When we think of autumn, we often think of fall colors, specifically the onset of the kaleidoscope of colors created by the changing hues of tree leaves. But there are many other fall colors to enjoy that require looking down, not up. Here is a sampling from the past week or two here in the woods.
Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
~ Francis Pharcellus Church
It had been over a week since I checked the three trail cameras, so I was anxious to see what had transpired in our patch of woods without us knowing. There has been a definite increase in deer activity and most of the video clips contain images of some of the many (probably too many for the health of our woods) White-tailed Deer going about their business. With acorns and hickory nuts falling, the deer are visiting certain spots under these trees more and slowly searching the ground for the nutritious morsels. It is also getting to be that time of year when the bucks are paying more attention to the does…it is the start of the rut. There are a few big bucks roaming the woods, often in each others’ company. The cameras have caught glimpses of two six-pointers, one eight-pointer, and a number of smaller males (plus many more females and a few young of the year). This clip shows a young buck rubbing his antlers against a Painted Buckeye shrub, no doubt thinking about what might lie ahead (if he is lucky). A doe and fawn are nearby.
Another video from the south slope showed something I have never observed – some rather unsightly deer warts on two young bucks. At first, I thought they were a type of warble (lesion) that is caused by a botfly. Warbles are common on squirrels here in the Piedmont and the large skin deformations caused by the botfly larvae can be quite grotesque in appearance. But the bumps on these deer looked different. After searching online, I believe these are so-called deer warts, a type of cutaneous fibroma caused by a virus. There are many types of fibroma-causing viruses in nature but this one is specific to deer and cannot be spread to other wildlife or humans. Apparently, they are quite common in deer and can be transmitted when an area with broken skin comes in direct contact with an infected deer or with a surface that an infected deer rubbed against. Studies show that they occur more frequently in male deer, especially young bucks, and the wart-like growths occur most often on the head, neck and forelegs. Though they can be gross-looking, they typically do not harm the deer and they usually regress and vanish over time.
The last video clip I’ll share is another thrilling one for us. Earlier this summer, a camera caught a Bobcat walking down our then dry creek bed. That was the first time we have ever had confirmation of these sleek feline predators on our property. Last week, just before sunrise, another Bobcat sighting was made on a trail in the ravine closer to the house. I’m assuming it is the same animal, but who knows! Whatever the case, we are super excited to know this species is roaming our woods. Now, to see one in person…
Bugs are not going to inherit the earth. They own it now. So we might as well make peace with the landlord.
If it is September, it must be time for BugFest, the premier annual special event of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. In years past, it has ranked as the largest festival of its kind in the nation, a huge event about all things invertebrate, covering a couple of blocks of downtown Raleigh plus the entire museum facility. Last years’ event was totally online due to Covid, and this year had both an online and an in-person component. We participated in the Pollination Celebration last Saturday held at the museum’s field station in Raleigh, the Prairie Ridge Ecostation. The plan was to have it all outdoors with proper safety protocols, and to expect a much reduced turnout of visitors. Once again, I helped with the Caterpillarology booth, which I started oh-so-many years ago and is now run by Melissa and her staff. We figured we probably wouldn’t need as many caterpillars this year with fewer visitors and less table space, so we didn’t start collecting in earnest until a few days before. It turns out it has been a slow year for larvae and we were having trouble finding much in our early searches. Luckily, we all put in some extra hours the two days (and one productive night hunt with a UV flashlight) before the event and wrangled an adequate supply to engage a few hundred visitors that perused our luxurious larvae. Below are some of the highlights (we collected several more that pupated before their photo was taken)…
It was another great year of sharing the wonders of caterpillars with enthusiastic visitors. One benefit of the half-day program this year was that all the caterpillars (and pupae) were released back to their collection sites by day’s end. The only remnant of the day is a cage full of Monarch chrysalids on our porch. When the butterflies emerge, we will send them off on their long journey to Mexico.
Summer isapromissory note signed in June, its long days spent and gone before you know it, and due to be repaid next January.
I headed down to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last week for an “end of summer” day trip (actually more of a “before hunting season begins”road trip). The refuge allows deer and small game hunting and archery season for deer begins next week. I was hoping for a post holiday weekend lull in visitation so I packed up and drove into the rising sun Tuesday morning. My goal was to spend some time with bears, but, as always, I knew there would be some natural highlights to observe, along with the joy of simply spending time in a wild place that I love.
There was a hint of crispness in the air, that sure-fire sign that summer is winding down. Nearing the refuge, I drove past fields where the corn had recently been harvested, which tells me the bears will be busy in the refuge fields harvesting their own share of the crop. The roadsides were showing signs of fall in other ways too, with swaths of autumn flowers growing along the canal edges. Yellows and purples seem to dominate the flower colors this time of year, a nice visual combination and another sign of the changing season.
I got out and walked along some of the grassy roads, looking for bears and observing the many wildflowers and butterflies. I saw several fresh-looking Monarchs, no doubt on their long journey to Mexico. The beautiful Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed was a favorite nectar stop for many species. I wonder if that species of Joe-Pye would do well in our yard? It blooms later, is shorter than the one we have by a couple of feet, and is a darker pink in color.
Along the now closed South Lake Road (I see they are working on it, so I hope it will be open by winter), I saw several butterflies stopping to sun in the open sandy spots, and a few were stopping at the local roadside diner to partake of the daily special – bear scat.
With my eyes trained on finding the small things hidden in the roadside vegetation, I spotted an otter trail going into the canal through some tall weeds, so I set my camera and telephoto lens down and walked a few feet to peer over the canal bank and photograph some of the goldenrod’s intense yellow flowers with my phone.
When I stepped through the vegetation, my eye caught movement on the opposite side of the canal. There were two of us surprised by this encounter…me (sans camera) and a very large boar Black Bear. I slowly moved back to retrieve my camera, and he grudgingly left the water and ambled back into the vegetation, giving me one glance before slinking off and disappearing into the thick greenery. That was bear #3 of the morning, but the closest by far.
After the bruin hello, I continued on toward the north shore of Pungo Lake. This time of year I always stop the vehicle and scope far down the road ahead of me to see if I see any sticks moving in the road – snakes. As soon as I headed down West Lake Rd., I saw a skinny twig move. I rushed up to it and was pleased to see an Eastern Ribbon Snake. This species is usually found near water (this one was crossing from a canal to a large marshy area) and feed on small fish and amphibians.
I hiked in to a small pond on the back side of a refuge crop field in hopes of seeing a bear cooling off, but there were none. However, I was rewarded with a couple of unusual robber flies flitting about in the tall grass. I could see they had very long, dangling legs. As I walked, they would fly off a few feet and land again in the grasses, hanging by one or two of their legs in the tangle of linear blades. One in particular caught my eye as it was carrying a prey item (I think some type of Digger Wasp). I had my telephoto lens so it was a challenge to get down and find a spot that wasn’t entirely blocked by crisscrossed grass blades.
When I looked it up back home, this group goes by the apt name of Hanging-Thieves. They usually prey on wasps and bees but are known to also take dragonflies and other robber flies.
I soon headed over to my favorite location, “Bear Road”, to see if it had the usual array of parked cars at the gate. To my pleasant surprise, their was only one vehicle and I could see one person walking back toward his car. I decided this was my lucky day and I parked and headed down the road for the first time this season. My knee has been bothering me a lot lately so, instead of my usual habit of walking down the road and into the woods, I carried a camp chair and sat toward the far end of the corn field that lies across the canal from the grassy road. I have seen many photographers and bear watchers do this over the years (especially in the recent past) but I always hesitated. I especially don’t care for people sitting adjacent to major bear paths that run from the woods, across “Bear Road” and into the canals for access to the corn. I just think it may cause too much stress if the bears encounter a person up close as they emerge from the woods. If I am walking, the bears can usually see me at a distance, take action to avoid me by going into the woods until I pass, and then come back out to resume their trek to the food bank. After spending a couple of hours sitting along the road with no one else around, I decided I was correct in my concerns.
I spotted three bears crossing into or out of the field within 15 minutes of being there. Things settled down and I waited another half hour before a young sow and lone cub of the year (COY) appeared far down the road, walking my way. She was steadily moving toward me with the cub stopping, then scrambling to catch up. At one point she stood up briefly, looking my way, but probably unsure of what I was. I was sitting along the edge of the road but not in the tall grasses due to the abundance of poison ivy, so i wasn’t particularly hidden. I expected her to do what most bears (especially those with cubs) do, and head into the safety of the woods and either attempt to wait me out or go beyond me before coming back out into the road. But, she didn’t, she just kept coming.
I started talking to her, advising that she shouldn’t get any closer and hoping she would head off. She paused, the cub stood up, and she continued on. The cub then decided it wanted none of this strange thing and headed into the woods. Mom just walked past me, never even giving me a glance as she did. I will admit, that is the first time I have ever pulled my bear spray out of the holster, but I now think she is just so used to people being on that road and sitting just like I was, that she wasn’t spooked. And that gives me pause, as that probably is not in the best interest of her (or the people).
Once she was 100 feet or so beyond my location, the cub came racing out of the woods near her and they both continued to a crossing point, swam across the canal and headed into the corn.
A few minutes later, another sow and two cubs came walking down the road. This time, however, she noticed me from far down the road and began to stand up trying to ascertain what was ahead.
After getting within about 50 yards or so, she stands up one more time and then takes her young ones into the woods. A few minutes later, she and the cubs emerge far beyond where i am sitting. She looks back my way, and walks on toward a spot to cross the canal.
Some other bear watchers showed up and I soon found myself exchanging pleasantries with three people on E-bikes (the apparent new rage for wildlife photographers on the eastern refuges). Four other people hung back at the gate and watched. I decided it was time to move on, but another bear appeared far down the road before I could get packed up. It did something strange and came out of the woods, and walked around several times, sniffing, and then laid down in the road. It remained there for several minutes, yawned a few times, then got back up and moved across into the tall vegetation to swim the canal. As it disappeared into the tall grasses, two COYs came streaking out of the woods to join her.
So, I left the refuge that day with a total of 18 different bear sightings (plus a couple of repeats of bears that crossed into and then back out of the corn field). A magical day to be sure, but one that left me wondering about my impact on the bears and how having so many people now on that road may be habituating some bears to humans With bear hunting season approaching in December, I worry that bears that become too used to us will not be as wary as needed to survive. Plus, it is never a good idea to have bears and humans become too complacent about each other. I probably won’t be sitting on that road in prime bear season in the future, but will continue with my former mode of slowly walking, letting the bears know way ahead of time that there is a human nearby. Not sure if it makes much difference, but it will make me feel better. I suppose the best approach is to watch bears from afar and photograph them from your vehicle whenever possible. Here’s hoping bears and humans continue to coexist on this and other refuges because there really is something special about seeing bears in the wild.
Experience suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you do after youarrive.
~Lois McMaster Bujold
I took this photo of a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea) in May of 2006. I was walking around the yard looking for insects to photograph and stumbled upon this frog, backlit on a Tulip Poplar leaf. It was the first individual of this species I had ever seen on our property. I had seen many of these beautiful frogs on my travels in the Coastal Plain, but they were not common in the Piedmont back then. If my memory is accurate, this photo provided evidence for a new county record for this species in the database of amphibian distribution for the state maintained by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, my employer at that time. They seem to have greatly expanded their range in recent years and are now fairly common in many suitable habitats in our area.
Over the years since, I have seen a Green Treefrog in the yard from time to time, but never more than a single one in any one season (and many years, none at all). I began to wonder if we just had one really old animal that had somehow found our little open spot in the woods on top of a hill (but since I assume most frogs of this size typically live only a few years, I started doubting that theory). Then, last year, there were two in the yard for a couple of months, regularly seen perched on the stems of Jewelweed in their stoic hunched pose. And again, this summer, we have seen two individuals, until yesterday, when I found three of them perched on plants just outside our front windows.
So here is the mystery…where are these guys coming from and where are they breeding? Though we have a couple of small water gardens that provide habitat for several species (Green Frogs, Bullfrogs, Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, Eastern Narrowmouth Toads, Spring Peepers) we have never heard a Green Treefrog calling in our yard or anywhere in the neighborhood for that matter. I think I remember hearing some once at Jordan Lake, a few miles from our house, but you would think if they are breeding here that we would have heard that distinctive nasal queenk, queenk (or hey baby, hey baby) call at least once. As I write this, there are two perched within sight, one on a Jewelweed stem, the other on the same leaf of a Beautyberry shrub that it has been on the past three days (this is the one that has perched on our dining room window for several days recently). Other than our water gardens, the closest water is our intermittent stream down the hill and another water garden on a neighbor’s property a quarter of a mile from our house (he hasn’t seen or heard these frogs there). And yet, here they are, seeming content and doing what treefrogs do (except calling). I’m going to continue to keep track of them, assuming I can even identify individual frogs by the number and arrangement of the gold flecks on the dorsal surface (I think these remain constant?).
So goes the life of people that live in the woods…you wander and ponder about your natural neighbors, hoping to gain some insight into how the world works, but enjoying their presence even if it all remains a mystery.
It’s the horns of a dilemma, no question about it.
Melissa needed a few caterpillars for a teacher workshop this week, so I went out the other night with our UV flashlight to scan the vegetation around the house. A reminder that many species of caterpillars glow under UV light at night, making them much easier to spot. It was slim pickings but I did see one sphinx moth larva (aka horn worm, due to the presence of a spike on the posterior end). It had just molted so I didn’t want to disturb it. Its size and behavior (feeding on the underside of a leaf) gave the impression of a Walnut Sphinx caterpillar, a species I have found several times in our yard. Plus, when I glanced at the host plant and saw the compound leaves, I assumed it was a hickory, one of the hosts of Walnut Sphinx larvae. I noted the location and headed inside, hoping the caterpillar would still be there in the morning.
When I went out the next day to retrieve it, I saw that the sapling was not a hickory, but an ash, and that the larva was not a Walnut Sphinx…but, what is it? I had not paid close attention to detail in the glow of the UV light and the pattern and colors were not yet evident in the freshly molted caterpillar. I took a few quick photos and went inside to search my well-worn copy of Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America. There are six species of horn worm larvae that feed on ash so it made the search a bit easier. None of the images matched the bold pinkish splotches along the sides of my caterpillar, but reading the descriptions helped me decide that this beauty is a Waved Sphinx caterpillar, Ceratomia undulosa. They are quite variable as larvae, with most being green overall, others pink and yellow, or some combination.
But they all tend to have the textured pinkish horn and black dots on the anal plate (the hardened area on the top of the last abdominal segment). A quick search online (BugGuide.net) showed the diversity of this species’ caterpillar colors and confirmed this variation for a Waved Sphinx larva. I am guessing this is a 4th instar, so it has some growing to do before its final stage. Just goes to show, never assume you know what you are seeing without paying attention to the details. But, no matter the name, it is a stunning caterpillar and a joy to discover just outside our home in the woods.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain, shaking the water-sparks from its wings…
~ Mary Oliver
With a thunderstorm kicking up outside and rain (much needed rain) starting to fall, I sit inside watching the yard missiles go at each other at the four feeders we have scattered around the house. It still baffles me how their daily energy budget balances out in their favor with all the zest and fury that they exhibit for most of the day. The calmest feedings occur when I am outside near one of the feeders, apparently keeping at least one of the bejeweled jets at bay (although this doesn’t always hold true). They also tend to dine unbothered when they sneak into the yard vegetation and partake of sips of nectar from the lone surviving Cardinal Flower (a favorite of the yard bunnies I’m afraid) or the abundant Jewelweed. We have plenty of the latter growing just outside our kitchen/sun-room window. I love this up close jungle because it allows me to watch our hummingbirds as they deftly maneuver through the tangle in search of the bright orange flowers. It also gives us a great view of the many butterflies and other insects that visit the nearby Joe-Pye-Weed and Ironweed. The recent appearance of a pair of Green Treefrogs clinging to the look-alike plant stems is an added bonus.
My favorite encounter with our yard missiles happened a couple of weeks ago when I went out to bring in a feeder for a cleaning and refill. The hummers frequently zoom close when I am putting up or taking down feeders, but this time, as I grabbed the feeder and lifted it off the hook, a hummingbird landed on it and started feeding. It was an immature male and it occasionally glanced my way as I stood there with bird at arm’s length. They usually only stay a few seconds at a feeder, but this one kept on, so I slowly pulled the bird and tube closer. I finally had it about 8 inches from my face! What an incredible sight. They are so tiny and so beautiful up close. He finally streaked off (my arm thanked him) when another adult male came in for a challenge but veered off when it realized there was a new hanger for the feeder.
While that was a special moment, my mom told me this week about one that tops it. She loves to sit on her front porch in the evening and watch the hummingbirds as they contest the air space around her feeder. She happened to glance down and saw that one had landed on her knee and was just taking it all in. She said it sat there for several seconds until she gently moved her leg and it zoomed off. Here’s hoping we all get such special moments with these flying jewels before they head south in the coming weeks.
The significance and joy in my science comes in those occasional moments of discovering something new…
~Henry F. Schaefer, III
Last night we had friends over for pizza and beer and …mothing (wait, what?, you mean you don’t have people over and put out a moth light when it is 90 degrees and 95% humidity?). We had some good moths, including a couple of large Tulip Tree Silk Moths and at least three Rhinoceros Beetles. But, my favorite find of the night was a strange creature that I can’t remember ever seeing before. When Melissa first saw it, she exclaimed, I’m not even sure which group of insects it belongs to…it looks like a tiny cicada. Well, that was certainly a good description.
It does, indeed, have the body shape of a mini-cicada and is about an inch in length. The coloration reminded us of tree lichens. When I first approached it with the macro lens, it jumped, leading us to believe it was some sort of weird planthopper. The SEEK app identified it as a type of Fulgorid Planthopper (i.e. a planthopper in the family Fulgoridae). This morning I went to my laptop and searched the very helpful web site, Hoppers of North Carolina, browsed the Family Photo Gallery link and found a photo resembling our mystery critter. The heading for the matching image is Calyptoproctus marmoratus – No Common Name. The description says it is uncommon to rare, found in deciduous forests from VA to FL (it as been recorded in fewer than 20 of our state’s 100 counties). Searching online didn’t yield much more information other than little is known about its feeding habits or general life history. One scientific paper I found showed it being found in several museum and university insect collections and that almost all were collected at night when attracted to lights. It is always satisfying to see something new and wonder about where and how it lives. The No Common Name add-on to the nomenclature though seems unfit for such an interesting creature. I offer these possible solutions – Lichen-colored Mini-Cicada or perhaps the Lichen Cicadalet. I’m open to other suggestions in the comments. Keep looking out there, there is more to discover and ponder.
The night still twinkles with fireflies but the day’s heat lingers and the air has a dusty August scent, the smell of languid Summer.
We are definitely in the Dog Days of Summer, the heat and humidity making me rethink my desire to be out and about in the afternoon. But, it only takes a short walk to find beauty and mystery surviving, no, thriving, in the heat. Below are some scenes from the summer here in the woods.
…the light of July and August is the day’s dazzle, hot light, with the season’s dust slowly accumulating and making the sky we see a giant silvered reflector.
Last Friday was probably the hottest day of this summer thus far. So, naturally, I decided to head to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR in search of bears, butterflies, and anything else I could find. Back in the old days, extreme heat would keep most people indoors, but things are different now, and as I drove into the refuge, I encountered a couple of cars already scoping things out. I also saw a turkey and a bear within my first 5 minutes on the refuge, so I figured it was going to be a good day.
Ten minutes later, I spotted a young bear in a tree where I have seen bears twice before, I stopped and stuck a camera out the window and he raised his head to check me out.
I spent about 15 minutes with this tolerant bear and then moved on so as not to attract a crowd. The bear was sleeping peacefully when I left.
I spent most of the morning slowly cruising the refuge roads. In addition to the kingsnake, I saw a Black Racer and what i am pretty sure was a Canebrake Rattlesnake. It got into the thick brush before I was close enough to be sure, but when something looks like a thick branch crawling across the road from a distance, it’s most likely a rattlesnake. Unfortunately, South Lake Road remains closed (it has been that way all year I think), so one of my favorite areas remains inaccessible by vehicle.
I drove back around to the bear tree over an hour after my first encounter and the sleepy bruin had moved down the branch a bit with its rear end braced against the trunk and was looking pretty relaxed. Once again, I didn’t stay long so as not to disturb.
As I often do on these day trips, I headed over to Mattamuskeet NWR mid-day to see if anything was going on there. To be honest, there wasn’t much happening. I saw a few songbirds, a couple of waders, and lots of invertebrates. I got out and walked two short trails and was rewarded with some beautiful spiders.
I drove back via the long series of gravel roads that pass through the part of Pocosin Lakes NWR that stretches from Hwy 94 to the south shore of Lake Phelps. You never know what you might encounter. Today’s finds included a couple of bears, some turkeys, and an abundance of dragonflies along the miles of canals that line the roads.
By mid-afternoon I was back on the Pungo Unit and spotted a mother bear with three cubs of the year ambling down a side road. As much as I love seeing the new cubs, I decided to let her and her youngsters have some quiet time without a human pursuing them, so I just took a couple of long distance photos and watched as they finally turned into the woods.
There were still cars and people on “Bear Road”, so I headed over to what I call “New Bear Road” for a little solitary saunter. I saw my first bear of the day on this road and it is usually good for a sighting or two. I walked down the road a ways and spotted a mid-sized Snapping Turtle crawling from the canal into the woods. They are so prehistoric-looking, and this one expressed its displeasure at my presence by raising up the hind part of its body in a defensive posture and looking at me in a less than welcoming manner as I waked past.
I walked down close to where another road joins and sat down along the edge of the woods, hoping something might travel this juncture. It was hot, very hot, and I sat there with sweat dripping off my forehead and listening to the chorus of insects buzzing all around me. Soon, a bear crossed far down the road and into the woods. Then, a deer came walking down the other road and paused to look at that strange blob sitting at the edge of the trees. It gave a few cautious stiff-legged steps, and stopped to make sure I hadn’t moved. It finally made its way into the woods, no doubt satisfied I was just some slow, ugly bear.
It had been a hot day, but a good one. I ended up driving more than I had intended, but my favorite times were those just sitting and watching the wildlife, from bears (my count for the day was 18) to dragonflies. As always, I left feeling grateful for our public lands and all that they provide to the wildlife, plants, and all of the human visitors that need that connection to the wild.