur of a plush teddy bear and large entrancing brown eyes, welcome visitors to Rabida with agile antics in the sea and intermittent dog-like barking on the beach. Some of the sea lions eschew welcoming altogether, hardly bothering to lift their heads as they lay napping on the warm, brick-red beach.

Galapagos sea lion swimming (Zalophus wollebaeki) off the shore of Rabida Island, Galapagos, Mar 2004

As my family and I first began to explore the iron-dyed beach, my eyes were drawn to a big, hulking specimen baring the thick neck and prominent forehead-bump that characterize his sex. Male Galapagos sea lions, reaching 7 feet long and weighing up to 800 lbs, are designed to intimidate with shear bulk. After taking a step back, I scanned the rest of the beach. Smaller sea lions were laid out along the 30 meter stretch, and some had pups. Sea lions pups are magnetic. Like puppies and kittens, their big dark eyes, short whiskered muzzle and innocent silliness render them irresistible. I found myself drawn to one of the pups, suckling earnestly from her large, dozing mother. I inched closer and closer, aware that I had been granted a rare privilege, while simultaneously knowing that I was an intruder in this intimate moment between mother and pup. I backed away, caught my husband’s eye and wondered if someday I too would experience the easy tenderness between mother and child.


Galapagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) on Rabida Island, Galapagos, Mar 2004

Check back soon for more from the Galapagos Islands.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Pettigrew State Park: photos and species lists

On Saturday, April 3, 2010, my husband, little boy and I visited and spent the night at Pettigrew State Park in Creswell, NC. If you're interested in camping at the park, be sure to reserve a spot in advance. As usual, the park did not disappoint: interesting bird, amphibian and reptile sightings started almost immediately. A list of species seen and heard, as well as some photos of our trip, follows.


Birds.- boat tailed grackle*, mourning dove*, blue jay*, northern cardinal*, northern flicker*, white throated sparrow*, Carolina wren*, downy woodpecker*, red-bellied woodpecker, ruby-crowned kinglet*, tufted titmouse*, common yellowthroat*, American robin*, northern mockingbird*, eastern meadowlark, yellow throated warbler, northern parula, eastern towhee*, eastern screech owl* (note: * marks birds that were seen, no asterisk mean the birds was identified by ear)


Amphibians.- southern leopard frog, Fowler's toads, spring peeper


Reptiles.- northern black racer, copperhead, eastern garter snake, Eumeces spp.,


Butterflies.- zebra swallowtail, falcate orangetip, Polyommatinae spp., Polygonia spp., tiger swallowtail, Papilio spp.


Plants in bloom.- jack-in-the-pulpit, Viola spp.


Other interesting plant species.- devil's walking stick

zebra swallow tail

eastern garter snake

cypress at Lake Phelps

Lake Phelps in the morning mist

black racer

mantid lacewing?

copperhead


Thursday, April 1, 2010

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: April in the Piedmont

Birds.− Avid birders may have already noticed the arrival of some early warblers, perhaps catching a glimpse of the Louisiana waterthrush’s “bubble-gum” pink legs or hearing the melodic song of the yellow-throated warbler. This month, more spring migrants are headed our way. These species may be seen during the next couple months, as they head north: some wood-warblers (including golden-winged, Nashville, chestnut-sided, magnolia, black-throated blue, black-throated green, bay-breasted and blackpoll), herons (e.g., little blue heron, black-crowned night heron, cattle-egret), thrushes (e.g., veery, grey-cheeked and Swainson’s) and sandpipers (e.g., spotted and solitary). Also be on the lookout for sora, Virginia rail or a rare glossy ibis.

Some species will be arriving this month with the intention of staying the summer and breeding here in the Piedmont; these include: whip-poor-wills, chimney swifts, ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern wood-pewees, Acadian flycatchers, eastern kingbirds, northern parulas, prairie warblers, summer and scarlet tanagers and yellow-breasted chats.

Butterflies.− In April, butterfly watchers may begin to find some of the skippers (e.g., zabulon, dusted, pepper and salt), duskywings (mottled, zarucco), cloudywings (southern, northern, confused), satyrs (gemmed, Carolina) and pearlyeyes (southern and northern). Silvery checkerspots can be spotted in moist floodplains or sometimes near drier woodland borders, where adults glean nectar from, and caterpillars feed, on sunflowers (Helianthus) and rosinweeds (Silphium spp.). Look for red-spotted purples in hardwoods forests and forest edges; adults may be found taking sustenance from tree sap or damp ground, while caterpillars feed on cherries (Prunus spp.) and other members of the Rosaceae. Butterfly aficionados will continue to see a number of sulphurs and hairstreaks this month, as well as questionmarks and commas.

This month, the most spectacular visitors may be the monarchs, which can be found in a variety of habitats. Adult monarchs feed on the nectar of milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and other flowers, while later in the year, monarch caterpillars will strictly feed on milkweeds. Also be on the lookout for the viceroy, a monarch mimic. Viceroys have adapted the same orange and black coloring of monarchs that warns predators of their toxicity (cardenolides are the bitter compounds in milkweeds that make monarchs toxic to vertebrates), but these mimics are normally found in wet areas near their primary foodplant: willows (Salix spp.)

Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, you may start to hear northern cricket frogs, eastern narrow-mouthed toads and Cope’s gray treefrogs. Also, expect to continue hearing American and Fowler’s toads, spring peepers, bull frogs, green frogs, southern leopard frogs and eastern spadefoots. The large choruses of southeastern chorus frogs will begin winding down this month. Be on the lookout for basking yellow-bellied sliders and painted turtles. Snakes will be out as well, be sure not to step on the diminuitive and well-camouflaged northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi) when walking on preserve trails.

In Bloom this Month.− April is a wonderful month to test your tree identification skills. Try to identify trees by their bark or buds before they flower and leaf out!

In late March and early April, woodland hikers may notice a robust small tree or large shrub, with large hand-like leaves (i.e., palmately compound) and upright clusters of tubular yellow flowers. What is this vigorous woody plant? Most likely, you are seeing the painted buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica), a southeastern Piedmont endemic (i.e., exclusively found in the Piedmont of the southeastern United States). The moniker “buckeye” is derived from the similarity between the seed of the buckeye to a male deer’s (or buck’s) eye. These same seeds are quite toxic, and in the past they were ground up and thrown into creeks to stun fish. Some animals, including deer and squirrels, are resistant to the toxin (called aesculin, which destroys red blood cells) and can eat the seeds. The showy flowers are visited by ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies (e.g., eastern tiger swallowtail) and bees.

In Bloom:
BUCKEYES (Aesculus spp.)
WINDFLOWER (Anemonella thalictroides)
SWEET-SHRUB (Calycanthus floridus)
MUSCLEWOOD (Carpinus caroliniana)
FLOWERING DOGWOOD (Cornus florida)
RATTLESNAKE-WEED (Hieracium venosum)
QUAKER-LADIES (Houstonia caerulea)
EASTERN YELLOW STAR-GRASS (Hypoxis hirsuta)
DWARF CRESTED IRIS (Iris cristata)
CORAL HONEYSUCKLE (Lonicera sempervirens)
HAIRY WOODRUSH (Luzula echinata)
VIRGINIA PENNYWORT (Obolaria virginiana)
MAY-APPLE (Podophyllum peltatum)
EARLY SAXIFRAGE (Saxifraga virgininiensis)
AMERICAN BLADDERNUT (Staphylea trifolia)
GIANT CHICKWEED (Stellaria pubera)
FOAMFLOWER (Tiarella cordifolia)
CATESBY’S TRILLIUM (Trillium catesbaei)
LITTLE SWEET BETSY (Trillium cuneatum)
MAPLE-LEAF VIBURNUM (Viburnum acerifolium)
DOWNY ARROW-WOOD (Viburnum rafinesquianum)

Monday, March 1, 2010

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: March in the Piedmont

Birds.− As spring arrives in the Piedmont this month, we begin to see some profound changes in the composition of our avifauna. Expect to hear the enthusiastic “szhree” calls of pine siskins, the striped cousins of American goldfinches. Also, look out for common yellowthroats and yellow throated warblers, both of which are often recorded in Durham in March.

Butterflies.− This month, butterfly watchers may begin to find hairstreaks (including the red-banded, gray, juniper, and great purple) and swallowtails (e.g., black and eastern tiger). Lucky observers may find Henry’s elfins and eastern pine elfins, while definitely spotting a lot more cabbage whites, sulphurs, spring azures, question marks, eastern commas and mourning cloaks. Towards the end of the month, keep your eyes open for sleeper, Juvenal’s and Horace’s duskywings, adults of which are often seen perched on bare ground, including dirt roads and trails, where they glean minerals.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, expect to continue hearing southeastern chorus frogs, spring peepers, northern cricket frogs, American toads, pickerel frogs and eastern spadefoots. Fowler’s toads, bullfrogs and green frogs will start calling this month, but don’t expect large choruses until April. Continue to look for breeding salamanders. Also, be on the lookout for basking yellow-bellied sliders and the occasional black-rat snake or racer.

In Bloom this Month.−
March is a great month to brush-up on your herbaceous plant identification, starting with the spring ephemerals – fragile wildflowers that disappear after a brief vernal resurgence.

One of the first flowers to bloom in March is round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana). Other March ephemerals include the spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) with their yellow nodding flowers emerging from a pair of dark green, spotted leaves. If you’re exploring richer woods, you might find red trillium (Trillium cuneatum), may-apples (Podophyllum peltatum), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and a few species of wild ginger or heart leaf (Hexastylus spp.) and.

Little brown jug or heartleaf (Hexastylis arifolia) are semi-evergreen plants found hugging the ground of Piedmont forests. They are identified by their green heart-shaped leaves, mottled with silver between the leaf veins. Their furtive blooms, appearing in mid-March, resemble small brownish-red jugs, with a tripartite opening at the top. These tiny flowers, often concealed by leaf litter, are pollinated by ants, beetles and other Insecta of the forest floor.

In Bloom:
RED MAPLE (Acer rubrum)
WINDFLOWER (Anemonella thalictroides)
CUT-LEAF TOOTHWORT (Cardamine concatenate)
EASTERN SPRING-BEAUTY (Claytonia virginica)
EASTERN REDBUD (Cercis canadensis)
AMERICAN HAZELNUT (Corylus americana)
AMERICAN TROUT-LILY (Erythronium americanum)
ROUND-LOBE HEPATICA (Hepatica americana)
LITTLE BROWN JUG (Hexastylis arifolia)
LITTLE HEARTLEAF (Hexastylis minor)
QUAKER-LADIES (Houstonia caerulea)
SMOOTH NORTHERN SPICEBUSH (Lindera benzoin)
HAIRY WOOD-RUSH (Luzula acuminata)
MAY APPLE (Podophyllum peltatum)
BLOODROOT (Sanguinaria canadensis)
GIANT CHICKWEED (Stellaria pubera)
RED TRILLIUM (Trillium cuneatum)
DOORYARD VIOLET (Viola sororia)

Monday, February 15, 2010

ROADTRIP: The Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz edition

Over 2,600 miles away from North Carolina’s Triangle and nearly 700 miles away from the closest continent, the Galapagos Islands rise like uncut gems from the cerulean sea far to the west of Ecuador’s coastline. At first glance, each of the volcanic archipelago’s fifteen major islands seem rough and rocky, some lightly painted with a thin crust of vegetation. Upon closer inspection, the rugged, lapidarian landscape, largely isolated from the evolutionary pressures of the mainland, reveals radiant ecological splendor. The crown jewels of the Galapagos include ruby-red and sapphire-hued birdlife, preternaturally tame reptiles and mammals, and other-worldly vistas.

Situated in the center of the Pacific island cluster, Santa Cruz or Indefatigable Island, is the second largest landmass in the archipelago. Santa Cruz, named after the Holy Cross by the Spanish and for the HMS Indefatigable by the British, currently houses over 4,000 permanent human residents, making it the most populated of the Galapagos Islands. The island is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, best known for its research on the giant Galapagos tortoises.

The Galapagos giant tortoise, the world’s largest living tortoise, once consisted of up to fifteen different subspecies, eleven of which exist today. Each subspecies is adapted to the conditions of a particular island and the different volcanic slopes of that island. For example, the Hood Island subspecies (Geochelone nigra hoodensis), with its long neck and downward sloped carapace, is limited to scrubby Espanola (aka. Hood Island), while the Volcan Wolf subspecies (G. n. becki), looking like an old grandmother sunk low in her shawl, is limited to the northern and western slopes of the Wolf Volcano on lush Isabella Island. Nearly all of the giant tortoises face severe population pressure resulting from hunting that came with whaling vessels and the introduction of non-native species, like goats, which wreak havoc with tortoise food supplies by reducing areas to desert.


Indefatigable Island tortoises (Geochelone nigra porteri), Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, March 4, 2004 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)



In March 2004, my family (parents and husband) and I had the opportunity to meet the amazing tortoise endemic to Santa Cruz, the Indefatigable Island tortoise (Geochelone nigra porteri). This sub-species has a near perfectly domed shell and dark, deep soulful eyes. Walking up to one of these gigantic reptiles felt like sneak-peaking into pre-history. With slow, deliberate steps I moved closer and closer to one of the tortoises, whose attention was focused on steadily chomping viridescent grass shoots, a favorite food. My eyes perused the ancient anatomy: black, half-dollar sized scales covering heavy limbs; glistening, tar-like scutes of its massive shell; and a massive, brown-black beak closed over green grass hanging out like half eaten strands of spaghetti. The chelonian relic lifted his head, regarded me warily and turned slowly away.

A visit to Santa Cruz yields more than intimate encounters with antediluvian turtles. As you explore the misty island, the geologic remnants of Santa Cruz’s volcanic origins often steal the scene. Walking to the highest part of Santa Cruz, visitors find Los Gemelos, seemingly bottomless twin craters formed by the collapse of a magma chamber. The holes, nearly 100 feet deep, reveal the striated layers of the island’s dormant volcano. An additional geologic wonder is the 800-yard long Tunnel Endless of Love, one of Santa Cruz’s several lava tubes or large tunnels formed by ancient magma flows. If walking through tunnels of cooled primordial magma doesn’t dizzy your brain with thoughts about Earth’s creation, the of the planet and man’s minuteness, you can at least enjoy the some of the critters that have adapted to the primeval conditions of the volcanic archipelago, e.g., lava lizards, lava herons and lava gulls, to name a just a few.


Collapsed magma chamber, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, March 4, 2004 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)


Lava tunnel, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, March 4, 2004 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)


Santa Cruz is just the beginning. Come back next month for "The Galapagos Islands, Rabida edition" for an introduction to the sea lions and iguanas of the Archipiélago de Colón.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Turtles Times at Goose Creek State Park (Beaufort County, North Carolina)

Here is all you really need to know: It was May 2007. We arrived at Goose Creek State Park. And “turtle time” began.

My trusty companion (my husband, Mark) and I pulled up to the primitive campground in our reliable blue Jeep. I jumped out of the passenger side before Mark even turned off the ignition, my feet landing on coarse tan sand overlain with pine needles. Finally, I groaned. The trip from Durham had seemed endless. As each moment of our two and a half hour drive ticked by, I had painfully envisioned the herps and warblers we were missing at the park.

Fate was mocking me that day. As I deeply inhaled the briny air, calming my frazzled nerves, and turned to survey the tall longleaf and loblolly pines sprayed with Spanish moss, movement caught my eye. A dullish-brown object resembling an upside-down dinner plate seemed to scuttle away from me. Turtle! Mark, a turtle! I yelled. I rushed ahead, catching up with a big female yellow-bellied slider who was leaving a strange trail of half-moon imprints in the sandy debris as her webbed feet propelled her along the forest floor. This sizeable female, with the faded yellow mask that distinguishes her species from North Carolina’s nineteen other aquatic turtles, was moving away from Goose Creek, a former refuge for pirates like Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, which runs into North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound .

Mark put it all together before I did. She’s going off to nest, he opined with the confidence of a lifelong naturalist. And he was probably right: yellow-bellied sliders nest in May and early June in the Carolinas, and usually find a mesic spot away from water in which to lay eight to twelve creamy oblong eggs. Tiny, carnivorous sliders will hatch after about two months, as long as the eggs evade the detection of pilfering raccoons, and eventually those juvenile turtles mature into the omnivorous, sun-loving adults of floating logs that we all know and love.

I snapped some photos of our mama-to-be, and then looked at Mark meaningfully, We have to start walking, I said sternly, terrified that we might miss one of Goose Lake State Park’s natural wonders. We had a lot of ground to cover: Goose Lake State Park houses six hiking trails, ranging from the 0.4 mile Live Oak Trail that goes past an old cemetery and skirts Pamlico Sound to the 1.9 mile Goose Creek Trail that descends through Cypress swamp. The six trails are interconnected, and I wanted to explore them all.



Yellow-bellied slider, Goose Creek State Park, 15 May 2007 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)


Our first goal was to investigate Flatty Creek, a small and mysterious stream that feed the Pamlico River and terminates in a sedge and sawgrass marsh perfect for nesting herons, egrets and rails. First we walked through pine woods that seemed to get swampier and swampier with every step. As we got closer to the creek, we heard the buzzy trill of the northern parula, a tiny gray warbler with a yellow breast known to loiter around wet woods, gleaning insects from the foliage. We stepped onto a little footbridge and spied a good-sized red-bellied water snake. My husband looked back at me with a satisfied smile, before continuing. A minute later, we came across another footbridge. I peered into the brown-black water, intrigued by bright orange-yellow flecks in the shallow pool. Mark, I hissed sotto voce. He hadn’t heard me. He was walking away. Quickly, barely thinking, I dropped to my knees and lunged forward, plunging my hand into the warm tea-colored swamp. My wet hand emerged triumphant. I had captured a spotted turtle.

Mark! Mark! I hollered, turtle in hand. He hurried back to me, perplexed that I was still at the bridge until he saw my yellow-spotted prize. Oh wow, he said, his voice hushed with reverence, a spotted turtle. For both of us, this spotted turtle was a first, a species to be added to our “life list” of herps. Moreover, spotted turtles are not particularly common. Limited to the Great Lakes and the coast of the eastern United States, these denizens of wet meadows and swamps are listed as threatened by the World Conservation Union, and remain defenseless against land development and habitat drainage. After a few minutes, we carefully returned the teeny, four inch turtle to its muddy home and continued to explore the park.

Our exploration led us to scenic flat marsh vistas, took us past cypress swamps and beneath the secret homes of warblers and wrens nestled in the tall pines. We imagined ourselves running into bobcats and bears, Goose Creek natives still found in the area today. Late in the afternoon, after hours of birding and tree identification, one more surprise was waiting for us. On the trail back to the primitive camp, nestled in pine needles, we found an eastern box turtle. Bright eyed and vividly colored with yellow stripes crisscrossing its brown carapace, the familiar eastern box turtle brought a whimsical smile to our faces and left us with warm memories of “turtle times” at Goose Creek State Park.


Eastern box turtle, Goose Creek State Park, 15 May 2007 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Great Expectations: February in the Piedmont

Birds.− In the heart of winter in North Carolina, not many changes are happening in the bird world. By the end of the month, purple martins and tree swallows will begin to reappear. Barred owls start hooting their mating calls this month. Also, woodcocks begin their elaborate courtships in February. It is worth braving the cold this month to watch male woodcocks spiral skyward and fall rapidly back down to earth making a distinct “peenting” call in hopes of attracting a mate.

Ever wonder what birds eat this time of year? Our year round residents have a remarkably flexible diet that adapts to changing food supplies. For example, eastern bluebirds typically feed on insects and other invertebrates during the warmer months, but depend on small fruits and berries to satisfy their hunger in the winter months. Some birds, including crows, jays, nuthatches and titmice, will even feast on carrion if needed. Carolina chickadees are particularly flexible. During the summer, 80-90% of their diet is made up of small insects and spiders. In winter, approximately 50% of the Carolina chickadee’s diet is composed of seeds and fruits, including those of poison ivy, Virginia creeper, pines, and eastern redbuds, with the remainder being made up of their typical warm-weather cuisine.

Butterflies.− Butterfly enthusiasts can rejoice: many of our over-wintering species will re-emerge this month with the slightly warmer weather. Near forested habitats, one might expect to see question marks, eastern commas and mourning cloaks. In open habitats (e.g., fields and roadsides), expect to find American ladies, late sulphurs, orange sulphurs, clouded sulphurs and cabbage whites, a commonly seen species that was introduced from Europe.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, expect to continue hearing southeastern chorus frogs and spring peepers. You might also catch the sharp, repetitive clinking of a northern cricket frog, the musical trill of an American toad, the low-pitched croak of the pickerel frog or the sheep-like bleat of the eastern spadefoot. Also, continue to look for breeding salamanders.

In Bloom this Month.− February is a great month to eradicate any non-native, invasive plant species growing on your property, many of which are easy to identify even in the middle of winter. In the southeastern United States, most invasive species arrived from Europe or southeast Asia (areas that share the deciduous forest biome). These species have arrived accidentally (e.g., Microstegium, an invasive grass, arrived as packing material), as well as intentionally (e.g., the princess tree was introduced by horticulturalists.) Once an invasive species gets a foot-hold, it can alter the vegetation structure of a community, change food resources for wildlife, and even affect ecosystem-level processes such as sedimentation, erosion, soil chemistry and fire regimes.

Important Terms:
Exotic species – a non-native plant that will grow, but not spread in a given ecosystem
Invasive species – a non-native species that will spread and cause harm in a given ecosystem
Native species – a species that historically occurred in a given ecosystem
Noxious weed – any plant whose presence is detrimental to crops or desirable plants, livestock, land, other property or is injurious to public health (note: can be native)

Notable invasive plant species in our area:
Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense)
Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)
Common reed (Phragmites australis)
English ivy (Hedera helix)
Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata)
Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum)
Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)
Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)
Princesstree (Paulownia tomentosa)
Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)
Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata)
Tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife profile is the MOURNING CLOAK BUTTERFLY (Nymphalis antiopa). The mourning cloak is one of the first butterflies to re-emerge in North Carolina. This species is the longest lived in the United States, surviving up to 11 months. The adults are dormant in winter, and then re-emerge, wings imperfect and worn, during the first warm days of late winter and early spring. This time of year, males are quite bold, bravely chasing birds out of their 300 m2 territories. In early spring, males and females perform a beautiful mating dance, spiraling upward through the air. The females will then lay clusters of eggs on their favorite food plants, black willows, as well as other willow species, elms, birches and hackberries. Although the females die shortly thereafter, caterpillars will emerge from the eggs in April. After three weeks, this brood will have pupated and emerged as fresh, young mourning cloaks. The adult mourning cloaks are usually found in woodlands, where they feed on tree sap (especially oak sap), rotting fruit and occasionally nectar, building up stores for the winter.

Did you know?
• Mourning cloak butterflies spend the winter frozen in “cryo-preservation.”
• They can live up to 11 months in the wild.
• Their common name refers to their resemblance to the traditional cloak one would where while in mourning.
• Caterpillars live communally in a web and feed on young leaves.

Identification: The mourning cloak has brown wings with small blue spots bordering a yellow edge. It reaches 2 ¼ to 4 inches in length.

References:
Cook, D. 2001. The Piedmont Almanac. Chapel Hill, NC: Mystic Crow Publishing.

Daniels, J. C. 2003. Butterflies of the Carolinas. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc.

LeGrand, H. E. Jr., and Howard, T. E. Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina, 19th Approximation. Available at http://149.168.1.196/nbnc/

Read, M. 2005. Secret lives of common birds: Enjoying bird behavior though the seasons. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nymphalis_antiopa

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pettigrew State Park (Creswell, NC)

We stand on a boardwalk extending over a large, glassy lake encircled by bulky cypress whose stark horizontal branches are softened by curtains of Spanish moss. Through the morning mist, I can almost discern an ancient Algonquian fisherman canoeing in the shallow water. I can nearly make out the low voice of this haunting mirage, calling out to his wife on the shore, but seagulls begin squawking loudly overhead, thus arresting my self-indulgent reverie at Pettigrew State Park.



My husband and I first explored this captivatingly beautiful park in the spring of 2006. Located in North Carolina’s pancake-flat outer coastal plain, seven miles south of Creswell, Pettigrew State Park consists of over 5,000 acres of wild lands that surround mysterious Lake Phelps, North Carolina’s second largest lake, and border the tea-colored Scuppernong River. Nine miles of hiking trails takes weekend explorers past bald cypresses ten feet thick, comparably rare white cedars, and gorgeous wildflower displays.

Those same nine miles of hiking trails introduced Mark and I to both the brutality and delicacy of the natural world. The park also yielded numerous herps (i.e., reptiles and amphibians) and birds, which we added to our “life lists” (i.e., a semi-narcissistic record of all the species one has ever seen, used to impress few and bore many). But I digress, on to the brutality.

About 15 minutes after arriving at the park, Mark and I stood near the edge of a swampy thicket, filled with dense evergreen shrubs and some medium-sized trees. With binoculars gripped tightly and pressed close to our faces, we watched a yellow-billed cuckoo ten feet up with bated breath. The yellow-billed cuckoo, also known as the Rain Crow because of its propensity to call before storms, is generally shy and elusive. These jay-sized, brown-backed and white-breasted denizens of wet woodlands, are distinguished by the yellow of their lower mandible (ornithologist-speak for beak), a gargled ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kowp-kowp-kowp-kowp-kowp masquerading as a song, and the clear cooing call that is their name-sake.

The yellow-billed cuckoo, with its five inch wide nests looking more like tea plates than bowls and delicate blue eggs, seems harmless enough, even a little pathetic. So much so, that no one even seems to mind that they sometimes borrow others species’ abandoned abodes. However, this bird’s secretive habits and sloppy nests mask a brutal nature. As my husband and I stood mesmerized by this motionless avian specimen, we noticed a devious spark in its eye. Suddenly, it made a hopping dash, drew its head down with lightening-speed and came up with a large, lime-colored green tree frog. The yellow-billed cuckoo, with unabashed relish, gobbled down its amphibian feast.

After shaking off the after shocks of this brutal scene, we continued our hike. We literally nearly stumbled upon a big eastern box turtle in the middle of the path, and even found a long, sinuous red-bellied water snake basking in the dappled sun light. Soon we were introduced to Nature’s more delicate side. At eye-level, in the lush under-story of the lacustrine woods, two large butterflies danced before us. The butterflies were striped like zebras, white and black, but the white lines were imbued with an iridescent, almost glowing quality. The hind-wings were splashed with a hint of crimson and azure, ending in long tails.





We were watching the mating dance of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, a resident of the eastern United States known to breed in moist, low woodlands like those at Pettigrew State Park. The male zebra swallowtail typically searches for a mate near larval host plants, i.e., young paw-paws that the zebra swallowtail caterpillars thrive on. After mating concludes, the female will lay tiny rounded eggs on the leaves or trunk of pawpaws. These foam-green eggs are laid singly and relatively far apart because zebra swallowtail caterpillars will actually eat their siblings and neighbors, if they get too close. After feeding on paw-paw leaves, the caterpillar eventually forms a hard-shelled case resembling a curled-up, dried leaf. In fall or the following spring, another enchanting zebra swallowtail will emerge from this unprepossessing chrysalis, starting the cycle anew. For my husband and I, the twirling path of the frolicking zebra swallowtails and the erratic beating of their wings, lulled us back into reveries of days past at Pettigrew State Park, and left us content with the capriciousness of nature, human and otherwise.


Additional Information: Click on the link for maps & directions.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dendromania at Pilot Mountain

One Sunday morning, a number of years ago when my husband and I were still new to North Carolina and dedicated to seeing its plethora of natural wonders one-by-one, we ventured forth to see the widely esteemed Pilot Mountain, located about 25 miles northwest of Winston-Salem. Our mission was to see for ourselves this place of legend about which stories abound: Was it an extinct volcano? Or Mount Ararat, where Noah and his arc landed? Would we find evidence of Saura Indians or the fearless Daniel Boone 2,400 feet above sea-level?

If nothing else, my husband and I were hoping to walk around the Big Pinnacle, admiring its hard, thick layers of quartzite stone that resisted millennia of erosion while watching over eastern North America as glaciers advanced and retreated, as continents collided and separated. Perhaps we would even catch a glimpse of a common raven, an intelligent, sooty bird known to nest on the Big Pinnacle, or catch sight of a pileated woodpecker and its big, red crest gliding among the chestnut oaks and table mountain pines.

With hopes high, Mark and I pulled into the parking lot and were about to embark on an eye-opening hike down the well-worn Jomeokee Trail. Instead, we barely made it past the edge of the parking lot. Now, there is something I should tell you about me and my husband: we are both prone to recurrent bouts of “dendromania,” an obsession with tree identification that often results in trailside spats about scientific names and bud scales. This illness is considerably more severe than the common “dendrophilia,” symptoms of which include frequent commentary about the beauty of dried American beech leaves trembling in the winter wind and occasional illegal leaf collection.

At Pilot Mountain, this fine Sunday morning, our “dendromania” attack was prompted by a small tree with toothed, bristle-tipped leaves ranging from about three to five inches long. The underside of the leaf was velvety white, the top of the leaf was a rather plain medium green. What was this tree? My heart thumped in my chest. Could it be…perhaps… maybe… a small American chestnut not yet blighted by that invasive fungus? No, no, no, my husband said shaking his head at the sad, deluded child before him (i.e., me), these leaves are too small. Darn, he was right. American chestnut leaves are usually longer than six inches. It was much more likely a chinkapin oak, my husband opined, with the strange elongated leaves common amongst young trees standing in the sun. No way, I practically shouted, drawing uncomfortable stares from a small family making their way to the main attraction, chinkapin oaks don’t have bristle-tips!

We ran around the parking lot, and up Jomeokee Trail a ways, going from tree to tree, examining each leaf. After a while, uncertain and nearly stumped, we almost gave up. We were visiting at a bad time of year, we rationalized, with no flowers, no fruits. No one could identify this, I said contemptuously. And then it struck me. I looked at Mark and he had the wide-eyed look of someone that had been struck as well. Chinkapin, we whispered reverently. It fit: the fuzzy undersides and short length of the leaf, even the woolly twigs and bantam buds.

We had identified our tree. The Allegheny chinkapin (Castanea pumila) is a diminutive tree, or sometimes clumpy shrub, well known for it small, sweet dark brown nuts favored by deer, chipmunks, squirrels and wild turkeys. And although some individuals are affected by the blight that nearly wiped out its congener, the American chestnut, this species is largely resistant to the fungus. We were ecstatic, exhausted.

We hiked around the Big Pinnacle, just to catch our breath. If ravens soared overhead, we missed them. If a piece of Daniel Boone’s buckskin or a Sauran artifact laid in a rocky crevice, we missed that too. We didn’t see Noah’s footprints or give proper veneration to the ancient quartzite mountain, but we did enjoy an extraordinary view of our new home state, and most importantly, together we had valiantly fought through another episode of “dendromania.”

References:
Halls, L. K. 1977. Southern fruit producing wood plants used by wildlife. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service General Technical Report SO-16, New Orleans.

Little, E. L. 1980. National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Payne, J. A., G. P. Johnson, and G. Miller. 1993. Chinkapin: potential new crop for the south, p. 500-505 In J. Janick and J. E. Simon (eds.), New Crops, Wiley: New York.

Petrides, G. A. 1988. A Field Guide to Eastern Trees. Houghton-Mifflin, New York.

Radford, A. E., H. E. Ahles and C. R. Bell. 1983. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Stewart, K. G., and Roberson, M. 2007. Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Related Websites:
http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/pimo/main.php
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilot_Mountain_(North_Carolina)
http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=CAPU9