The trees will tell their secrets to those who tune in.
I check the trail cameras once a week or so and am always anxious to see what secrets they uncover in our woods. The past few weeks it has mainly been squirrels chasing each other around and deer, lots of deer. November is the peak of the mating season (aka rut) for deer in our area and they have been busy. The abundant acorn crop is giving them plenty of food so they all look in their prime. There is a herd of about nine does that I see regularly on the cameras. Several bucks (at least four or five that are 6-pointers or larger) are making the rounds, chasing does and challenging each other and nearby tree saplings. Here are a few of the highlights from this month.
Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.
It’s been awhile since I posted. Not sure where the time goes, but here we are. Last week I had a last minute idea to run down to my favorite wildlife refuges for a wildlife observation and photography fix. The weather was supposed to be nice and cold on Friday, so I thought whatever birds have arrived this early might be active as would the bears. I didn’t get out as early as planned but arrived at the Pungo Unit about 9 a.m. I went straight to “Bear Road” and there were 4 cars there so I headed elsewhere. As I approached the impoundment, I could see two trucks and several photographers out in the vicinity of last year’s Eastern Screech Owl roost so I figured it was still there. Several people were getting back into their vehicle as I drove up, so I just slowed down and stopped for a second to take a photo – yup, still there!
This beautiful Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) is still using the same roost as last year (click photos to enlarge)
It is always nice to spend time with the swans on Marsh A, so I pulled up and sat for awhile, window down, listening to their soothing sounds and watching them preen, bathe, feed, and interact.
Tundra Swans have arrived on the Pungo Unit
I scanned the back side of the water and saw what I had hoped for, a few Sandhill Cranes preening amongst the swans.
The gray colors of the Sandhill Cranes separate them from the mostly white Tundra Swans
The light was pretty bright, the water in the canals is low, and the vegetation along the canals high (making it difficult to see anything in the canals), so I decided to head over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge for a couple of hours to see what was happening there. The deterioration of the water quality in the lake the past several years means that now there is almost never anything to see on the causeway road across the lake (I used to see plenty of swans and other waterfowl feeding or resting on the lake near the causeway, but not now).
As I approached Wildlife Drive I saw movement along side the shrubs lining the road – a Virginia Opossum! It was grubbing through the short grass out from the shrubs, pausing every now and then to munch on something it found. I pulled a U-turn and stopped near it. It scurried to the cover of the shrubs, but soon came out and started feeding again. It gradually came closer and I took a few photos before it headed back to the edge of the cover and stared grooming itself.
I noticed that it had a tooth exposed on both sides of its mouth. I don’t know if this is typical for an opossum to be snaggle-toothed, but I think it is a good look.
You’ve got to admit, opossums are just cute
At the lodge, I saw one Great Blue Heron in the usual roosting spot grove of trees across the canal. There are some ducks, but not much else yet and water levels are low in the impoundment.
A Great Blue Heron surveying its world
After talking with a friend I saw near the lodge, I headed back to Pungo for the remainder of the afternoon. Driving near Marsh A, I stopped to take a couple of photos of the screech owl since no one else was around. The little guy seems oblivious to any admirers and just sits in the late day sun, soaking it all in.
A couple of quick photos and then I moved on, leaving his little guy to its peace and quiet
I had seen three bears near the entrance when I first drove in, so I figured I might as well head over to “Bear Road” and see what I could see. There were 5 cars already there and I could see a group of a dozen or so photographers at the far end of the field. Oh well…I walked down and then slipped into the woods for some quiet time before I reached the crowd. I sat down on a log to enjoy the golden light flooding the forest and soon heard the tell-tale heavy tapping of a large woodpecker behind me. I eased around and saw a Pileated Woodpecker hammering away at a vine encrusted tree trunk.
After watching it for a few minutes, it suddenly flew off and landed in a tree above me, frozen against the trunk. Did it see something I had missed – a predator like a hawk or owl? It remained motionless for a minute or two before finally moving up and around the tree.
This view clearly shows the toe placement (like an X) and stiff tail spines that are woodpecker adaptations for clinging to vertical surfaces
I eased out of the woods as the crowd was headed back to their cars, excitedly talking about the bears they had seen and sharing images from their cameras. Out in the field were three bears, a sow and two cubs, grazing in the light of a setting sun. Swans returning to the lake were highlighted in the golden light as they called their soothing ou, ou sounds. As I walked by one of the people on the road, he asked if I had any good shots of the bears. I responded that I hadn’t really tried, I just wanted to be out there with the sights and sounds of the refuge. I’m not sure he understood…but every time I am there, I just want to sit quietly and take it all in. I do love to take photos, but I am realizing that I love the quiet, solitude, and the memories even more.
A sow and one of her cubs feeding in a field along “Bear Road”
Like delicate lace, so the threads intertwine, oh, gossamer web of wond’rous design! Such beauty and grace wild nature produces…
Yes, ’tis that special holiday, ’tis Halloween. And we manage to gravitate toward all manner of spooky things and transfer our fears anew to many elements of the natural world such as bats, wolves, and spiders. One of my favorite arachnids is aptly particularly evident this time of year – the Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. It’s relatively large size and bright yellow-orange colors make it particularly noticeable in October and gives rise to a couple of its other common names – Pumpkin Spider and Halloween Spider.
Last week I was changing cards in my trail cameras in our woods and took my camera along in case I saw anything interesting. I’m always checking for spider webs in my path this time of year as many orbweavers reach their peak size and, therefore, apparent abundance, in October. I try to avoid the silk-in-my-face greeting of most of these weavers by doing the forest side step if I spot the web or one of the often long anchor lines. This species creates a hide outside the main web, a fact that I appreciate as it means you are much less likely to have a crawling spider on your head or face if you should miss seeing their gossamer handiwork in your path. When a prey item lands in the web, she can feel the vibrations and rushes out of the hide to subdue her meal. I suppose if you are such a noticeable bright color, it pays to have a place to conceal yourelf from would-be predators.
I soon spotted a beauty highlighted in the the dappled sunlight in her holly leaf shelter on our south slope. I stopped to admire her intricate black patterns on a bold yellow background and grabbed a few photos.
Marbled Orbweaver in her silken hide (click photos to enlarge)
Walking a few feet more and I missed seeing another silken line and got entangled in a large web of another Halloween Spider. When I pulled on it to free myself, the owner dropped out of her hide onto the ground and scuttled away (a common defense strategy), but not before I managed a photo as she crossed an equally colorful fallen leaf.
This Halloween Spider dropped from her web and scurried under some leaves on the ground, allowing me only a photo before she disappeared.
As it turns out, this beautiful species is the subject of an article I wrote for the October issue of Walter magazine. Last year I was approached by the magazine editor (at the suggestion of some of my former co-workers at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences) and asked if I would be willing to write a monthly nature column. I had heard of this publication, but wasn’t that familiar with its content. After looking at it, it struck me as a quality magazine that I likened to being similar to an Our State magazine for the Triangle area. They have high production values and I am impressed by the quality and range of topics covered. I encourage you to take a look and subscribe if you agree. Here is a link to this month’s spider article with more information and photos. You can search for my other monthly articles (starting last January) in the archives by putting Nature in the search box on their website and scrolling through the articles. I must admit, I never thought I would have my photos of spiders and the like next to advertisements for Rolex watches, but, it’s a good chance to reach a broader audience.
And here’s wishing you all a safe, sweets-filled, and Happy Halloween!
I don’t have to take a trip around the world or be on a yacht in the Mediterranean to have happiness. I can find it in little things, like looking out into my backyard and seeing deer in the fields.
~ Queen Latifah
It is deer season. They are very active in our woods as the weather changes to bring on fall. The trail cameras have picked up almost nothing but deer the past few weeks (except for a raccoon family, the occasional opossum and squirrel, and, unfortunately, my neighbors cats). Here are a few of my favorite clips from last month.
Fawns born in May weighed about 7 pounds at birth and are approaching 60+ pounds as fall begins. Still sporting a few spots, a fawn gets in some nursing from its mother. This is about the last month it will be nursing.
Below are some scenes of bucks, now reaching their prime for the rut. A couple of nice bucks have been seen together frequently. One spent several minutes testing a sapling with its antlers while another enjoys the bountiful supply of acorns on the forest floor this season.
The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
Our booth, Caterpillarology, was a tiny fraction of the hundreds of educational opportunities available at the museum’s annual BugFest event last weekend. This was the first time in a few years (that pandemic thing) that the museum has hosted a full scale BugFest and we were excited to participate once again. Staff and volunteers spent hours searching for, collecting, and then feeding over 50 species of local larvae to showcase at the event. Based on my cracking voice at the end of the day, I would say it was a huge success as we had a steady stream of visitors observing our caterpillars and asking questions for a solid seven hours. Though it doesn’t include all the species, here are photos of some of the stars of the show. Almost all have now been released back into the wild (we are raising a couple of species until they pupate to protect them from predation/parasitism and then will release that stage back into suitable habitat). Looking forward to next year’s event and what we may find.
From east of the East-est to west of the West-est we’ve searched the whole world just to bring you the best-est.
This past week, I helped Melissa prepare for the largest museum event of the year – BugFest. As always, we headed up the Caterpillarology booth showcasing the incredible variety of larvae we have in this area. She and a few other staff at the museum started looking on Tuesday and I joined the effort on Wednesday through Friday. We searched numerous wild locations and a couple of native plant nurseries and ended up with over 50 species. We didn’t collect everything we found for a variety of reasons and here are some of the critters that didn’t make it to the big show.
Look for the stars that did make to to BugFest in the next post.
Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin… finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves…
~Thomas Jefferson, 1791
Melissa’s family has a long tradition of summer vacations on Lake George in upstate New York. I can see why as it is one of the clearest lakes I have visited and is surrounded by forested mountains, so the views are great. It is also a large lake – 32 miles long, up to 2.5 miles wide, and almost 200 feet deep. In early August, the entire family was able to get together at a beautiful old house surrounded by state-owned land for a week of relaxation and fun. A bonus for me was the abundance of wildlife (big and small) on the property and that is the primary focus of this post.
The owner told us to expect some wildlife, especially out by the mulberry tree in front of the house. The first morning, Melissa’s dad saw some turkeys and a Red Fox out under the tree. Dang, we were down by the lake so we missed all of the excitement.
Then he showed me a phone video he had taken of a critter I have only seen once in the wild (In Grand Teton National Park) – a North American Porcupine! Porcupines range in the West from Canada down to northern Mexico, but are found only as far south as Pennsylvania in the Eastern United States. The next morning we were talking about the “wildlife tree” and I look out and there are two porcupines strolling towards it. They provided entertainment for the family for the next hour or so as they slowly climbed into the mulberry tree and, to my surprise, seemed to feed mainly on the leaves rather than the berries (they did consume a few berries as well).
Porcupines spend most of their time in trees, foraging on leaves, fruit, and bark (especially in winter). They have several adaptations that make them excellent tree climbers – long claws, wrinkled pads on their feet that give them extra grip, and stiff bristles on the underside of their tail that acts much like a woodpecker’s tail spines to brace them as they climb. They do spend time in dens (rock crevices, hollow logs, abandoned buildings) in cold snaps or when giving birth.
The word porcupine is derived from Latin and means thorn pig. They are not related to pigs, but are, in fact, the second largest rodent in North America (behind American Beavers), attaining weights of up to 20 pounds. But it is their quills that make porcupines so distinctive.
Quills are modified guard hairs filled with a spongy matrix and can be up to 4 inches in length. They have microscopic barbs at the tip that are angled such that, if not removed, the quill digs deeper and deeper into an animal as it moves. They can work their way into vital organs of the victim or, over time, go entirely through and come out the other side of the animal if they avoid bones and organs. They are an effective protection against most predators, with the weasel-relative Fisher, being the primary exception in New England. There may be as many as 30,000 quills on one porcupine! it is a myth that they can throw their quills, but they do release easily when they come in contact with a predator (and are easily shed as they move about).
The quills are covered with a mild antibiotic greasy compound that is believed to provide some protection to the animal should it fall from a tree or otherwise manage to get punctured by its own spines.
We also had a lot of smaller wildlife to keep me fascinated during our stay. I had never seen evidence of the introduced Spongy Moths before, but there were egg masses, shed caterpillar skins, and pupae on many tree trunks around the property. Spongy Moth is the new common name of Lymantria dispar dispar, formerly known as the Gypsy Moth. The name was changed by The Entomological Society of America as part of their Better Common Names Project. These destructive insects were accidentally introduced to North America from Europe in 1869 in an effort to create a silk industry. Caterpillars are generalist feeders and can defoliate large swaths of forest in eruptive years.
Under some of the protective eaves and open barns on the property were lots of tiny funnels in the sandy soil, a sure sign of the presence of one of my favorite insects – Antlions.
One day, I grabbed the camera and just wandered around the yard (which included some nice mini-meadows) and photographed some of the abundant charismatic micro-fauna. Here is a sampler.
All in all, a spectacular week of scenery, fun, food, family, and the wild creatures that make Lake George so special.
It’s not just moths that I have been seeing out in the yard after dark. The new flash system has been out on a few nights with me as I wander the premises (carefully in case there are any Copperheads out and about) looking for what’s happening on the night shift. Here are some of the highlights of the late night crowd.
There are moths outside, ready to die for a light they crave but which is denied to them, … Sometimes, in the midst of all I have been given, I watch the moths in us all. Everybody has a light which they think they cannot live without.
A bit of a deep starting quote perhaps, but, with all that is happening right now in our world, I realize even more now that, for both Melissa and I, nature is the light that we cannot live without. So, we did find the time and energy to have a few friends over this past weekend for our annual moth night. This week is National Moth Week, where thousands of people around the world are out looking at our nocturnal neighbors. It is a simple thing that anyone can do, and it opens up a new world of biodiversity and beauty right in your own backyard.
Moths are insects, related to butterflies, but they differ from their better-known cousins in many respects. Most moths fly at night (we do have some common day-flying moths in our area, like the Hummingbird Clearwing). Moth antennae are either tapered or feathered in shape whereas butterflies have knobs or hooks at the tips of theirs. And many moths have a “hairy” looking body, whereas a butterfly’s body tends to be leaner and smoother.
In North Carolina, 177 species of butterflies have been recorded. Compare that to the 2962 species (and counting) of moths we have. Though they can often be challenging to identify to species, there are now several great resources for moth enthusiasts. Some of my favorites include: Peterson Feld Guide to Moths of Southeastern North America; BugGuide (https://bugguide.net); North Carolina Biodiversity Project (https://nc-biodiversity.com/); and two free apps – Leps by Fieldguide and Seek by iNaturalist. And, don’t forget, you can still enjoy the beauty and wonder of these members of the neighborhood night shift even if you can’t find them in a field guide.
We have a couple of inexpensive black lights that project light in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. We set them outside, next to a suspended white sheet, one on the front porch, one on the back deck. then we go out periodically to see what has been attracted to the light. This set-up brings in many species of moths as well as other night-flying insects. Many species tend to come in and just sit on the sheet, making them easy to observe. A few tend to fly in and bounce around, never settling for very long as you desperately try to get a photo for identification.
Here is a sampling of our tally for the night. Most are fairly small (except where noted) and photos are taken with a 100mm macro lens. I have done my best to identify using the two apps I mentioned, plus corroborating with various field guides. As always, if you see an error, please let me know in the comments.
A nice sampling of the nocturnal critters in our back (and front) yard and an enjoyable evening spent oohing and aahing with friends. I highly recommend it.
There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their bright, oblivious business.
I was out pulling some weeds in our yard jungle one day this week when I suddenly realized there was a high-pitched peeping sound coming from the stand of Common Milkweed a few feet away. It didn’t sound like any insect or frog I recognized, so I eased around the milkweed stems and was surprised to see what I assume was a young Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on a plant support. It was incessantly squeaking (or peeping, not sure which best describes the noise it was making). I stepped a little closer, wondering if the bird was okay, and it just turned its head, looked at me, and continued squeaking. So, I went inside, grabbed my camera and phone, and came back out. Yup, still squeaking.
I took a few pictures with my DSLR and a macro lens and then decided to do a quick iPhone video to share.
A few seconds after I finished the video clip, the bird lifted off and flew to a nearby tree branch, at least confirming that it could fly. I went about my yard work and encountered this little hummingbird a few more times, usually down low near or, on one occasion, sitting on one of the hummingbird feeders. It was perched a bit awkwardly, up on top of the feeding port instead of on the foothold in front of the hole. I watched it feed for a minute or more (a long time for a hummingbird to feed). I was standing only a couple of feet away and I guess I was too close for the other hummingbirds to swoop in and chase the little guy off. I’m not sure if this was a young fledgling bird begging for food or what it was doing sitting there squeaking so much. We have four feeders out and a bunch of summer blooms right now and the yard has at least 6 or 7 hummingbirds that are constantly doing battle for supremacy at the feeders. I wonder if this little guy has just been intimidated to the point that it is difficult for it to feed. If anyone has any experience with this type of behavior in hummingbirds or any other thoughts, please post them in the comments.