Friday, January 1, 2010

Great Expectations: January in the Piedmont

Birds.− In January, many people are afflicted by winter birding doldrums. Yet, winter is a great time to watch busy birds from the comfort of your own home. Many species visit well-stocked feeders, including Carolina wrens, brown-headed nuthatches, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, northern cardinals, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, and finches. Woodpeckers often frequent feeders, especially downy woodpeckers and flickers.

Winter is also a great time to go out and find abandoned bird nests. Take plenty of pictures and notes for identification, but please leave those gems in place, since birds may re-use the nest or the materials from these nests in the next breeding season. Birds of prey often repair old nests and use them again, while passerines (i.e., songbirds) tend to build new nests each season (Harrison, 1975).

Butterflies.- A few butterflies manage to sneak out in January, especially sulphurs and whites (family: Pieridae), but sightings are rare.

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 with distinct identifying characteristics.

This month, we will consider a sub-family of the brush-foots: the true brush-foots (Nymphalinae). The Nymphalinae is among the oldest sub-families of butterflies, having existed for about 65 million years (Wahlberg, 2006). Members of the Nymphalinae are boldly colored with compact bodies (Daniels, 2003). These butterflies fly quickly and close to the ground, but are difficult to sneak up on (Daniels, 2003).

A number of species of true brush-foots are found in North Carolina: commas, crescents, buckeyes, checkerspots and painted ladies. The food plants for the caterpillars are variable. For example, larval host plants for the Question Mark include sugarberry (Celtis laevigata), elms (Ulmus sp.) and stinging nettle, while Common Buckeye caterpillars feed on foxgloves, plantains and wild petunia (Daniels, 2003). Adult Nymphalinids take nectar from a variety of flowers or feed on dung, carrion and tree sap (Daniels, 2003).

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Expect to hear chorus frogs and spring peepers on warm, wet January days. Spotted salamanders will appear in breeding ponds towards the end of the month.

In Bloom this Month.− Look out for these January fruits and flowers:

In Bloom (in some years):
BLUETS – Houstonia sp.

In Fruit:
BEAUTY BERRY – Callicarpa americana
SUGARYBERRY - Celtis laevigata
HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus

Round-lobed hepatica (Anemone americana), North Carolina Botanic Garden, Chapel Hill NC, March 23, 2009 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Historical Anecdote: White Fringe Tree, Old Man’s Beard – Chionanthus virginicus
“Only a little tree at best, 30 to 40 feet high, with a very slim-waisted trunk, the Fringetree is as gracile and feminine-seeming as any that grows beside the rushing stream or climbs the warm slopes of the Blue Ridge under the shelter of sturdier growths…If it has no economic importance, it contributes to the higher things of life: it is a raving beauty when in mid-spring it is loaded from top to bottom with the airest, most ethereal yet showy flowers boasted by any member of our northern sylva. A faint sweet fragrance breathes subtly from the flowers. In autumn the leaves turn a clear bright yellow.” – Donald Culross Peattie, 1948, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America

Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife profile in the SPOTTED SALAMANDER (Ambystoma maculata). The spotted salamander calls the Piedmont’s deciduous and mixed forests home, although it spends most of summer and winter below ground. However, in late January and early February, these slimy salamanders emerge to begin their magnificent courtships in ponds and slow streams. As described by Dave Cook (2001), in The Piedmont Almanac, the breeding ritual “includes elaborate rubbing movements directed towards stimulating the females…the males rubbing females on both their back and bellies, with much sensual squirming, the females nosing and rubbing the males in return.” After the mating ritual has ended, males deposit sperm at the bottom of a pond, where females pick it up to fertilize their eggs. Days later, the female attaches the fertilized eggs (up to 200) to submerged vegetation. The young larvae hatch in March; by June, the larvae transform into adults and begin their fossorial lifestyle, feeding on slugs and earthworms.

Did you know?
- Spotted salamanders return to the same mating pool, taking the same route, every year.
- They can live up to 20 years in the wild.
- Spotted salamanders secrete a milky toxin from glands on their backs and tails to deter predators.
- Spotted salamander populations are threatened by acid rain, habitat loss and the pet trade.

Identification: The spotted salamander is black with two rows of yellow to orange spots on its back. It reaches 6 to 10 inches in length.

Look for spotted salamanders after a good rain and during the full moon.

Marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) and spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculata), Duke Forest, Durham, NC, February 4, 2006 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

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.

Harrison, H. 1975. Peterson Field Guides Eastern Birds’ Nests. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Peattie, D. C. 1948. A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company.

Wahlberg, N. 2006. That awkward age for butterflies: insights from the age of the butterfly subfamily Nymphalinae. Systematic Biology 55:703-714.

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