Friday, July 1, 2011

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: July in the Piedmont

Birds.− This month, lucky birdwatchers may catch a glimpse of rare common mergansers, tricolor herons, little blue herons and snowy egrets. Also, sandpipers are beginning to return to the Piedmont. The melodious songs of most bird species begin to disappear this month, although the indigo bunting can still be heard from its high perch.

Populations of the indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) have steadily increased in abundance since the 1900’s, despite being vulnerable to cowbird parasitism. These brilliant blue finches prefer to breed in forest edges, open woodlands, weedy fields and orchards. As Piedmont habitats become increasingly fragmented (a process detrimental to many bird species), more edge habitat is available for nesting indigo buntings. Indigo bunting nests can be found one to 15 feet off the ground in tree tangles, and consist of woven grass, leaves and bark. The nests may even include snake skin, and they are often lined with fine grass, cotton, feathers and even hair. The female primarily cares for the young that hatch from the small (0.8”) white to light blue eggs. In summer, the indigo bunting displays sexual dimorphism, making it easy to distinguish the vibrant blue males from the brown females. In winter, indigo buntings will join flocks of other finch species and shift their diet from primarily insects to seeds.

In July, remember to look for anting behavior, when birds carefully arrange themselves on top of an ant hill or vigorously rubbing its feathers with an ant. Summer and year-round residents that are known to engage in anting include the yellow-billed cuckoo, mourning dove, common flicker, brown thrasher and pine warbler.

Remember: Give those fledglings a fighting chance by KEEPING CATS INDOORS.

Butterflies.− This month the grass skipper doldrums begin, but grass skipper activity should increase by the end of the month. Also, the flight of the common wood nymph is just beginning, so you may see some fresh (i.e., newly emerged) ones out and about. Lucky observers may also see fresh Appalachian browns and tawny emperors.

Also, observant naturalists and gardens may notice large green caterpillars with black and orange markings munching away on flowers in the Carrot family this month, or you might even see strange, greenish-brown cocoons hanging from plants (see video of the process). Most likely, you are witnessing black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) larvae in action. In fact, the black swallowtail is one of the most commonly seen garden butterflies. Males are recognized by their jet black wings lined with yellow-orange bands, a few blue spots and a single black-eyed orange spot. The female is mostly black with lines of yellow and blue spots. After a female black swallowtail lays yellowish eggs on a member of the Carrot family, it takes a few days to hatch into a caterpillar. The caterpillar will go through five instars (or stages, click here for more information) before transforming into a chrysalis. After about 10 days, a butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis, although in some cases, the chrysalis will over-winter.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Keep an eye out for snakes and turtles this month, their eggs are still incubating, but some may hatch towards the end of the month. Fence lizards and skinks are also out in abundance. Large choruses of Cope’s gray treefrogs, green tree frogs, bullfrogs and green frogs can still be heard this month. Also listen for eastern narrow-mouthed toads and eastern spadefoots. Cope’s gray treefrog froglets will continue to emerge from ponds and wetlands this month.

Other Insects.− Cicadas and katydids will be chorusing in earnest this month. Also, lookout for increased numbers of Japanese beetles, a pest that arrived from Japan in 1916. This month, a number of large and fascinating beetles can be found in abundance. Some species you might see (with identifying traits in parentheses) include: fiery searchers (up to 1.5 inches long, with greenish, lined wings), Bess beetles (large black beetle with small horn), Hercules beetles (army green with black spots; males have two horns -- one on the thorax and one on the head), and reddish-brown stags (reddish-brown beetles, with “antlers”).

In Bloom this Month.− Lookout for some striking July flowers and their amazing array of pollinators. Ever wonder why flowers come in such a diversity of shapes, sizes and colors? They are meant to attract different pollinators. Orange flowers, like butterflyweed, and purple flowers, like purple-coneflower, primarily attract butterflies although other pollinators will visit these floral gems as well. Tubular red flowers with copious and sweet nectar, like cardinal flower and trumpet creeper, are very attractive to hummingbirds.

In Bloom:

SMALL-FRUIT AGRIMONY – Agrimonia microcarpa

SWAMP MILKWEED – Asclepias incarnata

DOWNY YELLOW FALSE-FOXGLOVE – Aureolaria virginica

AMERICAN BEAUTY-BERRY – Callicarpa americana

TRUMPET CREEPER - Campsis radicans

GREEN-AND-GOLDChrysogonum virginanum

WHORLED TICKSEED – Coreopsis verticillata

TICK TREFOIL(S) – Desmodium spp.

INDIAN-STRAWBERRY – Duchesnia indica

PURPLE-CONEFLOWER – Echinacea spp.



THOROUGHWORT – Eupatorium spp.

WHITE AVENS – Geum canadense

SCARLET ROSE-MALLOW – Hibiscus coccineus

ST. ANDREW’S-CROSS – Hypericum hypericoides

VIRGINIA BUNCHFLOWER –Melanthium virginicum

SUMMER PHLOX – Phlox paniculata

AMERICAN LOPSEED – Phryma leptostachya

BLACK-EYED-SUSAN(S) – Rudbeckia spp.

HOARY SKULLCAP – Scutellaria incana

STICKY ROSINWEED – Silphium glutinosum

STARRY ROSINWEED –Silphium asteriscus

AXILLARY GOLDENROD – Solidago caesia.

STOKES’-ASTER – Stokesia laevis

IRONWEED – Vernonia spp.

Piedmont Habitats.− Have you ever wanted to identify characteristics of a forest or habitat by a few key plant or animal species or cues from the landscape? Old hayfields are usually dominated by grasses and legumes, while former pasture land (i.e., grazed) is often home to eastern red cedar, thistle and dense fescue.


Burt, W. H. and R. P. Grossenheider. 1980. A Field Guide to the Mammals, 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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.

Elbroch, M. 2003. Mammal Tracks and Signs A guide to North American Species. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Wagner, D. L. 2005. Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ