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.