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.”

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:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Chinqua Penn Hiking Trail (Reidsville, Rockingham County, NC)

Overview: Located 30 minutes north of Greensboro, Chinqua Penn plantation consists of 22 acres of gardens, a short hiking trail, and one of North Carolina's architectural treasures: the Chinqua Penn plantation home. Built in the 1920's, the English-style home includes 27 rooms filled to the brim with antique furniture from around the globe. The grounds are open Wednesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and Sundays 1-5 pm. Wine tastings are also available. Please check the Chinqua Penn website for more details.

Directions: Visit the Chinqua Penn website for directions.

Observations & Ponderings: Chinqua Penn plantation exemplifies early 20th century ideas about the blending of human development and nature. The English-style home brings the outdoors in by using natural stone and wood. Conversely, the natural landscape is modified into parkland with koi ponds and gardens. A 1.7 mile hike through parklands, pastures and woods allows careful observers to view a variety of birdlife (including turkeys, woodpeckers and a number of songbirds) and brush-up on North Carolina tree identification. Visit the Dan River Basin Association website for a photo of the new Chinqua Penn walking trail boardwalk.

Photos of Chinqua Penn Plantation, Reidsville, NC, 14 January 2007 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

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.