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.