Monday, April 11, 2011

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: April in the Piedmont

Birds.− This month, spring migrants are headed our way. Some species that may be seen during the next couple months, as they head north, include: 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.

Did you know? The spring migration of birds occurs along four principal “flyways” in North America. Lucky for us, the Atlantic flyway crosses North Carolina, and provides a route northward from Central America and the West Indies for about 150 species of migratory birds. Ample food and cover exist along the entire mountain-free flyway, which stretches from the Gulf of Mexico, through the Carolinas and Virginia to the northeastern states and into central Canada.

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. The most spectacular visitors, this month, may be the monarchs and their mimics, viceroys.

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 skippers: the giant skippers (Megathyminae). The giant skippers are larger than other Hesperiidae, yet they are only medium-sized butterflies with relatively thick bodies. They tend to be brown with bright yellow markings. Although adults do not visit flowers, males will guard territories and can be found perched on vegetation. Since the giant skippers are typically found in the deserts of the southwestern United States, North Carolina is only home to two species: the Cofaqui giant skipper (Megathymus cofaqui) and the Yucca giant-skipper (Megathymus yuccae). The Cofaqui giant skipper is a resident of the extreme southwestern portion of the state, while the Yucca giant-skipper can be found in the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain. An uncommon species, the Yucca giant-skipper is typically found near its larval host plant (Yucca spp.) and is usually sighted only in April. To find out more about this species and to view their chimney-like chrysalis, visit Jeff Pippen’s great odonate website.

Other Insects.− This month, field crickets will begin to call, crane flies will hover in the grass and ticks abound.

Reptiles & Amphibians.−

What you’ll hear: Northern cricket frogs, eastern narrow-mouthed toads and Cope’s gray treefrogs will begin to call. American and Fowler’s toads, spring peepers, bull frogs, green frogs, southern leopard frogs and eastern spadefoots will continue to call, but the large choruses of southeastern chorus frogs will be winding down this month.

What you’ll see: Look in shallow permanent or ephemeral ponds to find frog and toad eggs and even tadpoles. In April, visible eggs include the long gray-green strings of Fowler’s toad eggs and globs of gelatinous black spotted Cope’s gray treefrog eggs. In most years, small and dark American toad tadpoles will emerge this month. Also, be on the lookout for basking yellow-bellied sliders and painted turtles. Snakes will be out as well, so be sure not to step on the diminutive and well-camouflaged northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi) when walking on preserve trails. When gardening this month, also watch out for secretive rough earth snakes and eastern worm snakes, North Carolina’s most common snake species.

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 diminutive plant with three mottled leaves radiating out from the center, topped by a single maroon flower; this is likely one of the Piedmont’s most common trilliums, little sweet betsy or Trillium cuneatum. This musk-scented gem was once used medicinally to treat gangrene and skin ulcers. It is now a favorite among natural landscapers, as it is deer resistant.

References: Cook, D. 2001. The Piedmont Almanac. Raleigh, NC: Barefoot Press. 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.