Giants of the Night

From behind its head came two large “feathers” that projected forward…This butterfly has antlers, I thought in awe.

~John Cody, moth artist, describing his first childhood encounter with a giant silkmoth

Something caught me eye one morning as I approached the outside door leading upstairs to my office. It looked a bit like a dried leaf caught in one of the cracks in the decking. But when I turned to look, I could see it was one of the giant silkmoths perched on the deck, wings upright. I walked over, watched it for a few seconds, then gently picked it up and took it up to the office, safe from the many potential bird predators around the building. I placed it in a plastic container with the intention of releasing it toward sunset.

Tuliptree silk moth head view

Close up of moth head (click photos to enlarge)

I had a full slate of programs that day so didn’t get back to the moth to observe or photograph it, and assumed it was a male based on a quick glance at the somewhat feathery antenna.

Tuliptree silk moth eggs

Moth eggs on side of container

Later, I was surprised to find a cluster of eggs adhering to the walls of the container. Turns out, my moth was a female tuliptree silkmoth, Callosamia angulifera. This is one of many species of giant silkmoth in this area. The group is so-named for their large size (this one has a wingspan of 4 inches) and use of silk in their cocoons. Other local species in this family of moths, the Saturniidae, include the luna, cecropia, and polyphemus moths.

Tuliptree silk moth side view view 1

Closeup of moth body

They are all large, beautiful moths, with “furry” bodies and somewhat velvety wings. They do not feed as adults due to under-developed mouthparts, and live only a week or so as adults, with their sole purpose being to mate, lay eggs, and then die.

Tuliptree silk moth side view

This species perches with wings upright

The tuliptree silk moth lays its eggs on leaves of tulip poplar, so I will transfer the eggs to some saplings when they hatch (in about a week).

Tuliptree silk moth

The moth quivers just before take-off

This species is identified by the brown and reddish-brown colors of the adults, and the presence of the angular, T-shaped spots on the wings. Late in the day, I placed the moth on a tree trunk and watched. She began to quiver her beautiful wings, the silkmoth version of revving your engines. This is how they get their body temperature up to a sufficient internal temperature for flight. It didn’t take long before this giant of the night sailed off into the trees. I’ll keep you posted on her eggs and larvae over the coming weeks.

 

They Are Catching More Than Just Gnats

may my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living

~ee cummings

Here is a long overdue update on those little birds that nested just outside the garden driveway gate at the Botanical Garden…I am happy to report these diligent parents were apparently successful in rearing their young. You may remember my earlier post where a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers were building the nest (they finished it around April 10). A few days after that post, I saw the female incubating the eggs, so I tried to keep an eye on her to see when they might start feeding the young. Finally, I saw her off the nest the first week of May. I wasn’t able to get out to photograph them until May 7. That was probably about 6 or 7 days after they hatched. I had trouble counting the tiny heads even after looking at my images from that first feeding day, but I could tell there were at least three young. Later, I saw the fourth beak pressing skyward on one of the feeding bouts, so the total was four.

BG gnatcatchers both adults at nest

Both parents arriving at nest together (click photos to enlarge)

The feeding bouts were fast and furious, with adults staying just a couple of seconds on each trip. What amazed me on that first day was the large number of huge craneflies that the parent birds were bringing in.

cranefly brought to nest

A large adult cranefly is jammed down an open mouth of one of the nestlings

close up of cranefly going to nestling

That a lot of wings and legs to swallow for such a tiny bird

BG Gnatcatcher at nest

Nestlings sometimes had to wait a bit before they could get anything else down

It seemed like about half of the food items brought on that first evening were craneflies. There is a nearby creek and large vernal pool that may be the source of so many of these huge flies (their larvae are aquatic), but I was impressed how many the adult birds were able to catch. Even more impressive was how many the tiny nestlings were able to swallow. On many occasions, a parent brought another food item, but I could still see the long legs of the previous meal sticking out of the beak of one of the recently fed young.

BG gntcatcher with fecal sac

Female removing a fecal sac from a nestling

Of course, what comes in, must go out, so after every few feeding trips one of the young birds would raise its rear end after the adult had passed on a prey item, and the adult dutifully plucked the pre-packaged fecal sac and flew off. Data shows they usually drop it after flying 30 to 40 feet away from the nest (this helps keep the nest area clean of smelly poop that might attract predators).

nestling begging

Nestlings are getting more feathers on their head by May 11 (compare to earlier photo)

I spent some time photographing the feeding of young on three separate occasions, all after the Garden closed at 5 p.m. By the third date, May 11, the young were noticeably larger, more active in the nest between feeding bouts, and getting more feathered, especially on the head. Their huge gape and bright yellow mouth linings were hard to miss, and surely provide a great target for tired parent birds bringing in the food.

feeding the group

Hungry mouths begging for food

I was amazed that, after that first day of a menu heavy on craneflies, the last day I watched them, the adults brought in nary a one. Most of the food items were much smaller, and were difficult to identify even after zooming in on the images.

Adult brining a small moth

Bringing in what looks like a small moth

But the pace of feeding had quickened. That last day, May 11, I decided to keep track of the feedings. I stood out there for a total of 86 minutes that evening. During that time, the adult birds made a total of 51 feeding trips. The longest interval between feedings was 6 minutes. On several occasions, there were 2 or 3 feedings within the span of a minute!

feeding from above

The last day, a new feeding perch was used…the hang-down-from-the-branch-above technique

Although I was hoping for another day of shooting the nest, I thought they might fledge before I returned, as I was taking a long weekend. Sure enough, when I returned to work on May 16, the nest was empty. Records show the young usually leave the nest 10-15 days after hatching, so that puts these guys right on schedule. Here’s hoping they all made it and are out there learning to be on their own.

Big Jaws

The naturalist suffers a pleasant nuisance – not being able to walk 100 yards without being tied to the spot by some new and wondrous creature.

~Charles Darwin

I’m afraid this applies to me and is often why it takes so long to hike (saunter is probably a better term for what I usually do) along a trail or get some task done here in the yard. And so it was last week when I was out doing some weeding and mowing. As I walked by a mulberry tree near the shed, I caught a glimpse of a green object hovering near the tree trunk. I tried to prop up this particular tree years ago using a stake and attached rope that ran through some plastic tubing. The tree had leaned over in a storm and I was hoping to help straighten it, while still protecting the bark. The rope rotted away, but the tube remained, captured by the tree bark. The green object hovered for an instant near one end of that tubing, and then disappeared inside.

green blob going into tube

Mystery green blob disappearing into tube (click photos to enlarge)

I caught just enough of a glimpse to have an idea of what was happening, and I was thrilled. It looked like the work of a leafcutter bee, a native bee whose handiwork (or should I say, jawiwork) I see every spring.

Leafcutter bee cuts on redbud leaves

Tell-tale sign of the presence of leafcutter bees

You may have seen this where you live, small round holes in the edges of leaves. In my yard, the leafcutter bees are particularly fond of redbud leaves. It appears they favor thin leaves that lack a lot of thick venation. The result of the all this activity looks like an overly-ambitious person with a hole-punch has a grudge against your redbud trees. These bees cut circles of leaf material to use in making a nest chamber in some sort of hollow tube or in the ground (more on that in a minute).

I ran in and got my camera and was disappointed to see the bee leaving just as I got back. I had no idea how long it might be before she returned, so I squatted next to the tree and waited. Turns out, the entry into the nest chamber is quick, so I missed my photo opportunity on her next visit as I just could not focus fast enough. Her exit was equally quick, so I knew I had to come up with a plan B (or is it Plan Bee?). I set the camera up on a tripod and grabbed a twig and laid it gently into the tube entrance. I then pre-focused the lens on the twig just outside the tube, removed the twig, and waited again.

leafcutter bee bringing in leaf fragment

Leafcutter bee bringing in a leaf fragment to her nest chamber

It worked. I heard her buzzing toward me, and pressed the shutter just as she approached the entrance. The camera caught her carrying a folded piece of redbud leaf as she approached the entrance to the tubing. She quickly went inside (I could see her movement inside the translucent tube) and took the leaf fragment to a mass of other greenery that was visible a couple of inches inside the tube entrance. She stayed a little over a minute and quickly departed. Within two minutes, she was back with another, smaller piece of leaf and repeated the sequence. But on her next visit, she was not carrying anything green.

leafcutter bee bringing in pollen

Leafcutter bee carrying pollen into nest chamber

This time, it was a load of pollen. This group of bees has an unusual feature compared to most bees – they carry their pollen on specialized hairs on their abdomen.

Bumblebee and pollen basket

A bumblebee with a full pollen basket on the hind leg

Bumblebees and honeybees have special structures on their legs, called pollen baskets, where they carry the pollen they gather.

leafcutter bee bringing in pollen 2

Pollen can be seen on underside of abdomen of this leafcutter bee

Some speculate that by carrying pollen on the hairs of their abdomen, leafcutter bees may be more effective pollinators than many other types of bees. As they crawl around on flowers, it may be easier to transfer pollen to receptive flower parts if it is carried underneath their body instead of being packed into specialized structures on their legs.

leafcutter bee leaving after bringing in pollen

Female bee as she leaves the nest chamber, minus the pollen

I started timing the comings and goings of this industrious female and it turns out she was very efficient at gathering and depositing pollen into the nest. It generally took about 1 to 2 minutes to gather the pollen, and then another 1 to 3 minutes to deposit it inside the tube. I could see the green nest chamber through the walls of the tubing. When I worked at the museum, I photographed a nest chamber that had been exposed in a block of wood so you could see the details of their handiwork.

Leafcutter bee nest in hollow

Nest chamber of leafcutter bee exposed by cutting open a block of wood

They construct cigar-like nests made of wrapped together leaf fragments. Each nest contains several cells. The female stocks each cell with a ball or loaf of stored pollen and then lays a single egg in each (each cell will produce a single bee). Nests are constructed in soil, in holes (usually made by other insects) in wood, and in hollow plant stems. They will also use a variety of human-made structures and readily take to artificial bee homes containing hollow tubes.

Leafcutter bee nest chamber

Individual cell cut open to view pupa and bee bread

The museum’s collection also had one cell that was cut open to show the pupa and the “loaf” of bee bread (a mixture of pollen and nectar) that the female stocks as provisions for the developing young. Most leafcutter bees overwinter in the nest chamber as newly formed adults and then chew their way out next spring. One source stated that the last egg laid (that one closest to the entrance of the entrance hole) is the first to hatch, and so on, down the line.

Leafcutter bee

Be thankful to the “big jaws” in your yard

The activity at the nest was complete by the next day. I will now keep an eye on this tubing to see if produces some new leafcutter adults next spring. The genus name, Megachile, literally means big lip, or big jaws, in Greek. Here’s wishing these big jaws a successful birth and hatching. Now that I know more about the cause, I’m starting to like those hole-punched redbud leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

Cope-ing with the Rains

If we can discover the meaning in the trilling of a frog, perhaps we may understand why it is for us not merely noise but a song of poetry and emotion.

~Adrian Forsyth

My apologies for once again using this corny phrase in a post about Cope’s Gray Treefrogs (see previous post about their life cycle). The recent downpours brought us over 4 inches of rain in two days last week. It was a boost for the plants and for our local frogs. A few nights ago I arrived home to the deafening trills of Cope’s Gray Treefrogs. I went out to investigate, and was amazed at how many were calling. It also reminded me of just how loud they can be when you get close to them.

Gray Treefrog on limb

Cope’s gray treefrog on limb near water garden (click photos to enlarge)

The calls were so loud and frequent that it was a little tough to tell where they were coming from, so I scanned the area near the pond with a flashlight and started seeing frogs everywhere. As is often the case, they all stopped calling when I first got close. But, it only takes one, somewhere in the yard, to start up again and they just can’t help themselves, even with a flashlight shining in their face. A spicebush a few feet from the edge of the pool had four calling frogs in it, so I took some time trying to get a decent photo.

Gray Treefrog on limb 1

They have long toes and bright yellow flash colors under the hind legs

It turned out to be quite challenging to photograph then in a shrub. Just when I would get close, the frogs would decide to move a couple of inches behind a nearby leaf or twig before resuming their amorous trills

Gray treefrog calling on limb 1

Looking up at a calling treefrog

It didn’t help my case that my glasses were fogging up and I occasionally bumped a twig with my camera or tripod, silencing all the frogs for a minute or two.

Gray treefrog calling

A cooperative frog on the rock wall of the pool

I finally spotted one out in the open on one of the rocks that form the edge of the pool. I slowly moved the tripod over and clicked a photo, then another, and then just sat and watched this little guy doing his best to attract a female. I shot a short video clip, but later realized that the flashlight I used to illuminate the calling frog created a flickering effect on the video. Oh well, next time I’ll do it right and go ahead and get the video light. But I still wanted to share the sounds with you…it really is incredibly loud.

As I looked around, I started to see paired frogs slowly moving toward the water. Studies have shown that female choice determines mating, and they tend to approach males with longer and more frequent calls (must be an indication of fitness).

Gray treefrogs in amplexus 1

Pair of treefrogs in amplexus

A successful approach results in amplexus, where the male clings firmly to the female as she deposits eggs in the water. The egg mass is externally fertilized by the male. Eggs hatch within a few days and it usually takes 6-8 weeks for the tadpoles to transform and leave the water. The chorus was still going strong as we turned out the lights and headed to bed. I hope the night is successful for them. If so, it will be fun seeing tiny frogs all around the yard in a few weeks.

Where Insects Fear to Tread

There is no exquisite beauty …without some strangeness.

~Edgar Allan Poe

Part two of our quest for carnivorous plants took us first to the Green Swamp, a well-known NC Nature Conservancy preserve site in Brunswick and Columbus counties. It was getting late in the day, so we went straight to the main access point, a small parking area next to a borrow pit along Hwy 211. We hiked in along the trail, through a short stretch of dense pocosin vegetation, and out into the open longleaf pine savanna.

Longleaf pine savanna, Green Swamp

Longleaf pine savanna in the Green Swamp (click photos to enlarge)

What you find here often greatly depends on the fire regimen – the year after a burn can produce spectacular wildflowers and make it much easier to see any in bloom. From the looks of it, I am guessing it may have been over a year since this particular tract was burned, but we could see some scattered spots of color poking above the clumps of wiregrass, especially along the pocosin edge.

Gras pink orchid

Grass pink orchid, Calopogon sp.

In addition to insect-eating plants, these pine savannas are well-known for their gorgeous orchids. Calopogon comes from the Greek words meaning beautiful beard, and refers to the bushy, yellow protuberances on the lip of this delicate orchid. These are designed to attract pollinators, thinking there might be a pollen or nectar reward, but it is a deception. The lip of the flower is hinged at the base, and when an insect lands, the lip drops and traps the insect among the flower parts, forcing it to wriggle its way out, and, in the process, hopefully pollinating the flower.

Butterwort

Yellow butterwort, Pinguicula lutea

Scattered along the edges of the savanna are small, bright yellow flowers of a carnivorous species, the yellow butterwort.

Butterwort leaves

Basal rosette of a butterwort

The business end of a butterwort lies at the base, where a tight cluster of sticky leaves serves to trap small insects by means of tiny stalked glands covered in mucilage. Other glands release digestive enzymes to help dissolve the soft tissues of the prey, with the nutrient-rich juices being absorbed by the leaf to supplement its nitrogen supply in this nutrient-poor environment.

Sundew

Pink sundew, Drosera capillaris

A similar, but more active strategy, is employed by another insect-eater, the sundews. Tiny rosettes of red leaves covered in what look like dew-covered hairs dot the moist soil in the savanna, especially any place that is muddy along a trail or ditch.

Sundew with prey

Close-up of a sundew leaf with a trapped insect

When a potential prey touch the stalked glands, it gets stuck in the “goo”. Adjacent tentacles move toward the prey, further entrapping it. Digestive enzymes are released and the rest is history.

We finally had to head back to camp, but a good day of carnivorous plant exploration with sundews, two species of pitcher plants, butterworts, two species of bladderworts, and some Venus flytraps. The next day would prove to be even better.

Longleaf pine savanna Holly Shelter

Longleaf pine savanna in Holly Shelter

I had heard about Holly Shelter Game Lands for many years, but never managed to visit until now. It consists of over 63,000 acres of mixed forest, pocosin, and other wetlands in Pender County. Since it is turkey season, we were advised to visit on Sunday when there is no hunting. We drove along miles of dirt roads to several spots recommended by a friend for their plant diversity.

Carolina laurel

Carolina wicky, Kalmia carolina

Horse sugar

Horsesugar, Symplocos tinctoria

A few small shrubs adding splashes of color in the longleaf forests, including a Coastal Plain relative of mountain laurel, Carolina wicky (also known as Southern sheepkill). Small starbursts adorn another savanna shrub, horsesugar (aka sweetleaf).

Holly Shelter oitcher plants

Small pond at Holly Shelter surrounded by yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava

Our first stop was amazing – hundreds of yellow pitcher plant flowers came into view as we approached a small pond. There was also the bright green of the emerging new leaves, so it was a perfect time to view this species.

Pitcher plant leaf before opening

An unopened pitcher leaf

It is easy to forget that in all of these carnivorous plants, it is the highly adapted leaves that are the trapping mechanism. In the case of the yellow pitcher plant, the leaf blade usually elongates a foot or more before the top splits open to form the deadly pitfall trap.

Pitcher plant opening

A leaf just beginning to split to form the pitcher

This pitcher has a hood (or lid) and usually has red veins that serve as nectar guides for potential prey, luring them deeper into the trap.

Fly going into pitvher plant

An open pitcher with an unwise fly

The trap is a simple one – lure your victim with nectar, a sweet reward concentrated along the rolled lip and down into the upper edges of the trap. Once inside, the walls of the pitcher change texture and become very slick, causing the insect to fall into the tube. Below the slippery zone, the walls have rows of down-ward pointing hairs that inhibit an upward escape. As the insect gets farther down into the trap, the tube narrows, making it more difficult for flying insects to use their wings to escape. Digestive enzymes at the base of the trap all but ensure the fate of the hapless insect.

Pitcher plant prey (2 pitchers)

Contents of two pitcher plants back at the NC Botanical Garden

A popular activity at work is for students to dissect old pitchers (last year’s leaves) and examine what the plant had for dinner. The enzymes only dissolve the soft tissues to release the needed nutrients, so the hard parts of prey remain – an assortment of wings, legs, and exoskeleton pieces. Coworkers gathered the insect parts from two pitcher plants in the Garden’s collection for the photo above: several moths (left side of photo); a cluster of flies (upper right); a wasp (top); some small beetles (lower right); and an assortment of unidentifiable wings, legs, and parts. A large amount of fine dust-like material from the trap is not shown in this picture. I need to collect a few dried pitchers from native habitats and see what the locals have been eating for comparison, but I have a feeling the menu could be similar based on that fly photo above. It was about to make a culinary misstep.

Purple pitcher plant

Purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea

Purple pitcher plants lack a lid and their pitchers usually contain rainwater. Prey fall into the pitcher and drown. Ironically, there is a species of mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, whose larvae live in these pitcher plants and feed on the microscopic community that exists in the water.

Hybrid pitcher plant

Possible hybrid pitcher plant

We did see a few pitcher plant clumps that looked like hybrids between the purple pitcher plants and the yellow. The pitchers look like the S. purpurea, but are much more elongate, like an S. flava. The flowers also seem to be a combination of the colors of the two species – both maroon and yellow tints.

Sundew intermedia

Spoonleaf sundew, Drosera intermedia

Along the path were large numbers of the pink sundews we had seen in the Green Swamp, but the edge of the pond had another species. The spoonleaf sundew is more upright in growth form and seems to do well extending out into the water’s edge.

Sundew close up

A tiny insect trapped in the sticky goo of the sundew

I leaned down for a closer look and could see more victims that had fallen for the glistening droplets that adorn these deadly tentacles.

Purple butterwort  flower and base

Blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

The Holly Shelter sites held two more species of butterwort – the blue and the correctly named small butterwort. The latter (which I failed to get a good photo of it turns out) has a pale, almost white flower, with a short flower stalk and a tiny rosette of leaves.

Purple butterwort group

Blue butterworts were very common

The larger, blue butterworts, were quite common and often occurred in patches of twenty or more individuals, scattered about the various sunny locations we visited.

Venus flytrap cluster

Venus flytraps, Dionaea muscipula, and a small purple pitcher plant

The Venus flytraps were amazing, as always, and abundant. Melissa mentioned all of these carnivorous plants in a recent post about one of her museum trips, so I won’t go into all the details of this, “one of the most wonderful plants in the world”, but I will share a few interesting tidbits.

Slide1

Close-up of a flytrap leaf, showing the trigger hairs

The trap is a modified leaf and has 2 to 3 trigger hairs on each lobe of the trap. Two triggers must be touched in succession within about 20 seconds for the trap to “spring” (or one trigger twice). Closing in less than a second, the Venus flytrap is one of a group of very few plants capable of rapid movement (other local rapid movement plants include Eastern sensitive briar, Mimosa macrophylla, and bladderworts, Utricularia sp.). The fleshy “teeth” along the edge of the trap mesh together to form a closed cage around any prey (usually crawling insects and spiders). The whole trap squeezes together more tightly when the prey struggles. Enzymes are then secreted by minute glands on the inner surface of the lobes and the victim is digested over the next few days. Afterward, the trap reopens, awaiting its next target (each trap can only spring a few times before that leaf dies).

Venus flytrap

Emerging flytrap leaves

The name, Venus flytrap, refers to Venus, the Roman goddess of love. The genus, Dionaea, refers to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and the daughter of Dione. The species name, muscipula, is Latin for mousetrap. It really is remarkable that the only place this amazing plant is naturally found is in about a 70-mile radius of Wilmington, NC.  This trip proved to be one of strange beauties and incredible adaptations, and is definitely one we will do again.

Bay Watch

Find one, and you’ll find yourself closer to the heart of what a Carolina Bay can be: an island of wildness in a world largely tamed, a few acres of the primeval past passed over by progress.

~T. Edward Nickens

The North Carolina Botanical Garden has an exquisite collection of carnivorous plants, and they are always a favorite stop on my programs. This encouraged me to revisit these mysterious beauties in their natural habitats in southeastern North Carolina. We got a few tips from our friend, Jerry, on some of the best locations, and headed out last weekend in search of insect-eating plants. This is part one of that exploration – the part we explored by kayak.

Jone Lake

Afternoon paddle on Jones Lake (click photos to enlarge)

Our home for the weekend was the campground at Jones Lake State Park, a beautiful park centered on one of the many Carolina Bays that dot the landscape in this part of the state.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 7.58.42 AM

Google Earth view of the area showing a small portion of the estimated 900 elliptical Carolina Bays found in Bladen County.

These unique land forms attracted attention after the onset of aerial photography in the 1930’s, when thousands of ovals of varying size (there are an estimated 500,000), aligned in a northwest-southeast direction, could be seen dotting the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New Jersey to Georgia. The greatest concentration was in the Carolina’s. That fact, combined with their usual dominant vegetation of various bay trees, gave them their name. Few open water Carolina Bays remain, but even those that have been drained and developed, or have naturally filled with vegetation, are still visible as elliptical shapes in satellite images like the one above.

Many hypotheses have been proposed on the origin of Carolina Bays (including that they were formed by impacts of a meteor shower), but no single explanation is universally accepted. Many scientists now subscribe to the so-called oriented lake theory. It suggests that as the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, shallow pools of water remained throughout the Coastal Plain. Prevailing winds and resulting waves from the north elongated the ponds into their present elliptical shape. Whatever their origin, there is a large concentration of these bays in the Bladen Lakes area, and, fortunately, many are now preserved as state-managed lands.

Jones Lake sunset 1 Lake sunset

Stunning sunset from our kayaks on Jones Lake

Jones Lake sunset 1

Cypress tree with Spanish moss at sunset

Our first evening, we paddled our kayaks around the lake and enjoyed a spectacular sunset all to ourselves among the scattered cypress trees along the eastern shoreline.

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

The next morning we headed over to nearby Horseshoe Lake (aka Suggs Mill Pond). It is an aptly named shallow lake that is part of Suggs Mill Pond Game Lands, managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Suggs Mill Pond is an old millpond formed by damming a large peat-filled bay.

Horseshoe Lake wide angle

A sea of yellow pitcher plant flowers in the wetlands at Horseshoe Lake

It is spectacular this time of year as it contains thousands of yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava. Their unusual flowers can be seen stretching across the wetlands along the lake edge.

Pitcher plants along shoreline

Yellow pitcher plants in bloom along the shoreline

The new growth leaves that will form the pitchers are also visible, with many already opening into the deadly traps that will consume an array of insect prey over the next growing season.

Dragonfly shed on pitcvher plant flower

Shed skin of a dragonfly where it transformed  from an aquatic nymph into the winged adult

Sometimes the plants can serve as a place of “birth” instead of death. There were large numbers of dragonflies and damselflies on the wing and ample evidence of their amazing transformation from underwater predator to aerial acrobat scattered about on any upright surface sticking above the water – even on the flower of a pitcher plant.

Lily pads on Horseshoe Lake

White waterlily pads dotted the lake surface in many areas

One of the dominant plants in the lake was the beautiful white waterlily, Nymphaea odorata. The cleft leaves dot the surface with an array of colors, from green to red, and provide a place for all manner of creatures to sit upon the water.

cricket frog

Southern cricket frog, Acris gryllus

The repeated gick-gick-gick calls of Southern cricket frogs could be heard everywhere we paddled, along with the occasional katunk-katunk-katunk of carpenter frogs.

Lilypad forktail male

Male lilypad forktail damselfly

Delicate damselflies glided along our path, pausing briefly in their pursuits of prey, or each other, to rest upon a lilypad. The lilypad forktail is aptly named, as it almost always rests on lilypads, and characteristically touches the tip of its abdomen to the leaf surface.

Lilypad forktail imm female

Immature female lilypad forktail

Adult males are brilliant blue with dark thoracic stripes. Adult females are lighter blue and immature females are a bright orange.

white water ilies

The flowers of white waterlily

The elegant flowers of the white waterlilies always tempt me to lean just a bit too far over the side of my canoe or kayak in order to capture their pleasing low-angle reflection.

Common grackle

Common grackle

We spotted several species of birds on the lake, including a green heron, red-shouldered hawk, northern parula warblers, Eastern kingbirds, wood ducks, mallards, and several common grackles busy setting up nest sites. This striking fellow allowed me to drift close enough to his perch to catch his iridescent colors…

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

…and to see his “third eyelid”, the nictitating membrane.

bladderwort

Bladderwort flowers

In addition to the thousands of pitcher plants, another carnivorous plant species was incredibly abundant at this location – bladderwort, Utricularia sp.

Bladderwort mass

Bladderworts, showing vegetative portions beneath the water surface

These mostly aquatic plants (there is a terrestrial species that occurs in moist sandy soils) have delicate flowers perched on slender stalks above the water, but the bulk of their biomass is beneath the surface. Scattered among the feathery vegetative portions, they have minute bladder-shaped organs with trap doors that can suck in tiny invertebrates that come in contact with the trigger hairs. Some areas of the lake had so much of this plant that it was like paddling through pudding at times as the vegetation clung to your paddle with every stroke. But, Horseshoe Lake is, nevertheless, a truly magical place, especially by kayak or canoe. Part 2 of our quest for the carnivores of the plant kingdom in the next post.

Catching Gnats and Plucking Lichens

More than with most species of small birds, the attention and interest of the observer center about the nesting habits of the blue-gray gnatcatcher because of the great beauty of its nest.

~Francis Marion Weston, 1949

One of my favorite spring arrivals is the plucky little blue-gray gnatcatcher. It is tiny, but bold. It looks a bit like a tiny mockingbird, but builds a nest like a large hummingbird. My friend, Mary, found a nest at the Garden recently and emailed me where to look as I prepared for a program. I never did find that one (they are often very well camouflaged on a branch). But, a week later, as I was leaving work, I heard the familiar “Steeve” call, looked up, and saw one fly into a small tree. I got out my binoculars, and was pleased to see a nest in progress.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest empty

Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest (click photos to enlarge)

A few evenings later, I brought my camera and spent some time watching this industrious duo go about the business of finishing what is certainly one of nature’s most beautiful nests. By this time, it looked like the nest was nearing completion, but the gathering of materials, and fine-tune adjustments, continued for over an hour as I watched.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher with spider silk on bill

Female bringing in spider silk

The nest is a deep (about 3 inches) cup about 1.5-2 times the size of a ruby-throated hummingbird nest. Otherwise, they look almost identical – a somewhat high-walled, elastic nest covered on the outside with lichens and held together with spider silk. The inside is lined with soft materials like plant down, hair, and fine feathers.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 2

Male checking the feel of the nest

As I watched, both adults were busy contributing to the efforts. During the breeding season, the male blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo above) can be distinguished from the female (photo below) by the presence of their black forehead and supercilium (a stripe that runs from the base of the birds beak and above its eye). The female’s head is plain gray.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 3

Female inspecting the progress

I had my big telephoto plus a teleconverter, so I was well away from the nest. The birds chose a very busy location for their activity, right next to a road and walkway that is popular with Garden visitors, so I don’t think they minded me watching them.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 5

Male placing a lichen

There were times when nothing happened at the nest for 10 minutes or so, then there were bursts of activity with a bird bringing in materials (especially pieces of foliose lichens – they look like lichen cornflakes) every minute or so. The usual routine was to fly into  a branch next to the nest, pause, then hop into the nest and place whatever material was brought in. Then there was often some fine-tuning, placing the lichen just so, inspecting it for a second, and then off again. Time spent in the nest on any one visit was usually less than 20 seconds. References say it takes about a week to complete a nest, but I think this pair could do it much faster based on what I saw.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher singing

Male singing

Blue-gray gnatcatcher preening

Male preening

In between nest-building activities, the pair would pause for some singing, preening, or the important duty of nest protection. I am a bit worried about this particular nest, since it seems in a more open location than many I have seen. There are a lot of hazards to any nesting bird, especially one so tiny. I witnessed a few bouts of territorial defense as this pair chased after a crow and a pair of blue jays that flew through their air space. And a pair of brown-headed cowbirds received a lot of attention when they perched within 50 feet of the nest. Both adults repeatedly dive-bombed the cowbirds, who seemed uninterested. They eventually flew off, and nest building resumed about 5 minutes later.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher pressing down in nest 1

Shaping the cup

The final stage of nest building is refining the shape of the cup. This is something they put their whole body into…the adult plops down into the nest with just their head and long tail (the tail accounts for about 45% of the total body length) visible and pushes against the sides of the nest, shaping it as they rotate their body around, flexing the sides until it is just right.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher pressing down in nest

Putting your whole body into getting the shape just right

At times, I could barely see their head at all, with just the slender bill projecting above the lichen wall. I checked on the nest the next few days and saw no activity, so I figured they had completed construction. And now, I see the female sitting in the nest for long periods of time, so I assume she is incubating her eggs. I will keep you posted on their progress.

Unfurling

Only spread a fern frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in.

~John Muir

Before there is a fern frond, there is a fiddlehead. The curled tip of an unfurling fern frond resembles the curled ornamentation (called a scroll) on the end of a stringed instrument, such as a violin. It is also called a crozier (or crosier), from the curved staff used by bishops, which supposedly has its origins in the shepherd’s crook.

It is a ritual repeated every spring, and one that always catches my eye…the beautiful and detailed unfurling of the frond, starting at the base of the leaf blade and progressing outward and upward. It is one of the simple delights of spring.

A gallery of ferns unfurling from the woods behind our house, to the NC Botanical Garden to the Green Swamp…

Fern fiddlehead

Southern shield fern fiddlehead (click photos to enlarge)

early Cinnamon fern

Cinnamon fern

Cinnamon fern fiddlehead

Cinnamon fern fertile frond

Cinnamon fern unfurling group

Cinnamon fern group

Cinnamon fern unfurling 1

Cinnamon fern

Christmas fern fiddlehead pair

Christmas fern

Royal fern unfurlng 1

Royal fern

Royal fern unfurlng

Royal fern

Bracken fern unfurling 1

Bracken fern

Bracken fern unfurling 2

Bracken fern

 

 

Swarming Season

The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.

~Jacques Yves Cousteau

Just at closing one day this week, a coworker at the Garden sent an email alerting everyone to a swarm of honeybees just outside the back gate. I was getting ready for programs the next day so wasn’t able to get down there for an hour or so, but finally grabbed the camera and went out to see if I could find it. I asked a couple of people that were standing there talking if they knew the location of the swarm, but they had not seen it. About then, I saw some flying insects, and quickly found a ball of bees about 12 feet up on a small tree trunk.

Honeybee swarm

Honeybee swarm

I’m always amazed when I see one of these swarms…a buzzing blob that may contain hundreds to thousands of honeybees. Beneath all that is royalty, the queen. Swarms usually occur from late spring into early summer and appear more common after a mild winter and an early spring, like this year. A swarm is the process by which honeybees form a new colony. When the colony needs room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen. The old queen then leaves the hive with several thousand of her followers, leaving enough workers behind to take care of the new queen and the business of the old hive.

Honeybee swarm1

Scout bees are looking for a new hive location

The swarm usually flies a short distance away from the old hive and settles on some object (it can be a tree branch, a light pole, or even some part of a house). The queen is usually somewhere near the center of the cluster. Bees in a swarm are usually docile so there is no need to panic should you find yourself near one. The swarm stays in that temporary location anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days until scout bees locate a suitable new hive location, like a hollow tree or other protected spot. In the case of these bees, a local beekeeper was contacted and he came by the next day (unfortunately I had programs so did not get to witness this). He used a “bee vacuum” (a contraption that looks like a shop vac hooked to a box) to literally suck up the swarm so he could then relocate them to a backyard hive for honey production. Apparently, there is a network of beekeepers that can be called on for just this sort of service, which becomes even more valuable if bees decide to set up their new hive inside a dwelling or some other unwanted space.  In this case, both bees and human benefit from a sense of swarm on a late spring afternoon.

The Spirit of Spring

April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.

~William Shakespeare

Things have been so busy at work that I have failed miserably at getting outside with camera in hand to document some of the beauty around me. I made amends Saturday afternoon, and spent a few hours just wandering around the yard, observing and enjoying. I highly recommend it, especially this time of year. It is good for the spirit.

The species name means “spreading”, and, indeed, it does. There are large patches of this beautiful early bloomer in our shade garden.

One of my favorite spring wildflowers, wild geranium can vary quite a bit in the intensity of flower color. The ones in the yard are pale compared to those at work.

When viewed from above, a patch of mayapples looks like a crowd of ornate umbrellas. Kneel down and you see something quite different this time of year. If the plant has two leaves, it can produce a large white flower.

The common name comes from the small, apple-like fruit produced on fertile plants. These fruit are eaten by box turtles and mammals such as opossums, and the seeds dispersed in their droppings. Ripe fruits are edible, but all other parts of the plant are poisonous. Extracts from this species are being used to treat some forms of cancer.

 

This small creeping wildflower is easily overlooked, but is well worth the effort once you find it. I planted some in a soil-filled split in a log and it has now started to spread out on the ground around it.

Wild ginger

Hexastylis arifolia – Little brown jug (also called heartleaf, and wild ginger)

The distinctive heart-shaped leaves always give me pause to scrape away some leaves to see if I can find the flower that gives this widespread woodland plant one of its common names, little brown jug.

 

The flowers are believed to be pollinated by beetles, thrips, and small flies. Seeds are ant-dispersed.

 

This wildflower is quickly becoming one of my favorites. I bought a few plants from the NC Botanical Garden and the combination of unusual leaves and abundant flowers is a great addition to any woodland garden.

The airy nature of its abundant white flowers, coupled with long stamens, gives this beautiful wildflower its “foamy” appearance (and common name). I enjoy watching large bumblebees grab onto the column of small flowers and take a rapid dip toward the ground as their weight bends and bounces the stalk, providing some nectar, pollen, and a joy ride to the foraging bees.

The nodding yellow flowers of this plant have warty knobs on the inside of the petals. The protuberances may help bees get a better grip on the flowers as they climb in for nectar and pollen.

Sometimes, when you take the time to look around you, the familiar things take on a new beauty that helps you appreciate them. A pine cone among the wildflowers caught my eye and helped me appreciate the many patterns in nature.

Tree seedlings are a constant source of work in any woodland wildflower garden. If allowed to grow, they may quickly overtake and shade out many of the plants we hope to grow. But, I occasionally leave some as potential host plants for passing butterflies and moths. One tulip poplar sapling, growing at the corner of the house, managed to entice a passing female tiger swallowtail to pause and lay an egg. This egg seems to have an extra supply of whatever it is she uses to “glue” the egg to the leaf surface. Sometimes, less weeding pays off.