Unicorns Are Real

I guess there are some unicorns out there somewhere.

~Tedy Bruschi

Indeed there are, and I have several in my back yard right now. In my last post, I mentioned I periodically check the leaves on a young wild cherry tree in the yard to see what might be using it for food or shelter. A few days ago, I discovered an early instar of a unicorn caterpillar, Schizura unicornis. They are named for the prominent horn-like protuberance on their first abdominal segment.

unicorn caterpillar second instar 1

Early instar of a unicorn caterpillar feeding on wild cherry (click photos to enlarge)

This is the first early instar of this species I have seen (I am guessing it may be a second instar – an instar is a development stage between molts).

unicorn caterpillar second instar 1 close up

A closer look shows what look like droplets on the caterpillar spines

When I looked at my image I saw what looked like tiny droplets of liquid on most of the small spines covering the caterpillar’s body. So, I did an online search and found some surprising results. Turns out this species has some interesting defenses that include the ability to spray an attacker with a chemical concoction made of formic acid, acetic acid and other compounds. Perhaps these droplets can also be secreted from the small projections on the larva’s body, although I can’t find any confirmation of that.

Unicorn caterpillar compared to dry edge of leaf

Unicorn caterpillars resemble the curled dead portions of leaves

Another defense is their unusual shape and coloration. The wild cherry has a lot of dried leaf edges this time of year and the larvae tend to feed along the margins of these. They blend in remarkably well, even in their posture, as seen above.

Unicorn caterpillar late instar horizontal

Late instar unicorn larva (photographed a few years ago on wild cherry)

A close look at a later stage of the larva shows how well their shape, and even the smallest details of the patterns and lines on their body, help them to resemble dried portions of a leaf.


Unicorn caterpillar on cherry leaf

Early instar larvae have a white slash mark toward their rear

Unicorn caterpillar on small cherry leaf

The small bit of green on the thoracic segments add to the illusion

Most of the ones I found on this sapling are small, and are feeding on the undersides of the leaves, making it even more difficult to spot them (I turned them up for the photos). But, one caterpillar was a bit easier to see since it was sitting atop a white blob of silk.

Unicorn caterpillar with braconid eggs

Their defenses are not always fool-proof

The tuft of silk turned out to be a cluster of cocoons of a species of a parasitoid, some species of braconid wasp. Braconid wasps are minute parasites (most are about the size of a large gnat) that lay eggs in a variety of other insects. There are over 17,000 recognized species and they are considered important biological controls of many other insect groups, especially the larvae of flies, beetles, and moths and butterflies. Upon hatching, the wasp larvae feed on the host, consuming non-vital tissue so that the host continues to live. Then, one day, the larvae emerge and pupate, and the host eventually dies.

Hog sphinx with braconid wasp cocoons

Hog sphinx larva with braconid wasp cocoons (ironically, I had just commented to someone that I usually find the green form of this caterpillar, and, this week, I discovered this brown one)

Many of us are familiar with the external cotton swab style cocoons found on many species of caterpillars (especially tobacco hornworms on your tomatoes). In the photo above, you can see the wasps have already emerged since the caps of the cocoons are open. But there is another group of braconids that have a different strategy.

Unicorn caterpillar with braconid eggs 1

Unicorn larva guarding the pupating wasps

They may even alter the behavior of the host caterpillar, creating a so-called zombie caterpillar (what’s with all the zombie things in my yard?). When the wasp larvae emerge, they form an array of cocoons that the caterpillar sits atop and guards (as best it can) until the wasps emerge.

Unicorn caterpillar with braconid eggs in hand

The unicorn caterpillar and its parasitoid pillow

I normally don’t interfere much with nature but I decided to remove the wasp cocoons and the doomed caterpillar so I could see what, and how many, parasitoids emerged. I’ll try to get some photo of the tiny masterminds whenever they complete their life cycle. Here’s hoping the other 5 unicorn caterpillars I found on the wild cherry sapling have a better fate.


Seeing the Wild in Wild Cherry

The most beautiful gift of Nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see.

~Albert Einstein

There is a wild cherry (Prunus serotina) sapling just outside our screen porch that is a favorite spot for all sorts of natural events. Wild cherry is a great host plant for a variety of moths and butterflies so I let this young tree grow in a spot too close to the house to ever reach any height just so I can keep track of the comings and goings of its tenants. It has been a busy place these past few days.

red-spotted purple early instar

Red-spotted purple early instar larva (click on photos to enlarge)

Throughout the year, I can always count on seeing some sign of one of the primary occupants of this species of tree, the red-spotted purple butterfly, Limenitis arthemis. They lay their eggs at the tip of cherry leaves, and the larvae feed on the leaves through their entire caterpillar and chrysalis stage, appearing  as bird poop mimics. And they even overwinter on the plant, with the first instar larvae of the fall generation making tiny sleeping bags, or hibernacula, by cutting away much of a leaf and rolling the base into a hollow tube where they spend the winter. Next spring, when the cherry leaves first sprout, the tiny larvae will emerge form their tube, begin feeding on the fresh leaves, and begin the whole cycle again. In the photo above, the larvae has already attached the leaf to the twig with silk (so the leaf fragment remains on the tree all winter) and is just beginning to curl the base of the leaf with even more silk (silk strands shrink as they dry, pulling the leaf together).

red-spotted purple hibernaculum 1

One day later, a hibernaculum!

By the next day, the larvae had finished constructing its hibernaculum and was resting inside. I’m a bit surprised it has constructed this so soon as there is still plenty of time for it to grow, pupate, and start another generation before cold weather. But, there are not many leaves left on this tree at this point, so maybe caterpillars can take a cue from food availability and go ahead and go into a resting phase for the winter.

red-spotted purple last instar

Last instar red-spotted purple caterpillar on a different sapling

On a nearby cherry sapling, I found a much larger red-spotted purple larva which will soon, no doubt, form a chrysalis.

white-marked tussock early instar

White-marked tussock moth larva, early instar

Back at the original tree, there were a couple of other caterpillars to observe. One of my favorite finds this time of year is the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar, Orgyia leucostigma . They remind me of a combination caterpillar and toothbrush, due to the four prominent tufts protruding near the head, plus the two black-colored tufts of setae out front that resemble some fancy flossing tool.

white-marked tussock just after molt

White-marked tussock moth larva and shed skin

Nearby was another one that had just molted. This species is a generalist feeder, so I find it on a variety of plant species around the yard.

Unicorn caterpillar second instar

An early instar unicorn caterpillar

Nearby was another of my favorites, an early instar of the unicorn caterpillar, Schizura unicornis. These guys do an amazing job of blending in with the edges of the leaves of whatever they are feeding on. As I looked around, I found a few more…and that will be some fodder for my next post.


Kayaking in Columbia

I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…far away from human society.

~Henry David Thoreau, on swamps

sunset on Columbia town dock

Sunset from the town dock in Columbia, NC (click photos to enlarge)

Columbia, North Carolina, that is. We spent several days in this beautiful little town last week, part vacation, part getting out to see some of the region for the trails project I am working on with NCLOW. It didn’t help that it was one of the hottest weeks of the summer, but it did help that we spent much of it on the water. And this region has lots of water, from Lake Phelps, the second largest natural lake in North Carolina, to the Scuppernong River, to the numerous creeks and sloughs that beckon paddlers to explore. So, we decided to take our kayaks, throw them in where we could, and see what we could see in a few days on the water. First stop, was the NW Alligator River.

NW Alligator wide view

NW Alligator meanders up into Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge from Hwy 94

I had scouted out some potential put-in points (they are few, unfortunately) so we decided to put in at what looks like an old boat ramp near where Hwy 94 crosses this section of river, about 14 miles south of Columbia. The access is now flooded, but there is a substantial old dock at the site, indicating its past use, perhaps in logging or fishery operations.

NW Alligator put-in

We launched on the east side of Hwy 94 at an old boat ramp area

The lands surrounding this waterway have scattered trees, low pocosin vegetation, and a border of marsh grasses, including pockets of wild rice. Shortly after we passed under the Hwy 94 bridge, we spotted a bald eagle, who managed to stay with us much of the morning. The other wildlife highlight were several red-headed woodpeckers, flying between the many standing dead trees along the route.

NW Alligator River 1

A perfect day for paddling

Eastern Pondhawk male

Dragonflies were our constant companions

NW Alligator River 2

Calm winds made for great reflections

An abundance of clouds made for beautiful reflections and a respite from the heat. After paddling about 1.5 miles, we came to the juncture of the SW and NW branches of the Alligator, and headed north. The path narrows after this, and we found ourselves going through patches of alligator weed and a grass of some sort, most likely maiden cane. Patches of the alligator weed looked as though they had been treated (this is an invasive species that can clog small waterways and is often treated chemically by local agencies).

Maidencane blockage

Large patches of maiden cane finally blocked our path

After paddling another couple of miles, we finally reached a patch of the maiden cane that seemed too large to easily push through, so we turned around and headed back. Our total paddle was about 5 to 6 miles. The only sounds, other than fish jumping, dragonflies buzzing, and woodpeckers drumming, was the distant hum of some crop dusters spraying some of the huge farm fields down the road. I want to go back in colder weather , once some of the vegetation dies back, and see if I can make it all the way up to the refuge road system.

Wide view Riders Creek

Friends recommended we try Riders Creek, near Columbia. It enters the Scuppernong River on the far left.

The next day we hit Riders Creek, a small tributary to the Scuppernong River about 2 miles south of Columbia. Finding a suitable launch site was again the challenge. The two road bridges didn’t offer much so we drove down a side road after looking at Google Earth and Melissa tested a large log on the bank of a roadside canal as a potential launch site. Nothing fancy, but it worked. This day, we had help, and another paddler, and were dropped off (there is no place to park at this makeshift put-in) and planned to paddle back to the canoe/kayak launch behind the Pocosin Lakes Visitor Center in town, a total paddle distance of a little over 5 miles.


Rider's Creek

The narrow creek is a beautiful paddle

The upper portion of the creek was my favorite as it is narrow and intimate, allowing us to see and hear the many bird species (prothonotary warblers, woodpeckers, and a great horned owl) and appreciate the small things along the way (an owl feather floating on the black water, the distinctive webs of the many black and yellow argiope spiders, and a clump of blooming cardinal flower adding a splash of brilliant red to the sea of green around us).

Rider's Creek 1

Large bald cypress trees are scattered along the creek

Scuppernoing River

Riders Creek joins the Scuppernong River about 1.5 miles south of Columbia

It was another great paddle, only a couple of hours long, but through a beautiful swamp forest, into the wide waters of the lower Scuppernong, and ending back in the picturesque town of Columbia. And, we were the only ones on the water, probably not unusual in this underutilized area of rich scenery and wildlife.

That afternoon, we drove through portions of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and saw a few bears (no surprise) as well as some smaller wildlife.

Palomedes swallowtails on scat

A group of palamedes swallowtails gathering nutrients from a somewhat unsavory source – scat

Canebrake rattlesnake

A large canebrake rattlesnake along a back road

The palamedes swallowtails were out and about everywhere, and we managed to find a large canebrake rattlesnake crossing one of the refuge roads. I never tire of seeing this magnificent reptiles, and the refuge seems to have a healthy population.

Lake Phelps from Pocosin overlook

The south shore of Lake Phelps

Our last stop was at the pocosin overlook at Pettigrew State Park, along the south shore of Lake Phelps. The clear water at Lake Phelps is such a surprise after spending a couple of days in the dark, tannin-colored waters of the region. It made for a refreshing dip on a hot afternoon.

NCLOW is looking at how we might help bring more tourists into this region to explore and enjoy its rich natural and cultural heritage. The waterways here offer scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, and the chance for quiet and uncrowded paddling. And Columbia is a beautiful town with a rich history and great potential. It is also home to Pocosin Arts, a real treasure of eastern North Carolina, whose mission is to connect culture to the environment through the arts. They offer a range of classes year-round, and are looking at ways to incorporate even more of their unique natural surroundings into their offerings.

One area that does seem to be getting a lot of attention from tourists is nearby Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Situated only about 15 minutes from the Outer Banks certainly helps fuel the busy summer tourist season on this refuge. It is known for its large population of black bears and for paddling opportunities along Milltail Creek. Several OBX outfitters provide canoe/kayak rentals and guided trips on the refuge. We decided to spend our last paddle day checking out this area. We drove to the main launch site at Buffalo City and were surprised to see 10+ vehicles, a crowd of people, and probably 20+ kayaks and canoes. Most people probably go downstream along Milltail Creek, so we decided to drive to another, lesser-known launch site upstream to seek some solitude.

Milltail Crk

Milltail Creek is obviously a popular paddle destination (Alligator River is on the far left of image)

Upper Milltail Crk launch

We launched upstream where Milltail Road crosses the creek

floating dock - jet doc

Floating dock at the launch site

Besides the advantage of proximity to a large tourist population on the Outer Banks, the refuge also has two well-maintained launch sites on Milltail Creek. Ours had a neat floating dock that makes for a very easy launch. As we put in, a trailer with 6 boats pulled up, so I guess this site is not as unknown as I had thought. We quickly got out ahead of the group and for a few hours felt like we were the only people anywhere near this beautiful swamp.

Upper Milltail Creek

Milltail Creek starts out narrow at this launch


Iris on upper Milltail Creek

Swamp iris occur in many places along the creek

Upper Milltail Creek 8

Another beautiful day for paddling

We paddled for a few hours, traveling a total of about 7 miles out and back. The creek is rich in bird life and we saw lots of wood ducks, herons, and a few anhinga. My highlights were seeing a large alligator and a black bear along the route. The scenery is beautiful, it is incredibly quiet (if the jets are not buzzing overhead), and it is a great combination of solitude, ease of access, and abundant wildlife. I can see why it is such a popular destination.

Cypress tree on Upper Milltail Creek

A large bald cypress beckoned us over for a closer look

At one point along the way, I noticed a large bald cypress tree hugging the shoreline. Its large limbs draped down, seemingly embracing the dark water, making it look like a perfect place to pull in and escape the sun.

Cypress tree trunk on Upper Milltail Creek

The giant trunk looked inviting

Melissa in tree

A great place to relax in the shade

Sure enough, it offered a chance to climb out of our boats, relax for a lunch break, and it provided a Swiss Family Robinson moment for a couple of thankful paddlers.

Our three days of paddling showed me the great potential for the Scuppernong region, truly one of the jewels of wildness in our state. I hope we can help foster an awareness and appreciation of the incredible resources of this unique area, provide some economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs, and maintain the incredible natural heritage and beauty of this wild landscape. On our way home, we decided to check out an area that is making a strong effort to do just that.

treehouse in Windsor

Recently completed tree houses along the Cashie River in Windsor

The town of Windsor is located along the Cashie River, between Williamston and Edenton. The town is making a commitment to ecotourism along its waterways (see Destination Windsor) with kayak and canoe rentals, pontoon boat tours, a wetlands walk, and the recently completed tree houses. These two tree houses, funded in part by grants, are to be the start of a village along the river including a few more tree houses and a renovated campground. They hope to have these available for rent starting this fall. It looks like a great start to getting visitors to come to appreciate their natural surroundings. Let’s hope they prove successful and can pave the way for more such ventures in the wilds of eastern North Carolina.

A Beary Hot Summer Day

The month of August had turned into a griddle where days just lay there and sizzled.

~Sue Monk Kidd

Last week, we spent 5 days in the wilds of eastern NC, a combination mini-vacation and working trip to further investigate the area around the Scuppernong River for the project I am working on with NCLOW. As you might expect, it was a tad warm (especially for the guy that loves cold weather), but we planned to be on or near water most of the week. Turns out, we are not the only ones that think that way. Returning to Columbia after a short excursion to the Outer Banks, we drove through Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, in the hopes of seeing some wildlife. Temperatures had been hot all week with high humidity adding to the discomfort. We entered the refuge about 5:30 p.m., that time of day when wildlife begins to come out of the forest in search of an evening meal. Driving down one of the main gravel roadways, Melissa spotted something off to the side in the canal…a bear cooling off in the water, a bear bathtub.

bear in canal

Black bear cooling off in a canal on a hot August afternoon (click photos to enlarge)

It was a big bear, and it was just chillin’. When we pulled up, it glanced our way and then quickly went back into that chillin’ mode, eyes closed, almost a grin of cool relief on its face.

bear in canal wider view

We could almost hear a sigh of relief in that look

The afternoon temperatures reached into the low 90’s that day, so I am sure this water, in spite of its less than desirable look, was quite satisfying. A black bear’s normal body temperature isn’t far from our own, around 98 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (it is less during hibernation). The thick black fur is a good insulator, but can present problems in the heat of summer. And, like dogs, bears lack sweat glands, so they must use other means to cool off – panting, lying in the shade, digging day beds to lie on the cool ground, or taking a nice plunge in the water. I have seen bears cooling off before in canals at Pocosin Lakes NWR, but have never been this close to one seemingly so relaxed in the cool water.

bear in canal wider view 1

The bear relaxed onto all fours when another car pulled up

Another vehicle soon pulled up, but the large bear did not seem concerned. It did shift its posture and sat down in the water with all four paws presumably on the muddy bottom.

bear in canal scrunching up face

The bear began to scrunch up its nose

After remaining almost motionless for a few minutes, the bear began to scrunch up its nose, revealing more of its teeth and tongue. We wondered what it was up to…trying to smell us (a third car had driven up at that point)? When I got home and looked at the images, I think I now know what was happening.

bear in canal scrunching up face close up

Was this face in response to biting flies?

The photos taken when the bear was scrunching up its nose show a couple of biting flies on its snout. Pictures prior to that (like the first three photos above) show none of the irritating insects.

bear with biting flies on face

A trickle of blood from a fly bite on his nose

The last few photos showed a tiny trickle of blood running off his nose. Look carefully at the previous image and you can see there was a fly in that spot. Guess I, too, would scrunch up my face under those conditions.

bear leaving canal

The big fella finally departs for the corn fields

After spending nine minutes with this big guy (no telling how long he was chillin’ in the canal before we arrived), he finally decided to head back up into the fields. I suppose he was headed for a nice corn dinner, and maybe some dense vegetation where those pesky flies couldn’t get to his sensitive nose.



The Difference a Week Makes

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.

~Henry David Thoreau

Last week I shared some images of the some of the little things that are so fascinating in a big landscape like Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I am aback this week and decided to check on one particular little thing while I was in the area – the palamedes swallowtail larva I found on a red bay leaf. I pulled up to the location of the small sapling, got out, and looked. At first I didn’t see it, but then…

Palamedes Swallowtail caterpillar on red bay 1

Palamedes swallowtail larva from last week (click photos to enlarge)

Sure enough, it is still on the same plant, a couple of leaves away. But, it has changed its attire and looks very different this week.

Palamedes swallowtail larvae after molt side view

Palamedes swallowtail caterpillar after its molt

It has molted to what I think is its fourth instar (they usually molt 5 times before pupating). It now looks more like part of a leaf  and less like bird poop. But it still has those bold false eyes and can resemble a small snake when it puffs its head and arches its body.

Palamedes swallowtail larvae after molt side view 1

Still may be protected by looking like a snake

Palamedes swallowtail larvae after molt head view

Here’s looking at you…

It moved about a foot away from its last leaf perch. Here’s hoping it makes it to another molt and fly away as a beautiful butterfly of the swamp.

The Little Things

Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.

~Robert Brault

I just returned from two hot days down at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I am looking at some interpretive possibilities for the region as part of the NCLOW project to enhance ecotourism potential in northeastern North Carolina. Readers of this blog already know I think this area is one of the best places in our state (our entire region, really) to see and enjoy wildlife such as large flocks of wintering waterfowl and black bears. But, there is so much more to this refuge than just the charismatic mega-fauna that have made it increasingly well-known to birders and wildlife photographers.

Driving the Pungo Unit

I drove about 50 miles on refuge roads the past two days

Bayberry Loop trail

I hiked about 7 miles on existing trails and proposed trails like this one, already heavily used by black bears

While my purpose on this trip was something other than nature photography, I couldn’t resist taking a few images of some of the smaller things this spectacular natural area has to offer. In fact, that is something that many people may not appreciate about our public lands. Not only do they provide critical habitat for target species such as waterfowl, they are home to so many other species that can be observed and enjoyed in their natural haunts. All you need to do is just take the time to get out and explore.

Palamedes Swallowtail caterpillar on red bay

Palamedes swallowtail caterpillar on its host plant, red bay

Palamedes Swallowtail caterpillar on red bay 1

When disturbed, the larvae swell up their head region, resembling a snake

Palamedes Swallowtail caterpillar head on view closer

A close look at the false eye spots that look so real

Palomedes swallowtail on thistle

Palamedes swallowtails are probably the most abundant butterfly on the refuge. This one was photographed earlier this spring

Zebra swallowtails puddling

Zebra swallowtails puddling. They are abundant in forests surrounding Pungo Lake, where their host plant, pawpaw, is common.

Zebra swallowtails mating

Mating pair of zebra swallowtails

The plant diversity on the refuge is impressive with abundant wildflowers and unusual pocosin species such as loblolly bay, titi, gallberry, and even some carnivorous plants.

Meadow Beauty

Meadow beauty (Rhexia sp.) is common along the refuge roadsides

Swamp milkweed flowers

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) blooming along refuge lands on Hwy 94 south of Columbia

Yellow pitcher plants along canal

Yellow pitcher plants, sundews, and bladderworts are some of the carnivorous species found on the refuge.

In summer, the skies on the refuge are abuzz with all sorts of insects, including many species of dragonflies and damselflies.

Blue Dasher

Blue dasher

Golden-winged skimmers?

Golden-winged skimmers

Halloween Pennant

Halloween pennants apparently love to ride the tips of plant stems in gusty winds

Eastern Pondhawk female vertical perch

Eastern pondhawk, female

But sometimes, the rulers of the sky fall prey to other predators…

Eastern Pondhawk in web

Eastern pondhawk caught in spider web

Argiope capturing Eastern Pondhawk 1

An argiope spider wrapping silk (note the silk strands coming out of the spinnerets at the tip of the abdomen) around a captured dragonfly

Argiope spider

A black and yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia). Also called the writing spider, zipper spider, and yellow garden spider.

Unid potter wasp gathering mud

A potter wasp gathering mud for its nest. Most of these stock their nest chambers with small caterpillars to feed their developing larvae.

Moving up the scale in size of wildlife observed were numerous birds (especially great blue herons, great egrets, and green herons) along with countless reptiles and amphibians. The most common frogs I saw and heard were southern leopard frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs, and southern cricket frogs. There are literally hundreds of turtles in the canals, mostly yellow-bellied sliders and painted turtles. I also saw several snakes while driving along the refuges’ many dirt and gravel roads. The most common was the black racer, but I was delighted to finally come across one of my favorites, a canebrake rattlesnake, late on my last afternoon.

Great Egret

Great egrets and great blue herons are feeding along the canals and in one of the large marsh impoundments.

YB Sliders on log

Yellow-bellied sliders basking on a log in a canal.

Canebrake rattlesnake

Canebrake rattlesnake coming out into the road

Canebrake rattlesnake head  low angle darker

Telephoto view of a canebrake

Canebrake rattlesnake tail against body

The snake finally had enough of me and my camera and turned back to hide in the roadside vegetation

The wildlife may be different this time of year, but it is no less fascinating. Photography opportunities are everywhere if you just slow down and look. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there are still many signs of the larger creatures around every turn, and there is always the chance you may encounter one of the sign-makers.

Bear marked tree

Roadside tree marked by bears at a height of 6 to 7 feet above the ground

Black bear standing along Beart Rd

A well-fed bear gives me the once over on my last afternoon



A Day in the Field

A rainy day in the field is better than a sunny day in the office.


Well, it didn’t rain, it was sunny, and I no longer have an office….but, it was a good day, in spite of the heat. I am working on a trails enhancement project with NCLOW on the Scuppernong region of NC that includes Pettigrew State Park and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Yesterday, I spent the day surveying some of the Pungo Unit of my favorite refuge, jotting down some of the dominant plant species and some of the more abundant insects and other animals that visitors are likely to encounter this time of year. It was a great day for butterflies, dragonflies, egrets and herons, and…

black bear and three cubs 1

Mama bear with tree cubs (click photos to enlarge)

I didn’t see my first one until late in the afternoon, down a trail I was hiking at the Duck Pen observation area on the south shore of Pungo Lake. But, by the time the day was over, I observed 16 bears and one red wolf (unfortunately, no photo of the wolf, but it was my 15th sighting of one of these elusive critters over the years). Not a bad day in the field after all. Here are a few of the bears I saw along the way…

black bear standing in soybean field 1

Standing in a soybean field

black bear walking in soybean field

This poor guy had an injured hind foot but seemed fine otherwise

black bear boar

A huge male between corn fields on adjacent private lands

black bear standing in soybean field

Standing up in that perfect late afternoon light to check me out

Stormy Night

It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents…

~Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

And indeed it was…last night. We barely beat a fierce thunderstorm as we drove back from dinner with friends in Chapel Hill. The sky was flashing with rapid-fire lightning when we arrived at our gate. I must have done something right recently, as just when I stopped at the gate, my driver’s side windshield wiper arm came apart. That would have been very problematic a few minutes earlier as we drove through a downpour. The rain let up just long enough for us to get inside, and then the sky opened up, and down it came. Something else must have come down somewhere as it wasn’t long before the power flickered, and then went out. A reminder of how really dark it can be out here in the woods…incredibly lively as well. Outside, I could hear another chorus of Cope’s gray tree frogs cranking up, another attempt at spreading the genes around. Most of the sound was coming from the water garden that sits half-empty, awaiting repair. I mentioned it in an earlier post as the source of the abundance of transforming tree frog tadpoles in the yard. And it looked like this would be another night for creating the start of many mini-frogs.

The rain let up so i wandered outside (sans camera, unfortunately) to see what all the fuss was about. I discovered a couple of reasons why it isn’t easy being a tree frog in love. A huge bullfrog was sitting over by one pool, the one without the breeding tree frogs. A guy that big can easily grab and swallow any tree frog that comes his way. That may be one reason the tree frogs are using the other pool, although I think it also has something to do with the thick cover of duckweed and other vegetation in the bullfrog pool. When I walked over to the tree frog pool, I saw another potential hazard to romancing frogs – a copperhead was dangling out over the pool, no doubt waiting for a love-struck frog to venture too close. By the way, that is one reason that pool will remain in a state of disrepair until colder weather arrives. I prefer moving all those stones after certain species are retired for the year.

The rain started up again so I retreated indoors. I soon heard a frog calling from out front, sounding like it was just outside the front door. I grabbed the camera and stepped out underneath the covered entrance way. The rain paused and I heard the frog call again, very close.

Cope's Gray Treefrog on walkway

Cope’s gray tree frog sitting on walkway (click photos to enlarge)

I knelt down, and spotted the caller perched on the edge of our wooden walkway into the house. He was facing the to-be-repaired pool, the source of all of the other calling. Suddenly, he puffed his body a couple of times, as if taking a deep breath…

Cope's Gray Treefrog calling side view

Gray tree frog calling

…and let go with a loud trill. His vocal sac extended for a second or so, just long enough for me to fire off a shot. I sat and watched him call a few more times before heading back inside. I figured he would soon hop off toward the other pool and join in the breeding frenzy. It is getting a little late in the summer for a full-on bout of tree frog breeding (the peak of activity is usually from late May – July), but you wouldn’t have known it last night. It has been a wet summer, and the frogs are taking advantage of every last storm, and last night it really seemed like it was raining cats and dogs (or frogs and toads at least). We probably had close to 2 inches of rain in the storm, and power remained out until about 5:30 this morning.

Right before heading to bed, I looked out the front door again. The calling frog had turned and was now facing me. I couldn’t let that obvious invitation go unanswered, so out I went with my camera one more time.

Cope's Gray Treefrog front view

Catching his breath before another trill

I bent down a couple of feet away and he sized me up, but apparently had more important things on his mind…trilllllll!

Cope's Gray Treefrog calling front view

Nice trill…

About that time, my camera battery died, so I headed back inside to a darkened house. I don’t know whether his efforts eventually paid off or not, but I felt lucky to have shared a few moments of darkness with such good company.

Summer Cats

Nature will not be admired by proxy.

~Winston Churchill

Seems as though my schedule (and the heat) have kept me from some of my usual yard patrols, so I finally went out the other day for a walk-about to see what I could see. It started with my eye catching something out of place on a hickory sapling near the gate…a bright green spot at the edge of a leaf…

Caterpillar head

Caterpillar head peaking out from behind a leaf (click photos to enlarge)

When I walked over, I could see by the distinctive triangle-shaped head, framed by a pair of yellow stripes, that it was an old acquaintance – the larva of a walnut sphinx moth, Amorpha juglandis.

Walnut sphinx larva

Walnut sphinx larva feeding on hickory leaf

I did a short blog post on this cool species a couple of years ago when I found out it has an unusual ability…it is one of the few caterpillars that can make sounds! Researchers discovered it can make a high-pitched whistle by quickly expelling air out of its eighth pair of spiracles (the small breathing tube holes along the sides of caterpillars). Studies have shown that the sound may be enough to scare off potential bird predators.

Walnut sphinx larva 1

The walnut sphinx larva is distinctive in its appearance and abilities

Even though I probably disturbed this little guy while taking its picture (they usually feed on the underside of leaves so I had to flip him over for a full profile pic), I heard no whistle. I can’t decide whether their sound is outside my range of hearing (like many warblers) or these caterpillars just realize I am a long-time fan of their kind and present no threat. After photographing this species, I decided to walk around for a few minutes to see what else I might find.

Walnut caterpillars

Walnut caterpillars

Just a few feet away on another hickory sapling, I found an aggregation of strange, hairy larvae that turned out to be walnut caterpillars, Datana integerrima. What made me notice was a couple of leaves that had been heavily chewed. As I got closer, I could see something that looked like my barber had glued some of my trimmings all over a couple of black worms. When I touched the leaf, they quickly arched into a c-shape, a classic defense pose for members of this genus of caterpillars.

Walnut caterpillars 1

The larvae had just molted

I flipped the leaf to get a better look and found that they had all just molted. This is typical for this species, which is known to move down out of the trees where they are feeding in masses in order to molt. Walnut caterpillars generally have at least two generations per year in the south and can periodically be serious defoliators of localized populations of black walnut, pecans, and various species of hickory. I have never seen them cause significant problems in this area as they seem to be controlled fairly well by natural predators and parasites.

So, in just a few minutes time just outside my door, within a span of less than thirty feet, I was rewarded with glimpses of two fascinating species that share my habitat. It is always good to be reminded that to really enjoy nature, you have to be out in it.






That Time of Year Again – Bees Beware

To every thing there is a season…


On several of my wanderings these past few days, I have heard noticeable buzzing sounds that indicate an acceleration and flyby of a large winged insect. I recognize these sounds to be from a fascinating group, the robber flies, family Asilidae. I remembered posting about them last year and when I looked it up, it was almost exactly the same week last summer when I started seeing these amazing aerial predators in the yard.

robber fly with honey bee looking from side

Robber fly with honey bee prey (click photos to enlarge)

And, once again, the first one I saw with a prey item last week had managed to capture a honey bee. Their preference for bees is one reason this particular species is also called the false bee-killer (although not really so false).

robber fly with honey bee

Close up of a killer

A closer look reveals some of the adaptations that make robber flies so efficient at catching their prey, which, by the way, they almost always do while on the wing. They have huge eyes for spotting flying insects; large wings powered by strong muscles in the humped thorax; and long spiky legs that help them maintain a grip on something once they have grabbed it in mid-air.

robber fly with honey bee looking from above

Face to face with a fierce predator

This one did what they all do after catching something – flew to a perch to start consuming its prey shortly after capture. Robber flies pierce and inject their victims with toxins that immobilize the prey and begin to liquefy them. They then fly to a nearby perch and begin to imbibe on the internal soup of their quarry.

This time, however, the meal was interrupted. What had drawn me to this particular perched fly was an intense buzzing sound, not made by this fly, but by a male robber fly hovering nearby. The male had the distinctive white patch at the tail tip I had seen last summer that allowed me to identify them as Promachus bastardii, which Bug Guide calls the Big Robber. Turns out, this loud, stationary buzzing is a prelude to mating. And, sure enough, the male waited for just the right moment and then jumped on the larger, feeding female.

mating robber flies

Mating robber flies

The act didn’t last long as I heard another buzzing sound and saw another male hovering nearby…the lady has two suitors. The first male buzzed off and the other male followed, so perhaps a territorial duel ensued elsewhere in the yard.

female resuming her meal

Female continued feeding

The female, meanwhile, continued feeding. That is, until I accidentally brushed her perch while trying to lean in closer for a better view. She immediately buzzed by my head, carrying her unfinished lunch to a less crowded perch. She will eventually lay eggs at the base of  plant or in soft soil or rotting wood. The larvae are rarely seen, but resemble odd worm-like creatures living in soil and soft wood where they consume organic matter and start their predatory career by capturing soft-bodied prey around them. Larvae pupate in the soil and emerge next year, or perhaps a year or more later. I guess I will need to be on the lookout for some egg-laying behavior and see if I can’t find a larva. In the meantime, I’ll listen for that buzzing sound and see what’s for dinner.