Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Chapel Hill, NC

Brown Snakes at Mason Farm Biological Reserve (Chapel Hill, NC)

One of the most delightful surprises of warm autumn days is discovering snakes warming up on walking paths through forest and field. Today temperatures reached at least 72°F in the Triangle, and snakes were out basking in the sun. At Mason Farm Biological Reserve, we discovered three different brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) warming up on the graveled path. Brown snakes are recorded year round in North Carolina, even as late as December 23 in Guilford County. 

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

Sunday, September 9, 2012

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). Ruby-crowned kinglets, tiny olive-grey birds with bright red spots on their crown, returned to the Piedmont this month after spending the summer in the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern United States. 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.

Did you know that not all birds need to drink water? Hummingbirds rely on nectar to stay hydrated. Birds in arid areas may not drink at all either (think: ostriches.) Yet, most birds do drink to replenish fluids lost by breathing, excretion through skin and waste production. Some submerge their bills into the water and simply suck it up (e.g., doves). Other birds dip their bills into the water and then point up to the sky, letting the water fall back into their throat. A number of small bird species drink dew-drops.

Butterflies.− This time of year, butterflies are often surprisingly abundant. Look out for the usual suspects, including hackberry emperors gleaning sap from trees, tiger swallowtails puddling to uptake salts and other nutrients, and pearl crescents, whose caterpillars feed almost exclusively on asters.

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 hairstreaks (subfamily: Theclinae), small and intricately patterned members of the gossamer wing family (Lycaenidae). Hairstreaks are named for the small hair-like tails on the end of each hindwing. These tails resemble antennae and, along with bright eyespots, trick predators into attacking the tips of the wings, rather than the soft body of the butterfly. Males and females usually differ in appearance (i.e., they are sexually dimorphic), but both sexes fly erratically and perch with their wings held together while moving their hindwings up and down.  Gray hairstreaks (Strymon melinus), the most widely and commonly seen hairstreak in North Carolina, is particularly abundant in September. They are blue-gray below, with bright orange spots and a dark tail with a white tip. Gray hairstreaks prefer open sites, and larvae feed on partridge pea, vetch, clovers and other legumes.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Continue to keep an eye out for snakes and turtles, especially baby box turtles. Skinks and toads 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. Praying mantises will exude their eggs in a frothy, hardened mass called an ootheca in September.  Meanwhile, female garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) will be guarding egg cases.

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:
PERSIMMON – Diospyros virginiana
HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus
MUSCADINES – Vitis rotundifolia

Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife profile is the COPPERHEAD (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most widespread of North Carolina’s six venomous snakes. The copperhead probably occurs in every county in North Carolina, and is distributed throughout the southeastern United States. Known as “highland moccasins,” copperheads inhabit wooded areas ranging from riparian habitat to ridgetops. They sometimes reside in more open habitat and are fairly tolerant of human development, often frequenting trash piles and abandoned buildings.

The copperhead is a stout, moderately large viperid than can attain a maximum length of almost 4.5 feet. Adults are pinkish-brown with darker, brownish hourglass-shaped crossbands. Neonates, or newborns, have bright greenish-yellow tail tips. They mate in both spring and fall, and give birth to around a dozen live young in September and October. In autumn, copperheads will gather to den communally and with other snake species to better endure the colder months. Normally a quiet, retiring snake, copperheads will strike vigorously if annoyed.

Did you know?
  • Copperheads in the North Carolina Piedmont are intergradations of both northern copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) and southern copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix).
  • Vipers are identified by their triangular heads and vertical pupils; Colubrids, non-venomous snakes, have circular pupils.
  • Copperheads in North Carolina eat cicadas, caterpillars, frogs, toads, birds, mice, shrews, voles, lizards, hatchling box turtles, ringneck snakes and worm snakes.

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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Soil Ecology Class (starts Saturday!)

Interested in Soil Ecology? Sign up for a class at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. It will be a lot of fun!

Dates:Saturdays, Aug 4, 11, 18
Time: 1:30 - 5:30 pm
Instructor: Nicolette Cagle, Ecologist

This course is intended for a broad audience. Students are introduced to the complex world of soils including information on how they are formed, characterized, and populated by a wide array of organisms. An overview of soil types is presented, followed by the study of typical Piedmont soils and their properties. The various roles that soils play in both human society and ecological systems are discussed.

More information can be found here:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

2012 Call for Nominations for NAAEE Excellence in EE Awards

2012 Call for Nominations for NAAEE Excellence in EE Awards

Nominations Deadline: July 31, 2012
Help NAAEE recognize individuals and organizations that excel in EE by nominating them for one of our annual awards, including our highest honor -- The Walter E. Jeske Award.

The Call for Nominations is now open, and the awards will be presented on October 12th at the Annual Awards Luncheon at the 2012 NAAEE Annual Conference. Online nomination forms are linked here:

Monday, April 16, 2012

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.

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.

Some of our year-round residents are busy this month as well. Many Carolina wrens – small, energetic brown birds with upturned tails, distinct whitish eyebrows and curved bills -- hatch in April, and the young are heard boldly chirping in their nests. The female usually incubates five eggs in a nest of twigs, bark, leaves and grass busily constructed by both parents. Nest sites often can by found in cavities and protected areas, both natural and man-made. Unused grills and back porches are often prime real estate for these adaptable birds. After two weeks of incubation, young Carolina wrens hatch and noisily demand food from both parents. Carolina wrens live approximately six years and mate for life.

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.

Swallowtails, a largely tropical family of colorful butterflies with distinctive tails on their hind wings, make exciting sightings in April. Five swallowtail species make their homes in Durham County: the Spicebush Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Zebra Swallowtail, and the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is also the state butterflies of Delaware, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. Swallowtails typically use as a wide variety of flowers as nectar plants, and the caterpillars of some species can be quite particular. For example, the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars feed exclusively on Aristolochia species, including the native Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia durior) and Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria). The Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars strictly rely on the two pawpaws species native to North Carolina, tall pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and dwarf pawpaw (Asimina parviflora) as foodplants.

Other Insects.− This month, field crickets will begin to call, crane flies will hover in the grass and ticks abound. Also expect to see some dragonflies zipping through the air, searching for mosquitoes and other prey. Dragonflies to look for in April include the darners, a family that represents some of the largest and fastest flying dragonflies in North America. Species sighted in Durham County include the Common Green Darner, Springtime Darner, and Swamp Darner. The Common Green Darner – a three inch long green dragonfly with a brown and yellow (females) or bluish (males) abdomen -- probably is active longer than any other Dragonfly species in the state: it can be seen in the Piedmont from March through October cruising over open habitat, especially near still water.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, 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.

April frog call guide:

southeastern chorus frog: raspy, rising call like someone dragging their thumb over the teeth of a comb

spring peepers: a loud, medium pitched “peeep”

northern cricket frogs: clinking like two small metal balls being tapped together

American toads: long, musical trill

Fowler’s toads: long, slightly nasal, crabby trill

eastern narrow-mouth toads: buzzy and sheep-like call (like a Fowler’s toad, but shorter and buzzier)

eastern spadefoot toads: a crabby, deep “eeeerrrr”

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.

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)


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)

Soil Series of the Month.− Recall that the United States contains over 19,000 different soils series, i.e., the most specific grouping of soils based on shared history, chemistry, and physical properties. The most general classification of soil is the soil order. Worldwide, there are only 12 soil orders. North Carolina is home to seven: Entisols, Inceptisols, Alfisols, Ultisols, Mollisols, and Spodosols.

A common Ultisol, the quintessential deep red, clayey soil of the Piedmont, in this area is the Mayodan soil series. Mayodan soil is light gray or yellow-brown in the top six to twelve inches, and then becomes yellowish-red as depth increase. It is typically weathered from Triassic sediment (think: shales, sandstones, mudstones formed from erosion nearly 200 million years ago) in the uplands of the Piedmont and naturally supports oak-hickory forests. Over half of the acreage of Mayodan soil now support agricultural crops, especially corn, soybeans, tobacco, and cotton.

Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife feature is the NORTHERN PARULA (Parula americana), a colorful warbler that migrates to the Piedmont in spring and breeds locally. Northern Parulas are small songbirds with blue-gray heads and wings, yellow throats, and a chest banded with black, red, and bright yellow. They also sport white crescents above and below each eye and two white wing bars.

Each spring, Northern Parulas arrive mostly from the Caribbean, although they also winter in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Once in the Piedmont, these insectivorous birds move quickly, gleaning leaves and branches high in the canopy, although sometimes they can be seen at eye-level. Since they are difficult to find so high in the trees, North Parulas are often identified by their buzzy, ascending call that end in a distinct, sharp down note. They typically breed in bottomland forests and they make tiny nests of lichen (or Spanish moss further south) high in the canopy of oaks, maples, birches, and sycamores near the tips of branches. Nests are built quickly, in only a few days, and the same nest site may be used year after year. Only two weeks after laying speckled, creamy white eggs, helpless and unseeing young hatch.

Northern Parula populations appear to be stable or even increasing, but an unusual break occurs in their distribution between the north and south. Ornithologists have suggested that this break may be due to habitat change or to air pollution. Air pollution often kills vulnerable lichen species, which are an important nesting material for Northern Parulas.


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.

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

LeGrand, H. E. Jr. and Howard, T. E. Jr. 2011. Notes on the Odonates of North Carolina. 3rd Approximation.

Martof, B. S., W. M. Palmer, J. R. Bailey, and J. R. Harrison. 1980. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC.

Moldenhauer, R. R., and D. J. Regelski. 1996. Northern Parula (Parula americana). In The Birds of North America, No. 215 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

24 March 2012: Threatened Plant Communities of North Carolina: A Student Presentation at the North Carolina Botanical Garden

Threatened Plant Communities of North Carolina: A Student Presentation at the North Carolina Botanical Garden

You are cordially invited to a reception for the showcase of “Threatened Plant Communities of North Carolina: A Student Presentation” at the Education Center of the North Carolina Botanical Garden - The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Saturday, March 24 anytime between 12:00 PM until 3:00 PM.

Students from Duke University’s first-year writing course W20. From Woods to Words will display twelve informative and inspirational posters on the threatened plant communities of North Carolina. Food and drink will also be available.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Dr. Nicolette Cagle at nicolette.cagle (at)


NatureServe. 2011. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available (Accessed: August 18, 2011 ).

Noss, R. F. and R. L. Peters. 1995. Endangered Ecosystems: A Status Report on America’s Vanishing Habitat and Wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife: Washington, D.C. 133 pp.

Monday, February 20, 2012

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: February in the Piedmont

Birds.− In 1936, writer and naturalist Donald Culross Peattie opined that “February is a good month in which to make friends with the birds of a great city.” Perhaps Peattie is correct: In the heart of winter in North Carolina, not many changes are occurring in the bird world. In fact, the most active birds seem to be those frequent visitors of feeders: Carolina wrens begin pairing up and building nests, as do non-native house sparrows.

By the end of the month, purple martins and tree swallows will begin to reappear. Barred owls begin hooting their mating calls. 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.

Butterflies.− Many of our over-wintering butterfly species will re-emerge this month. 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. Other species sighted in Durham in February include sleepy oranges, American snouts and even variegated fritillaries.

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 another sub-family of the brush-foots: the emperors (Apaturinae). Apaturinids tend to be fast and nervous butterflies, often found perched on tree trunks or feeding on carrion, rotting fruit and dung. They will land on people, taking salt from arms and finger-tips. Resident Piedmont Apaturinids include the tawny emperor (Asterocampa clyton) and the hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis), medium-sized orange-brown butterflies with dark brown-black spots. Found in moist woods, along streams, and in backyards, both of these species lay creamy-white eggs on the leaves of hackberries (Celtis occidentalis) and sugarberries (Celtis laevigata); however, the tawny emperor lays large clusters on the underside of the leaves and the hackberry emperor lays single eggs or small clusters.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, expect to hear 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.− Look out for these February fruits and flowers:

In Bloom (*in some years):

RED MAPLE – Acer rubrum

HAZEL ALDER – Alnus serrulata

ROUND LOBED HEPATICA – Anemone americana

*EASTERN SPRING-BEAUTY – Claytonia virginica

*AMERICAN TROUT-LILY – Erythronium americanum

*CAROLINA JESSAMINE – Gelsemium sempervirens

*LITTLE HEARTLEAF – Hexastylis minor

BLUETS – Houstonia sp.

In Fruit:

BEAUTY BERRYCallicarpa americana

SUGARBERRY - Celtis laevigata

HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus


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)

Plant Profile.− This month’s plant profile is the ALLEGHENY CHINKAPIN (Castanea pumila).

“The Allegheny chinkapin [may] well be our most ignored and undervalued native North American nut tree.” – Payne et al., 1993

The Allegheny chinkapin (Castanea pumila), also known as the American, eastern, common or tree chinkapin[i], [ii], was first mentioned in Captain John Smith’s 1612 account of Virginia, where local American Indians called it checkinquamin6. Like its congener, the nearly extinct American chestnut (Castanea dentata), the Allegheny chinkapin bears sweet, dark nuts, smaller than those of the American chestnut, but still coveted by chipmunks, deer, deermice, rabbits, squirrels, along with bobwhites, grouse and wild turkeys 2, [iii], [iv]. The Allegheny chinkapin is also the larval host of the orange-tipped oakworm moth (Anisota senatoria)13.

The Allegheny chinkapin is found up to 4,500 feet elevation in the dry woods and rocky uplands of Appalachia and the southeastern United States, as well as in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas 1, [v], 6. This species is recorded in most counties in North Carolina, including northeastern-most Ashe county and southern-most Brunswick County 7. Hardy to zone 5 9, the Allegheny chinkapin grows in full sun to light shade and thrives in well-drained soils and those rich in organic matter 8, 10.

Allegheny chinkapins clump into shrubby thickets or grow into small trees[vi]. As a small tree, it can stretch 40 feet into the sky and obtain diameters of up to one and a half feet 6, 8. The toothed, bristled tipped leaves are 6 – 20 cm long, 2.5 – 5 cm wide with a whitish, velvet underside and green top 6, 7. The twigs are also woolly with buds much smaller than the related American beech (Fagus grandifolia)1, 7.Whitish flowers, in upright catkins 4 – 6 inches in length, bloom in July in North Carolina6, 7. While dark brown fruits or nuts, covered in a spiny involucres or cupules, mature in September or October7.

The small, egg-shaped chinkapin nuts are produced on trees by the second or third growing season, with 1,200 to 1,500 nuts being produced per tree by the sixth year4. These sweet nuts are 5% fat, 5% protein, 40% starch and 50% water2. The leaves of the Allegheny chinkapin have been used medicinally to treat fevers associated with the common cold 9, 11, 12.

Threats to the Allegheny chinkapin included weevils and other beetles2. Although the Allegheny chinkapin is largely resistant to the fungus that decimated the American chestnut, some plants have been affected by the blight2. This species is considered threatened in Kentucky and endangered in New Jersey5.

Additional 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.

Peattie, D. C. 16 Feb 1936. “Birds that are New Yorkers.” New York Times Magazine.

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

[ii] 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.

[iii] 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.

[iv] [accessed 10 January 2010]

[v] [accessed 10 January 2010]

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

7 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.

8 Holmes. J. S. 2002. Common Forest Trees of North Carolina (revised, 18th ed). North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, Division of Forest Resources, Raleigh, N.C.

9 [accessed 10 January 2010]

10 [accessed 10 January 2010]

11 Moerman, D. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

12 Weiner, M. A. 1980. Earth Medicine, Earth Food. Ballentine Books Fawcett Columbine, New York.

13 [accessed 10 January 2010]

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Roosevelt-Ashe Society Call for Conservation Award Nominations

Know an outstanding environmental educator, conservation volunteer, or philanthropist? If so, nominate them for the Roosevelt-Ashe Conservation Award. Nominations will be accepted until Friday, February 10.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: January in the Piedmont

Birds.− In the depth of winter, as you walk through the quiet woods, you may come across a lone thrush standing at attention with its delicately speckled throat exposed. Although the hermit thrush is a gifted songster, its song is muted until arriving at its breeding territory to the Canada and the western United States in spring. As the hermit thrush leaves the Piedmont, the wood thrush -- with its rufous wings and boldly spotted breast – arrives to mesmerize North Carolinians with its haunting call.

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.

This time of year, you may find your backyard birds primping and preening. Preening, a daily ritual, keeps feathers smooth and in good condition in two ways: first, by aligning the fine parallel branches of the feather, called barbs, which are covered by microscopic hooks that interlock; preening also helps spread oil, usually gathered from a gland near their rump, onto their feathers. This preen oil was once thought to waterproof feathers, but biologists now believe that it serves either as a feather conditioner or a chemical repellent to combat fungal growth and parasites. Either way, daily feather care is essential to birds’ health, reproductive success and survival.

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

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Expect to hear chorus frogs and spring peepers on warm, wet January days. The calls of southeastern chorus frogs resemble the noise of someone running their thumb over a plastic comb, while spring peepers charm with distinctive “peeping”.

Spotted salamanders will appear in breeding ponds towards the end of the month on warm rainy nights with plenty of moonlight. Found in the Piedmont’s deciduous and mixed forests home, spotted salamanders spend most of summer and winter below ground. However, in late January and early February, they emerge to begin their magnificent courtships in ponds and slow streams.

In Bloom this Month.− The bright red berries of our native hollies (North Carolina is home to at least ten species), including the deciduous holly (also known as possumhaw, Ilex decidua) and American holly (Ilex opaca) still cling to frosted branches. The brilliant berries, technically referred to as drupes, provide food for red foxes, gray squirrels, white-tailed deer, raccoons, eastern box turtles and many bird species, including wild turkeys, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, American goldfinches, and northern cardinals. Although wildlife devours these fruits, holly berries can make humans quite sick.

The remnants of the spiny, ball-like sweetgum fruit can also be seen still holding fast to lower branches. Each of these distinctive balls is actually composed of many beaked capsules, which each contain two tiny, black seeds.

In Bloom (in some years):


BLUETS – Houstonia sp.

In Fruit:

BEAUTY BERRYCallicarpa americana

SUGAR BERRY - Celtis laevigata

HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus


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


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

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

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

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