Bristly Night Crawler

Be not preoccupied with looking. Go not to the object; let it come to you.

~Henry David Thoreau

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar 1

Large caterpillar on the stone path at night (click on photos to enlarge)

The other night, the object of interest and I met on the walkway, me barely avoiding stepping on it as I carried in some stuff from my car after dark. Luckily, the light of the walkway lights illuminated this very large caterpillar so I was able to step over it.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar with quarter for scale

Although it superficially resembles the familiar Woolly Worm caterpillar of purported weather forecasting fame, I recognized this one as the larva of the Giant Leopard Moth, Hypercompe scribonia, from its large size, abundant black bristles, and red bands between the body segments. They really are big caterpillars, this one being about 3 inches long. They spend the day in leaf litter or under debris and come out at night to feed on a variety of plant materials. This guy was chewing on an old Tulip Poplar flower petal laying on the stone. Although appearing formidable and potentially hazardous to handle, they are harmless.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar defensive posture

Defensive posture

When I gently touched it, the caterpillar curled into its distinctive defensive posture, which really reveals the bright red colors between segments. Given that the adult moths secrete defensive chemicals, it is safe to assume this warning coloration in the larva also signals some bad taste to any that might want to dine on this bristly night crawler. Caterpillars can be found almost any time of year as they probably have a couple of generations in this portion of their range, and they overwinter as larvae. The adults are large, gorgeous moths. Here is a link to some images from the Moth Photographers Group. Hopefully, I will have my own images before the summer is over.

The Bobbing Rock

You only need to sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.

~Henry David Thoreau

Campsite

Campsite at Elk Knob State Park (click photos to enlarge)

In my last post I mentioned the incredible bird life at Elk Knob State Park seen in a recent backpacking trip. The gurgling stream next to camp drowned out many of the bird songs we heard along the trail as we hiked. But, after setting up camp, we were sitting and enjoying the scenery when we saw a flash of wings zipping by upstream. In a few seconds we saw the source – a Louisiana Waterthrush.

Mountain stream

Mountain stream next to camp provides excellent Louisiana Waterthrush habitat

Although referring to its close cousin, the Northern Waterthrush, a description by ornithologist E.H. Forbush is very applicable to this species as well – It is a large wood warbler disguised as a thrush and exhibiting an extreme fondness for water.  That pretty much sums it up. It is hard to believe this is a warbler. Instead of the bright spring colors of many wood warblers, the Louisiana Waterhrush is dull brown and streaky, blending in very well with the leaf litter and exposed rocks along the mountain streams they call home. And unlike the warbler neck pains you typically get from staring up in treetops trying to identify most spring warblers from below, you can sit quietly and watch this species walking on the ground and hopping from rock to rock as it forages along a babbling brook.

Since I rarely carry telephoto lenses while backpacking, I can’t show you close up images of this bird, so I refer you to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website for some basic information on Louisiana Waterthrushes and how to distinguish them from Northern Waterthrushes. What I can tell you is these birds are fascinating to watch. One of the distinctive behaviors of waterthrushes is their tail bobbing as they walk. A few other species do this, most notably some other birds frequenting the shores of waterways – Spotted Sandpipers and American Dippers. I have yet to find a really good explanation for this behavior. Quite honestly, if these birds did not constantly bob as they walk, it would be much more difficult to spot them along the rocky stream banks. I hope there is some benefit to the bird for this bizarre behavior, because it seems to me it makes them much more susceptible to potential predation.

After watching the first bird for a couple of minutes, it became clear that there was probably a nest nearby. The waterthrush was gathering food, lots of food, in the form of various insects along the stream, and then started bobbing its way toward us. As we watched, it bobbed on a rock right across the creek from our tent, then flow up under the overhanging bank and disappeared – a nest! In a few seconds, it dropped down next to the creek, and quickly walked off downstream. We sat and watched this routine for several minutes. The adult birds came to the nest every 5 to 10 minutes with a beak full of bugs, bobbed on some rocks below the nest, and then flew up to feed the young. In between one of the feedings, we hopped across the stream to take a closer look.

Nest site

Nest site under overhanging stream bank

The nest was tucked up under an overhang, surrounded by some dangling tree roots. It is along the inside of the upper left side of the “X” formed by the gray roots in this photo…see it? Look a little above the center of the photo, just to the right of the left branch of the X.

Louisiana Waterthrush nestlings

Louisiana Waterthrush nestlings

Here it is up close. We didn’t want to disturb the birds, so we took a quick picture or two and then retreated back to the other side of the creek. We watched the adults as they continued to bring what looked like super-sized meals to their tiny babies. But, notice how big the beaks of the young are…I guess they can handle the large prey being brought to the nest by their busy parents. Although it was difficult to identify a lot of the food items through binoculars (especially since the adults are constantly bobbing up and down ad side to side), we did see the what looked like damselflies, dragonflies, mayflies, stoneflies, cranefly larvae, and many other large insects filling the beaks of the adults.

You can imagine how I was wishing for a telephoto lens to capture some images of these busy adult birds and all that food in their beaks. I did have my 17-40mm wide angle. So, I decided to try something. The adults did not seem bothered by our presence and continued to feed their young even when we were moving about camp, so I walked across the stream when they had gone out to forage and set up my camera to do some remote video.

Nest site and camera

Nest site and camera

The birds seemed to always stop in one general location and bob repeatedly before jumping up to the nest. I set the camera on some rocks, covered it with my green raincoat, and then laid some more rocks and leaves on top to help it blend a little better with the irregular patterns along the stream bank. The adults didn’t even seem to notice after their initial visit back to the nest. It took several takes, but I finally captured a couple of clips to share.

This is a typical sequence where an adult bird comes up to the main “bobbing rock” for a few seconds and then steps away.

A few seconds later, the adult comes back, begins to bob vigorously while looking up toward the nest, and then suddenly flies up to feed. The usual routine was to then drop back down and scurry off a few feet before flying away to forage some more. We did see one adult pause for several minutes and take a splash bath in the water and then preen.

Fecal sac dropped in stream

Fecal sac dropped in stream

Every three of four feeding trips ended with an adult bird bringing out a fecal sac produced by one of the young birds. In most species I have observed, adult birds fly off with the fecal sac and drop it many yards from the nest. This makes sense in terms of reducing the chances that potential predators can cue in on a nest location from the droppings of the nestlings. But these adults always carried the fecal sac to the edge of the stream and dropped it in the water, where it was usually quickly carried off downstream.

Watching the feeding activities of this pair of adult birds was amazing. It isn’t often you are in a situation to observe this sort of behavior for an extended period of time. As we broke camp on the second morning, I watched them bring a beak full of wings and abdomens one last time, dance on the bobbing rock, and disappear into the nest. I wished them well and thanked them for a rare glimpse into the private life of a special species that some have called, the “feathered trout”.

A New Favorite

Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors.  Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.

~ Edwin Way Teale

As you may remember, I started my career with the North Carolina State Parks System. I really love our state parks and what they represent – the best of what this beautiful state has to offer. When I left the Division in 1989 to go to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, I believe there were 29 state parks (plus some state recreation areas and state natural areas). Now, there are 34 state parks. With the 100th anniversary of the state park system approaching in 2016, I want to make sure I have visited all of our them. One park caught my eye on a very short trip a couple of years ago and, last week, I finally managed a more extensive visit to Elk Knob State Park.

Unusuual understory at Elk Knob

Open understory at Elk Knob State Park (click photos to enlarge)

Once in danger of becoming a housing development, Elk Knob was purchased through the concerted efforts of concerned local citizens, local landowners, and The Nature Conservancy. The land was deeded to the state in 2003 under the Division of Parks and Recreation and is now one of our newest state parks. It is one of a series of amphibolite mountains in the southern Appalachians, and its unusual geology and less acidic soils support a variety of ecological communities that are very different from most mountain habitats. The grasses and sedges seen in the understory give areas around the park office and along some of the trails a very distinctive look.

Large Flowered Trillium

Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum

Large Flowered Trillium 1

The white blossoms of the Large-flowered Trillium fade to pink with age

Mayapple flower

Mayapple flower, Podophyllum peltatum

Witch Hobble

Witch Hobble, Viburnum lantanoides

Everywhere you walk you see a tremendous variety of wildflowers – trilliums, Mayapple, cohosh species, violets, Solomon’s Seal, Bloodroot, Giant Chickweed, and many, many more. Having just been to the wildflower wonderland of Elk Garden in Virginia, I can truly say the trails at Elk Knob may be the second most impressive wildflower display area I have seen in many years.

Campsite

Backpack campsite at Elk Knob State Park

The park is still under development and has picnic areas, trails, a new (and beautiful) outdoor amphitheater, park office, and primitive camping. We hiked a little over a mile down to one of the backpack sites and set up camp, the only campers in the park for those two nights.

Spring green

Trees were just beginning to leaf out at this elevation

Our campsite was next to a beautiful stream and set in a forest just leafing out in brilliant spring greens. I rarely carry any telephoto lenses with me when backpacking, but I regret it on this trip as the bird life was as spectacular as the wildflower display. I posted a few weeks ago about the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks passing through the Piedmont in migration. I think I now know where most of them went – pairs of these beautiful songsters were constant companions on the 9+ miles we hiked on park trails. We saw a lot of other species of neotropical migrants including Scarlet Tanager, Black-and-white Warbler, Canada Warbler, Least Flycatcher, Veery, Ovenbird, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and a cooperative nesting pair of Louisiana Waterthrush (more on these in my next post). In addition, there were some resident species such as Common Raven, Blue Jay, and Barred Owl that were common during our visit.

View from the summit

View from the summit

We hiked the moderately strenuous 1.9 mile trail to the summit, where the advertised stunning views lived up to the hype. At an elevation of 5,520 feet, Elk Knob is one of the tallest peaks in the region, and looking north, we could see Mt. Rogers and Whitetop Mountain in Virginia, an area we had hiked in just a few days before.

Trail near the summit

Trail near the summit

But, for me, the vegetation, bird life, and beautiful rock outcrops along the trail are equally impressive. As you near the summit, the northern hardwood forest, dominated by Yellow Birch, Northern Red Oak and American Beech, becomes a gnarled and stunted forest due to the harsh conditions of winter winds and cold. And all along the trail, there are simple beauties to behold (especially if you stop frequently to catch your breath). I love the patterns, the lines and colors, of nature up close when you take the time to stop and look. And this park is one you will want to take in, a little at a time, until it fills you with its beauty and, both literally and figuratively, takes your breath away. Here are a few of my favorite breathless moments…

Violet

Woolly Blue Violet, Viola sororia

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail, Cordulegaster bilineata

Fern and shadow

Fern and shadow

Clinging to a boulder

Clinging to a boulder

The Neighbor Moth caterpillar

Caterpillar of The Neighbor Moth, Haploa contigua

Lousewort

Early Wood Lousewort, Pedicularis canadensis

Witch Hobble leaf

Witch Hobble leaf

Trees along the trail

Trees along the Summit Trail

Walking in this incredible landscape I was struck by the dedication of the staff that have created the beautiful trail system and help protect this special place. They deserve our support. Learn how you can help your local public land agency managers and see if there are non-profit support groups (such as Friends of State Parks) that assist them with much needed financial and other help. I also give thanks to conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and local land trusts and conservancy organizations throughout our state that lead the way in surveying and protecting critical habitats for the future. Purchasing and managing lands for the public and our native ecosystems is one of the most important conservation efforts we can support and I encourage everyone to do what they can for this cause. I am glad Elk Knob has been set aside for us and all the spectacular plants and animals that call it home. And I am thrilled to have discovered a new favorite to visit whenever I am in the Watauga County region.

Destination Damascus

The longer I live the more my mind dwells upon the beauty and the wonder of the world… I have loved the feel of the grass under my feet, and the sound of the running streams by my side.  The hum of the wind in the treetops has always been good music to me…

~John Burroughs

Last week, I went to visit my parents in Damascus, VA, to celebrate Mother’s Day and my Dad’s 84th birthday. In what has become somewhat of an annual tradition, we went up to see the wildflower display at Elk Garden, part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. It did not disappoint, and the array of blooming flowers was spectacular. Here are just a few of the stars of the trail…

Fringed Phacelia

Fringed Phacelia (click photos to enlarge)

Twisted Stalk

Twisted Stalk

Umbrella Leaf

Umbrella Leaf

 Violet

Canada Violet

Wake Robin pair 1

Wake Robin Trillium

Beech leaf out

American Beech leaves bursting out

While we were up the trail gawking at flowers, my folks stayed at the parking lot and talked with the many hikers heading north on the Appalachian Trail (AT). The wildflower display is on part of the AT. Damascus, known as the Friendliest Town on the AT, is hosting its annual Trail Days on May 15-17, where thousands of people join hundreds of hikers to celebrate all things AT, so traffic on the trail tends to increase this time of year.

Packages waiting for hikers at Mount Rogers Outfitters

Packages waiting for hikers at Mount Rogers Outfitters

Another sign of trail traffic is the large number of packages waiting to be picked up by through-hikers at the Damascus Post Office and trail-friendly vendors in town like Mount Rogers Outfitters.

There is another famous trail that passes through this little mountain community, and one that, In spite of having spent a lot of time in Damascus over the years, I had not made the time to properly visit. I am speaking of the famous Virginia Creeper Trail.

Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile rail-to-recreation trail that runs from Abingdon, VA, through Damascus, and up to Whitetop Station near the VA-NC border. The last train to run this route was in 1977. The conversion to a trail was completed in 1984. Over 100,000 people now ride the trail each year, bringing tens of thousands of dollars into the local communities. There are at least five bike rental shops in Damascus alone. The sight of multiple vans hauling trailer loads of bikes on almost any warm weekend is one of the reasons I probably have put off doing this trail (crowds not being my thing). It has also probably been twenty years since I have been on a bicycle, so that may have entered into the equation as well. But, being there on a weekday, early in the season, I thought it was finally time. As it turned out, there were very few people on the trail that morning, other than the family of 6 that rode the thirty minutes up to Whitetop Station in our van. After traveling only a few hundred yards down the trail, my first thoughts were you really do never forget how to ride a bike, and why had I waited so long to experience this – it is beautiful!

Trestle

One of the 47 trestles on the Virginia Creeper Trail

Even though the trail is at times a fairly narrow path through private lands, it is full of pastoral scenes, lush forests, and abundant wildlife. A favorite part of the trail for me was passing over the numerous trestles that bridge ravines or the many creeks along the way.

Snake and millipede on trestle

Some elongate visitors on one of the trestles

On one of the higher trestles, I stopped to take some photos and was surprised to see two linear sightseers seemingly enjoying the view down into the ravine – a Black Rat Snake and one of my favorite millipedes, Narceus americanus. These large millipedes (they can attain lengths of over 4 inches) are common in eastern forests, especially in the mountains. By the way, notice the milky eye color on the snake – this is a sign it is getting ready to shed its skin.

Scene along Creeper Trail

Farmland scene along the trail

Fire Pink

Fire Pink flowers on a moss-covered cliff

We stopped in Taylor’s Valley for a leisurely lunch at the Cafe, a welcoming destination for hungry and thirsty cyclists.

Taylor's Valley

Creeper Trail Cafe in Taylor’s Valley

William Lane Dunn bridge

William Lane Dunn bridge in Taylor’s Valley

Before leaving, I had to pose for a photo at the bridge in Taylor’s Valley, named in honor of my Dad’s Uncle Bill. William Dunn was an important member of the community, and loved to fish from that bridge, so the townsfolk had the new bridge named in his honor when it was rebuilt.

Laurel Creek

Laurel Creek, one of the waterways along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Laurel Creek

Inviting mountain streams wander along much of the route

Laurel Creek, Straight Branch, and a host of small mountain streams are your company along much of the trail, providing a beautiful backdrop to the experience. We biked the 17 miles from Whitetop Station to Damascus in a little less than four hours, stopping frequently along the way to bird watch, look at plants, enjoy the scenery, and have lunch. The ride was magical, and, as the proprietor of the bike rental shop told us, once you go, you will come back. I think he is right. Spring is great on the trail (lots of migratory birds to enjoy), but I bet autumn would be spectacular as well, with the areas’ renowned fall colors. I almost forgot to mention one of the primary reasons this bike trail is so popular with everyone…the entire 17 miles we rode is downhill or flat, making it a very easy trip, even for beginners.

If you are in southwest Virginia, I encourage you to consider exploring the region around Damascus – Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, the Virginia Creeper Trail, and so much more. And, if you need a cozy place to stay while in the area (Warning – shameless family promotion about to occur), I can highly recommend a rental property run by a very nice couple (Mom and Dad). Check out the Country Cottage, and tell them you know me:)

Meals on Wings

They are a peculiarly honest and sociable little bird…they are considerable company for the wood chopper.

~Henry David Thoreau on chickadees

Of course, Thoreau was speaking of Black-capped Chickadees, found throughout much of the northern half of the United States and down into the Carolinas in the higher elevation mountains. This week I have been watching and trying to photograph the look-alike southeastern species, the Carolina Chickadee. I am working on a project trying to film the food items that some of our local bird species feed to their nestlings to show the importance of native plants as habitat for the food that birds need to catch to successfully raise their young. I was asked to start with Carolina Chickadees, probably due to their endearing nature and widespread distribution and association with human habitats. It is a bird that most people recognize and appreciate.

I have a couple of hollow log nest boxes in my yard and both were occupied by chickadees in April. I was excited as I knew this could provide some good natural-looking photo opportunities. But the birds fooled me.

My first week of filming was frustrating. The birds tolerated my presence, but they never paused at the nest entrance so I could tell what they were feeding their young. They just zipped into the nest cavity, delivered the miniscule morsel, and flew back out. So, I have many takes of the clip above. Not very useful, I thought. The young had just hatched so maybe the parents would slow down a bit when they started bringing larger food items. Nope, wrong again. After filming for several days over the nesting period, I gave up on my nest boxes, as the parent birds continued to just zip into the hole.

Chickadee nest box set up

My neighbors’ nest box and perch (click photos to enlarge)

I had alerted neighbors to my project and a couple had offered their nest boxes as subjects, so I went to one that had a wooden dowel perch on top of the box. They had told me the birds would fly to the perch, sit a second or two, then go into the nest box. Success!

Again, the birds were incredibly cooperative. I had camouflage netting to cover me and the camera set up, but as I was setting everything up, an adult flew in, perched nicely, fed the young and left, all while I was standing there in the open. Over the next two days I spent about four hours gathering footage of the chickadee meals on wings program. The more I watched, the more amazed I was at the efficiency of these two parent birds.

Chickadee bringing food to nest

Chickadee bringing food to nest – a caterpillar

I decided to record their comings and goings for an hour to see how many trips they made and what they were feeding to their young. Here are the results for one hour of feeding time from 10:15 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. one day last week:

21 feeding trips to the nest box that brought the following food items

14 spiders, 6 caterpillars, 4 invertebrates of unknown type (on three trips an adult brought two items in its beak)

Chickadee bringing food to nest - spider

Spiders were the meal of choice for this pair of chickadees

The number of spiders was amazing. And, of the 14 spiders brought in, at least 10 seemed to be the same species!

Chickadee bringing food to nest - spider 4

The food of choice

The preferred food item looks like some sort of Sac Spider, a fairly common spider in vegetation in this part of the world.

Chickadee bringing food to nest - spider 2

Not another spider, Mom!

The chickadees in my yard fed their young until they fledged on day 17 after hatching. I did notice many small caterpillars and spiders being brought in. If you do some calculations, it becomes an amazing amount of food gathered…

21 trips per hour equals 252 feeding trips in a 12 hour day

252 trips per day times 17 days equals 4284 feeding trips while the young are in the nest

If the pair in my neighbors yard captures spiders and caterpillars at the same rate for the entire 17 days the young may be in the nest, they will bring 2827 spiders and 1199 caterpillars to their hungry babies.

Even though these amounts are probably off due to the different sizes of food needed as the baby birds grow, impacts of weather on foraging success, and other variables, it still is an amazing number of food items gleaned from the adjacent forest and yard. That is the point of this project, showing the importance of planting native plants in your yard. Native plants harbor both greater numbers and diversity of invertebrates when compared to non-native species. And these invertebrates are critical food sources for young birds. I hope to film some other species as the nesting season progresses, so look for updates in future posts.

 

 

Sky Flowers

What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?

~Pablo Neruda

Last week while walking in the woods, I stopped to pick up a flower. I can imagine if you did not know, the flower would be a puzzle, lying there on its side, with no others growing in the soil nearby.

Tulip Poplar flower on ground

A pretty flower lying on the ground (click photos to enlarge)

But I have seen these many times, so I know to look up, way up. This is the beautiful flower of one of my favorite trees, the Tulip Poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera. You have to be on a slope looking down or in a multi-story building to get an eye-level view of this beauty as they typically grow forty or fifty feet high in the branches of large trees.

Flowres on Tulip Poplar branch

Flowers on Tulip Poplar branch

It is really amazing how many of these flowers there are up there when you start looking. I counted close to 30 on this one branch. The tree easily has thirty or more branches, so there are at least a thousand flowers on this one tree. Multiply that by the twenty large Tulip Poplars just around the house, and you can see that, in this patch of woods alone, there are tens of thousands of these large showy flowers suspended over my head.

Tulip Poplar flower

Tulip Poplar flower

I pulled back the petals a bit on the flower I found to get a closer look at its inner workings. It was sticky to the touch, perhaps indicating a lot of nectar, or maybe some aphid honeydew, or both.

Tulip Poplar flower 2

Looking down on a flower

There are six petals, dabbed in a yellow-orange that compliments the light greens of spring.

Tulip Poplar flower 1

Stamen and large pistil

But the most striking aspect up close is the army of thirty or so stamens surrounding the fused pistils. All of this, the color, the nectar, the size, and abundance, make Tulip Poplar flowers very attractive to pollinators such as butterflies and bees. But, it apparently is a race against time. A USDA publication suggests that the flowers must be pollinated within a day or two in order to produce seeds.

Tulip Poplar flower and leaves

Gift from the sky

Even though the Tulip Poplar flowering time is waning, I still find a gift from the sky every now and then on my morning walks. One more reason to appreciate these magnificent trees.

Love is in the Air

There is no remedy for love but to love more.

~Henry David Thoreau

Snipe Fly love that is…and actually, most of it is on the ground or low vegetation. A few days ago I posted something about a cool insect I discovered in the yard, a Golden-backed Snipe Fly. Yesterday, when I walked outside, I saw another, then another, and another. It is apparently mating season for these gold-splotched beauties. So, a brief ode to love this morning…

Golden-backed Snipe Flies mating

Golden-backed Snipe Flies mating (click photos to enlarge)

If you recall, males are smaller than females and can be recognized when alone by the fact their eyes touch each other.

Golden-backed Snipe Fly female

Golden-backed Snipe Fly female

The eyes of females do not touch. And, she is obviously larger and more robust.

Golden-backed Snipe Flies mating on iris leaf

Mating pair on iris leaf

I saw 5 mated pairs as I walked around the yard on my morning “tour”. If I got too close with my strange camera gear (the macro twin light and diffusers probably look like some giant googlie-eyed insect to most small critters), the pair would clumsily take flight, female in the lead, and land nearby to continue their morning ritual. My apologies to all for the disturbance…carry on.

The Vine That Isn’t

There’s so much for you to see outdoors. The one requirement, you have to be there to see it.

~Greg Dodge

As the sun came up Tuesday morning I walked out to the gate at the driveway to listen to the bird songs and have a look around. As I was walking back to the house, something caught my eye. It was one of those things I probably shouldn’t have noticed, but did. Maybe my brain has a map of the area imprinted on it, and when there is something different, even slightly out of place, it notices….who knows.

Something out of place

Something out of place (click photos to enlarge)

Do you see it? I’ll move closer…

Moving closer

Moving closer

If not before, how about now?

Rough Green Snake

Rough Green Snake

Yes, it is a beautiful Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus. This slender beauty is one of my favorite reptiles. To me, they represent the epitome of graceful snakeiness. They occur throughout most of North Carolina and are one of our more arboreal of snake species, spending most of their time foraging in bushes and low trees.

Rough Green Snake hanging from limb

Is it a vine or a snake?

Their slender bodies, leaf-green color (although their ventral surface is somewhat greenish-yellow), and habits make them a great vine mimic as they slowly move through low branches in search of their favorite foods – caterpillars and other small insects, slugs, and spiders. Typical adult size is from about 18 to 30 inches in length and about the thickness of a child’s little finger. And they have a remarkable ability to extend this slender body over seemingly impossible lengths to get from one branch to another.

Rough Green Snake color

Their color and slender shape allows them to blend in to surrounding vegetation

This particular snake was about 5 feet up in a shrub. I moved around trying to get in a better position for a photo. But every time I took my eyes off of the snake, it would take me a few seconds to find again…true masters of camouflage. But look closely at the color of the keeled scales on this snake in the picture above. See the blue spot?

Blue spots

This specimen had several blue flecks on its scales

This snake had several blue flecks on its scales. Interestingly, this species turns blue when it dies. I have seen a couple of these as unfortunate victims of roadkills, and they turn a striking blue color. I wonder if damaged scales turn blue as well, and if they disappear on the next shed?

Rough Green Snake 2

Observing the observer

Every time I see one of these elegant snakes, I take a few moments to appreciate their remarkable sense of oneness with their environment. This, plus the fact that they are totally harmless to us humans, makes the Rough Green Snake an excellent ambassador for the beauty and importance of snakes.

Rough Green Snake 1

Beauty in a slender form

Swarm

To a degree seldom grasped even by entomologists, the modern insect fauna has become predominantly social.

~Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, The Ants.

I had too much to do on such a beautiful weekend, but I did manage a stroll through the woods on Saturday. I checked on the status of a small population of Yellow Lady Slippers that have survived the onslaught of the local deer (no flowers as yet), and then walked down toward the creek to see what birds might be out and about. But something caught my eye along the path before I reached the creek….some movement.

Termite emergence 1

Termite emergence on a log in the woods (click photos to enlarge)

It was a writhing mass of termites on a log along the path. They were coming up in a line from somewhere under the soil near the log, crawling up to the tallest point on the log, and were then seemingly engulfed in a termite jam. I have seen this behavior many times in the woods in this region, often with several adjacent colonies emerging together. I’ve never figured out how they manage to synchronize their emergence, but on this day, this was the only action I could see. A relatively small swarm as termite dispersals go, perhaps only a coupe of hundred or so winged termites, looking to set off and form new colonies. I did a couple of quick videos as so much of the fascination of stumbling upon this scene was watching how they move.

https://vimeo.com/126726717

This shows the action when I first came upon it. The termites seemed almost frantic, but unsure of what to do once they reached the pinnacle of the log.

https://vimeo.com/126726715

As I laid there next to the log, listening to the birds overhead, and watching these industrious insects, the termites began to take off. They are not the most graceful of fliers, but who am I to criticize. The numbers gradually dwindled until only a couple of termites remained, one with damaged wings that left it unable to join the mass take-off.

Termite being attacked by ants

Termite being attacked by ants

Things usually don’t turn out well for those with damaged wings. A couple of ants were patrolling the log looking for easy prey and quickly subdued the straggler and carted it away. I have often first noticed these swarms by the presence of predators such as dragonflies and birds gathering to feast on the temporary abundance of winged protein.

Termite close up 1

Close up of one termite

This mass flight event is made up of winged males and female termites that are capable of reproduction. They are called alates. Termite society consists of several castes – wingless workers and soldiers, a king and queen, and these winged swarmers, destined to be kings and queens for a new colony (or food for some hungry predator).

Termite close up

Alate termite before lift-off

The termites had not yet started to fly when I first encountered them, but, after watching them for about thirty minutes, it was all over. There were no more termites visible on the log.

Termite wings

Termite wings litter the ground after an emergence

The only evidence that anything had happened was a scattering of discarded wings lying on the ground and rocks near the log. An entomologist in the early 1900’s (Thomas E. Snyder) described what happens…After the adults have flown a short distance in an irregular, wobbly, manner, they fall to the ground, and, by catching the tips of the wings against some object and turning sideways they pry them off at a suture or line of weakness near the base, leaving stubs. The now wingless pair apparently follow each other around for a couple of days and then mate and start the colony-building process, if all goes well.

Now, for a guy that has lived in wooden houses most of his life, the sight of swarming termites should be cause for concern, but I have never had problems with them (knock on, oh, you know). Besides, these under-appreciated, yet abundant, members of our forest fauna are truly fascinating. They play a critical role in the removal of dead wood from our forests, and provide other ecological services such as soil aeration and, of course, food for insect predators. And it was a good way to pass thirty minutes in the woods, watching royal couples take flight to new lands.

A Speck of Gold

You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.

~ Andy Warhol

Walking out the door yesterday, I looked down and saw a speck of gold. Funny thing was, it was on the back of an odd-looking fly. I stooped to take a closer look, fully expecting it to disappear, but it stayed put. Yep, a fly, with a hairy, gold back….odd indeed.

Golden-backed Snipe Fly

A speck of gold on the walkway (click photos to enlarge)

I grabbed a few photos and then went inside to see if I could identify this rather distinctive insect. My usual go-to source for insect identification is the web site, BugGuide. But since there are perhaps 20,000 species of flies in North America, searching that site might take some time, so I thought I would try one of my favorite field guides first, the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. I hoped the unique appearance of this little guy would make it easy to find in the merely 45 pages devoted to true flies.

Golden-backed Snipe Fly 2

Golden-backed Snipe Fly

Sure enough, after flipping through a few pages I came across my gold speck – the aptly-named Golden Backed Snipe Fly, Chrysopilus thoracicus. Well, at least the first half of the name is appropriate (I am still not sure where the snipe portion of the name comes from). Turns out these flies are fairly common in spring in eastern forests, but not much is known about their life history. Other members of this family of flies (Snipe Flies, Rhagionidae) are known to be predators of other insects as both adults and larvae. Larvae live in moist soil or rotting wood. Adults of a few western species may bite humans, but not this one. The fuzzy gold patch, the striped abdomen, and the overall shape of this fly combine to make it one of the bee and wasp mimics. Many species of insects, especially flies, supposedly gain some degree of protection by looking like stinging insects. But this half-inch little jewel is harmless.

Golden-backed Snipe Fly 1

Male Golden-backed Snipe Fly

One thing I did learn about my gilded guest is that it is a male fly. Females are more robust than males and have eyes that are farther apart. The eyes of males of this species touch each other. So there you have it…a male bee mimic that we really don’t know much about. But it was the first thing I saw walking out the door yesterday, and it helped make it a special day. You have to appreciate the small wonders…