Observing and Journaling in the Wilds of Eastern NC

One who reviews pleasant experiences and puts them on record increases the value of them to himself; he gathers up his own feelings and reflections, and is thereby better able to understand and to measure the fullness of what he has enjoyed.

~Sir Edward Grey

I often get comments like this when I post a blog on some creature I have seen in my wanderings outside…You wear special glasses to see these things……right? Well, while I do wear glasses, they are not special naturalist glasses. What I, and many other naturalist types that I know, see is based on a lot of things – familiarity with an area, knowing what to look for, patience, and being in the right place at the right time, among others. It comes from years of dong this, from learning as much as I can about an animal, and by always being on the lookout for things. It isn’t magic, it is something that can be learned, and the more you do it, the better you will be at it. It also helps that I record a lot of my observations. I used to do it in a paper journal. Now, I tend to do more of it electronically and with digital images. A good friend, neighbor, and former co-worker, Jane, does it using a field sketches and notes about the things she sees in nature. We both agree, the important thing is to get outside and to start recording your observations.


A page from Jane’s journal on tanagers at her feeder (click photos to enlarge)

Summer Tanager male 2

Summer tanager from one of my blog posts in 2014

If this sort of thing appeals to you, Jane and I are offering a workshop next month (June 16-19) in conjunction with Pocosin Arts in Columbia, NC. Their web site describes the purpose of this unique institution – Pocosin Arts is dedicated to nurturing creativity through arts education.  Located a few steps from the banks of the Scuppernong River we are surrounded by water, wildlife and the natural beauty of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, making it an ideal place to leave your daily routine behind and immerse yourself in one of our creative workshops. That is exactly what Jane and I hope to share with our participants in this unique setting. Spend a few days exploring the natural wonders of this incredible region, learning how to increase your observation skills, and how to record your observations through field sketches and journaling. Details and registration information are available on the Pocosin Arts web site. Hope you can join us for this exciting outdoor experience.


Pungo Spring

That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.

― L.M. Montgomery

As luck would have it, I spent a few afternoons at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge the last week or so of April. I wish I lived closer, so I could make more impromptu runs down that way, particularly in certain seasons, like spring (although winter isn’t too bad either). Spring on the refuge is usually less crowded, and the stifling heat of summer has not yet arrived. The light green of the emerging leaves filters the sunlight with tints of yellow and shadows that aren’t quite as dark as in a few more weeks. Everywhere you look, there is life – an almost solid band of yellow of ragwort flowers along many of the roads; zebra and palomedes swallowtail butterflies by the hundreds flitting along the roadsides; birds singing and searching for insects in the dense pocosin vegetation; frogs and toads calling from the canals; turtles basking on logs and mud banks; and, of course, bears. Here are a few more images from a great time of year at my favorite refuge…


Muskrats seem to be more active this time of year (click photos to enlarge)

late tundra swan

There were still two tundra swans on the refuge in late April

Bald eagle in snag

An adult bald eagle surveys the marsh

Wild turkey in wheat field

Wild turkey are abundant on the refuge in spring

prairie warbler

Prairie warblers were seemingly everywhere in the thick vegetation

prairie warbler hunting for bugs

A foraging prairie warbler looks over each twig for a tasty treat

prairie warbler hunting for bugs 1

It spies something…

prairie warbler hunting for bugs 2

…and grabs it. The quick snack may have been a scale insect of some sort.

American toad calling

American toads called from many of the canals

Eastern box turtle

I’m always amazed that box turtles seem to survive so well here with all the bears

Palomedes swallowtail on thistle

Palomedes swallowtails are abundant in these pocosin habitats

Palomedes swallowtail on thistle close up

Thistle pollen covers a butterfly body

Yearling black bear standing

A yearling cub stands to check us out

young black bear running after crossing canal

Another yearling swam across a canal, climbed up into the road, and decided to go elsewhere when it saw our car

Sow black bear eating grass

A sow black bear contentedly grazes on lush grass along the roadside



A Month for Songs

The air is like a butterfly
With frail blue wings.
The happy earth looks at the sky
And sings.

~Joyce Kilmer, Spring

Sipping my coffee with the cool air coming in the window before sunrise this morning, I can hear the first songs of the new day – a northern cardinal, a late spring peeper, and my favorite, the melodious call of a wood thrush. Last evening, before the storm, others were singing – the yellow-throated warbler that may be building a nest in the yard, Carolina chickadees, a summer tanager. Over the past few years, I have unfortunately lost some ability to hear high frequency sounds, so I am missing the calls of many other spring migrants, unless they are very close. Melissa tells me there are many black-throated blues out back, a northern parula, and a pair of hooded warblers down the hill. But, I still hear plenty in these woods, and elsewhere as I travel. It is the season of song, it is spring. The urge to sing is strong. During a slight break in the storm last evening, a wood thrush commenced calling, even though it continued to rain and blow. One of the joys of spring bird-watching is to hear these songs, and to see the songsters in action. Last weekend, on a trip to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, we were treated to a couple of energetic vocal displays, the kind that stick with you, and imprint the melodies in your head.

brown thrasher singing 1

Brown thrasher singing on top of a sweet gum (click photos to enlarge)

Early in the day, there was a lot of stopping and listening for warblers (at least by the others in the car), and prairie warblers seemed to be everywhere in the front half of the refuge that is dominated by thick pocosin vegetation. Later that afternoon, we heard the loud call of a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), a member of the mimic thrush family that includes mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers. Normally a secretive bird, foraging in thick vegetation, male brown thrashers change their habits during the breeding season and let forth with a series of loud notes from atop a high, conspicuous perch.


brown thrasher singing 2

Every time we drove by his corner, the thrasher was singing

We drove by a clump of trees at an intersection of refuge roads a few times before stopping to find the singer. There, atop the tallest tree limb, was a brown thrasher belting out his melodious song. Distinguishing the varied songs of a gray catbird, a northern mockingbird, and a brown thrasher can be tricky (all three species occur on the refuge). But, the thrasher seems to sing louder than the others, and usually repeats a phrase in its song twice, whereas the mockingbird usually repeats three times, and the catbird only once. Brown thrashers are known to have a repertoire of over 1,000 songs, with some researchers saying it exceeds 3,000 song phrases, giving them the largest playlist of any North American bird. This guy was certainly proud of his singing, and probably continued long after we finally moved on.

red-winged blackbird  in marsh

Red-winged blackbirds were vying for attention in the marsh impoundment

Late in the day, we passed by the large marsh making up one of the refuge’s moist soil units. Managers seasonally control the water level in this impoundment to maximize the production of food and access for wintering waterfowl. This time of year, the water is shallow, with abundant marsh and wetland vegetation, making it an ideal place for many species of birds. We saw American bitterns, lots of great blue herons, and heard several king rails. But the birds of the hour were the red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). Males were everywhere in the marsh, flying about, chasing other males, and establishing or defending territories.

red-winged blackbird singing

They would land on a tall reed, and burst into…song?

While we watched, several males were displaying their classic behavior – alight on a prominent perch (usually a tall reed); lean forward, puff up, spread your tail feathers and arch your wings, and let loose with a loud conk-la-ree! The most prominent visual aspect of this display is showing the bright red shoulder patch on each wing, their so-called epaulettes.

red-winged blackbird singing 1

Older males tend to have brighter red patches

red-winged blackbird singing with membrane showing

I noticed they usually lower the nictitating membrane on the eye during part of the call

red-winged blackbird singing 2

It may not be that musical, but it is one heck of a display

I wrote about the displays of red-winged blackbirds in an earlier post. Studies have shown that displaying epaulettes can be used to both defend a territory from other males, and to attract a female. In a series of experiments, two researchers explained some of the intricate aspects of this behavior in what they termed the “coverable badge hypothesis“. In one test, they temporarily dyed the epaulettes of some males to a black color and found this reduced the social status of these birds. In another study, by observing males that already had established a territory, and then watching newcomers into that territory, they noticed that the intruders usually conceal their epaulettes (badges) and leave without a fight when the owners display theirs. This is believed to help reduce fights between birds that can result in injury.

It certainly is a display I enjoy watching, and a bird I find fascinating during the nesting season, and in winter, when tens of thousands may flock together on the refuge. I suppose it is no surprise then that their song is the ringtone on my phone. Now, if only I could make it flash red when you call…





Eggs in the Yard

Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.

~Liz Vassey

While sitting out in the yard last week, we noticed a butterfly flitting around a few plants at the edge of the woods, a flight pattern that usually indicates it is a female looking for a place to lay an egg. The butterfly was an Eastern tiger swallowtail, so we knew she was looking for either a tulip poplar or a wild cherry, the two common host plants in these woods. She finally landed on a tulip poplar leaf, paused for a couple of seconds, and flew off. Melissa ran over to look, and after searching for a minute, found an egg.

Eastern tiger swallowatil egg with finger for scale

Eastern tiger swallowtail egg (click photos to enlarge)

Finding butterfly eggs can be relatively easy if you find a female butterfly hovering near her host plants. They usually flit around, twisting and turning, as if searching for something (which they are). They may land on a leaf for a second, “tasting” the leaf with chemoreceptors in their “feet”, to see if this plant is the right one. If not, they move on. If it is, then she may curl her abdomen and linger for a second, attaching an egg in the process. The female secretes an adhesive substance to secure the egg to the leaf.

tiger swallowtail egg

Eastern tiger swallowtail egg on a tulip poplar leaf

Eastern tiger swallowtails lay a greenish egg that blends very well with the leaf surface, making it tough to spot. The past few days I searched a few more tulip poplar saplings at the edge of the yard and came up with a couple of more eggs.

Tulip poplar leaf with egg wide view

Can you see the swallowtail egg on this leaf?

 Hint…click on the image to enlarge…it is on the right side of the leaf.
Tiger swallowtail egg close up

Close up of Eastern tiger swallowtail egg

Swallowtail eggs are somewhat spherical, although the base is a bit flattened where it attaches to the leaf surface. Unlike many other butterfly eggs I have seen, swallowtail eggs lack ridges, spikes, or other sculptural elements that can give insect eggs such exquisite shapes. But, in their simplicity, they are both gorgeous and elegant.

tigr swallowtail first instar 1

First instar larva of Eastern tiger swallowtail (very recently hatched)

Large numbers of tiger swallowtails are flying this spring, so I would have expected to find even more eggs and larvae than we have. But, this forest is dominated by huge tulip poplars, so I imagine most of the egg-laying occurs high up in the canopy, far beyond the peering eyes of a couple of egg hunters. Over the past couple of days we did find a couple of recently hatched larvae down low, so I grabbed a few photos of these bird poop mimics.

Tiger swallowtail early instar 2

Early instar, “bird poop mimic”, of Eastern tiger swallowtail

bird poop

Real bird poop on a poplar leaf (probably don’t want to click on this photo)

I even found a couple of leaves with real bird poop, and I couldn’t resist sharing the similarity to our little caterpillars.

Tiger swallowtail early instar 1

Curled caterpillar looking like some bird poop. Note the silk pad the larva has created on the leaf for attachment.

The combination of a dark background color with a white patch on these larvae does make for a distasteful-looking  mimic.
tiger swallowtail third instar

Later instar (third?) of Eastern tiger swallowtail

Yesterday evening, we found where one of the dark bird poop mimics had already molted into a green version, suspended above the leaf surface on their characteristic silk pad. The larval stage of this species lasts about two weeks and they molt five times as they progress from newly hatched caterpillar to chrysalis.

zebra swallowtail egg

Zebra swallowtail egg on underside of pawpaw leaf

The yard has a variety of host plants for different species of butterflies and moths, so I decided to check for eggs of a couple of other swallowtail species. The small stand of pawpaw is usually good for a couple of larvae of the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterflies. This species lays its eggs on the underside of the leaves, so I started searching and eventually found a few eggs. They are white to cream-colored, and usually placed near the edge of the leaf, which makes sense, since the female lands on top of the leaf and then curls her abdomen underneath to lay the egg

zebra swallowtil first instar wide view

Freshly hatched larva of zebra swallowtail (which dark spot is the caterpillar?)

Yesterday, I again looked for the eggs and found freshly hatched larvae, the smallest ones I have ever seen. Zebra swallowtail larvae are black in the first couple of instars.

Zebra swallowtil first instar

First instar (recent hatch) of zebra swallowtail

A closer view shows they lack a large white patch so common in the other larvae that mimic bird droppings.

Spicebush swalloewtail egg laid same day

Spicebush swallowtail egg on the underside of a spicebush leaf

As luck would have it, while eating lunch yesterday, I saw a dark swallowtail hovering around plants, obviously looking for that special place to deposit an egg. She eventually made her way to an isolated spicebush shrub, and began laying. She flitted from one leaf to another, eventually laying three eggs on that shrub, one each on the underside of three different leaves. These eggs look similar to those of the zebra swallowtail, although perhaps a tiny bit larger.

I checked my parsley and fennel leaves in the garden, but no signs yet of black swallowtail eggs, so I will have to be content with three species of swallowtails for the time being. Still, this is a great start to my favorite time of the year – caterpillar season. It reminded me of a post I did last summer after finding three species of swallowtail caterpillars in one day. But I’ll keep looking at the parsley and the pipevine to see if I can break that record and maybe get to a five cat day this year.





Roses in the Yard

Seen upon the ground, the dark bird is scarcely attractive with his clumsy beak overbalancing a head that protrudes with stupid-looking awkwardness; but as he rises into the trees his lovely rose-colored breast and under-wing feathers are seen, and before he has had time to repeat his delicious, rich-voiced warble you are already in love with him.

Neltje Blanchan, 1897

Rose-beasted grosbeak on feeder

First rose-breasted grosbeak of the season at the feeder (click photos to enlarge)

They’re back. Last Friday, April 22, I saw my first rose-breasted grosbeak at the feeder. Later in the day, there were three males at the feeder (and me with no camera handy). This is a few days earlier than I have seen them the past couple of years. Definitely one of my favorite spring migrants, the male rose-breasted grosbeak is certainly one of the most colorful birds to spend time at our feeders. They seem to prefer the open, platform-style sunflower feeder, but also visit the suet feeder with regularity.

Rose-beasted grosbeak on feeder 1

The rose-colored, v-shaped patch, is in stunning contrast to their bold black and white

You can tell they are a favorite of mine, since I seem to post blogs about their arrival each season. I suppose it is a combination of things that make them so appealing – they are regular visitors at the feeders, they tend to stay at feeders for longer periods of time than most birds, they are relatively large with what seems to be an over-sized beak, and they have a stunning color combination. Add their melodious song, and you have a bird to remember, and one to anxiously wait for each spring. First to arrive from their wintering grounds in Central and South America are the colorful males. The brownish females will be along in a few days. Together, they will snarf up sunflower seeds for a few weeks, and then be gone by mid-May, on their way to breeding grounds farther north, or in the higher elevations of our mountains.

Rose-beasted grosbeak on wire

Male with some speckling

Rose-beasted grosbeak on feeder 5

Male with a lot of speckling

Rose-beasted grosbeak on feeder 3

Male with almost no speckling

Even if I had not seen all three birds on the feeder at once, I would know there are at least three in the yard, based on differences in their plumage. Supposedly, you can see subtle differences in the shape of the rose-colored patch on individual males, but these guys also differ in the amount of speckling on their breast feathers.

head shot of grosbeak

This one has a tiny rose speck near the eye

Granted, pictures of birds on a feeder are not my usual thing, but the feeders near the window are suspended on a pulley system out beyond the deck, making it more difficult to position branches and other natural posts for the usual “bird on a branch” photo at feeding stations. I owe all this to the incredibly abundant and pesky squirrels that share these woods (where is the red-tailed hawk when you need it?). The good news is that the birds are close enough to the windows to allow great views to appreciate their subtle differences and beauty. And, it is a definite perk to be sitting here with a cup of coffee, typing on the laptop, and looking out at the roses in the yard, even if it is for only a few weeks.

Rose-beasted grosbeak on suet feeder

Male enjoying some suet



Sunrise to Sunset Owls

I too felt a slumberous influence after watching him half an hour, as he sat thus with his eyes half open, like a cat, winged brother of the cat.

~Henry David Thoreau, on watching an owl

I got a surprise email this week from a friend that had been one of my Yellowstone participants last summer. He told me about a barred owl nest that was on the golf course where he plays. A few years ago, there had been one on the course in the same tree and he was able to photograph the young on the day they left the nest cavity. He even published a children’s book about the owl nest. Some friends had told him they saw an owl going in and out of the nest cavity again this week. After speaking to officials at the club, he got permission to go out early, before tee time, to photograph the nest once again. The club is supportive of promoting bird conservation and awareness and is part of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf, an award-winning education and certification program that helps managers enhance the valuable natural areas and wildlife habitats that can be found on many golf courses. My friend knows I am a sucker for wildlife photo opportunities and was kind enough to invite me along.

owl nest cavity

What a barred owl nest cavity looks like about a minute after the owl flies off (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived at the golf course in the predawn light the next morning and we hiked out to the tree. I took my 500mm telephoto, a 1.4X teleconverter, tripod, and flash. I was carrying my gear in a backpack while my friend carried his rig already to go mounted on his tripod. Note to self, that is a better plan. When we arrived at the tree, the owl stared at the two early morning odd-balls and took flight soon after the first photo was taken (I was still assembling my gear onto the tripod, unfortunately). She probably is not used to people standing on the fairway this time of day. She flew across to some trees in a nearby backyard. In a few minutes, the owl let loose with a series of calls, including the monkey-like hooting and squawking I have heard so many times in the past. Shortly afterward, the owl cruised back toward the nest and settled on a branch within sight of the cavity.

Barred owl near nest

Barred owl watching the nest cavity

Something soon caught her attention – there was a squirrel climbing up the trunk near the nest entrance. The owl sailed across, harassing the squirrel as it tried to run around the trunk and hide. After a quick spin around the trunk, the owl landed back on a large branch, only to dive after the squirrel once again when it resumed its climb up the trunk. This time the squirrel leaped across to another tree and moved far enough away to satisfy the protective parent, and the chase ended.

Barred owl near nest 1

Once the normal activity of the grounds crew commenced, the owl seemed to calm down

A member of the grounds crew showed up near us and started grooming the area and blowing leaves. It seems that the familiar noise and movement of staff helped calm the bird. The owls are undoubtedly accustomed to this daily ritual near their nest and the passage of golfers throughout the day. Maybe we should carry a golf bag next time to ease her concerns.

Owl preening

Preening must be relaxing based on this look

After the squirrel chase, it seems that a good preening was in order.

owl preening 2

Nothing like a good scratch in the morning

owl preening 1

One feather at a time

We watched the owl preen for several minutes. At times, she almost seemed to doze off in the middle of a feather pull. I think Thoreau might be right…the slow, deliberate movements of an owl are reminiscent of a cat lying in a sunny window and surveying its world.

Barred owl near nest 2

Heard something

After tidying up the feathers, the owl became more alert and was staring off in various directions for long periods of time.

Shortly after this video clip was made, the owl flew down to the fairway, sat for a few seconds, then returned to another branch with a large beetle. She soon took it into the nest cavity to presumably share with the young owls waiting inside. We waited, but the owl did not reappear, and I needed to leave for a meeting later that day at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. What a great way to start a day. Ironically, after the meeting, I was telling another friend about the owl incident and wishing I could find a screech owl in a similar situation. We drove around the refuge for a couple of hours and saw plenty of wildlife (bear, including our first new cub of the year, beaver, deer, etc.). As we made the final loop, I looked down the road and spotted something in one of the wood duck boxes next to the canal….

Screech owl in wood duck box

An Eastern screech owl peeking out of a wood duck box

Yep, an Eastern screech owl with its head poking out of the entrance hole. I have seen screech owls in wood duck boxes many times over the years, especially in winter. The usual thing is for them to wait until the car is almost close enough to stop for a photo and then they duck back inside. And this one was on the passenger side of the vehicle, so I had no chance at a photo. By the way, this proves that I don’t always have the wildlife on my side of the car as some have suggested:) As I pulled up, my friend got some great shots.

Screech owl in wood duck box 1

Checking me out as I eased the car forward

We decided to go down the road, turn around and see if I could get a few photos out my side of the car, although I fully expected the owl to disappear back into the box as soon as I pulled up. Well, it surprised me, and even turned and gave me a once over with a rather sleepy look on its face.

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

What a face

It finally turned, and pulled back in, and we drove on.

Tree owl

Owl or not?

As we pulled away, the sun was setting, and I saw what looked like another owl on top of a snag across the canal. But, it was just a very owl-shaped broken top to a dead tree. Still, a perfect way to end a day with the owls.





Patterns of Spring

We find the works of nature still more pleasant, the more they resemble those of art.

~ Joseph Addison

This Spring has been incredibly beautiful here in the woods. Always a favorite time of year for me, it has been heightened by the almost perfect weather in recent weeks. The fresh green color of the season seems to sparkle in the sunlight streaming through the leaves. On the ground, there are daily discoveries to be made of something emerging from the leaf litter or starting to bloom. And while I have had plenty of chores and appointments to keep me occupied, I try to walk the yard as often as possible, and notice the players in this ephemeral show. If I pause and look around, there are always colors, shapes, and patterns that affirm that this is the month where new life bursts forth and beckons us to slow down and notice, before it disappears for another year.

Here are just a few indicators of the season from the past couple of weeks…

pawpaw flower and bud

The unusual flower of pawpaw (click photos to enlarge)

trillium leaves 1

Trillium leaves

fern fiddlehead

A fern fiddlehead

mayapple leaves

Mayapple leaves

red buckeye flowers up close

Red buckeye flowers up close

red buckeye flowers on duckweed

Red buckeye flowers that have fallen into the water garden onto a bed of duckweed



tent caterpillar silhouette

Eastern tent caterpillar headed down a tree trunk to pupate

Phlox flowers

Phlox flowers

dutchman breech's leaves

The lacy leaves of Dutchman’s breeches

columbine flower

Wild columbine

Into the Haw

The rivers flow not past but through us.

~John Muir

Haw River

April is a beautiful time on the Haw (click photo to enlarge)

The Haw River flows along the boundary of the community where we live. It is a beautiful, rocky, river that flows 110 miles from its headwaters in Forsyth County, through Jordan Lake, to its confluence with the Deep River, where they combine to form the Cape Fear River. The Haw is also an important resource of recreation and drinking water for more than a million people in central North Carolina. Of course, it, and its river corridor, are also critical habitat for countless species in an area densely populated by humans. Over the years, the Haw has seen its share of pollution, from discharges from numerous textile factories a few decades ago, to runoff and nutrient overload from modern day development and other land altering practices within the river basin. The Haw River Assembly (HRA) has been educating people about, and helping to preserve, this valuable resource since its creation in 1982. I have always admired their work and diligence in standing up for the river. That is why I found myself joining a few other volunteers last Friday as we set out to do a stream monitoring assessment as part of HRA’s Haw River Watch Project.

looking upstream to bridge

Our monitoring site, just downstream from the Hwy 64 bridge

Our site is one that has been monitored off and on for several years. It is below the Hwy 64 bridge and easily accessible via a trail from the canoe access parking area.

monitoring team

The rest of our monitoring team doing chemical analyses

That is a good thing, since there is a bit of equipment to tote to your site – nitrate and phosphate test kits, petri dishes, magnifying lenses, a turbidity tube (for measuring water clarity), and a variety of nets and pans for sampling macro-invertebrates.

northern water snake juvenile

Juvenile northern water snake greeted us at our site

In addition to the water chemistry analyses, we survey the biology at our site. The primary assessment is for macro-invertebrates, which are used as indicators of water quality. But we are also take note of any other wildlife species. Shortly after we arrived, Elaine spotted a juvenile water snake sunning on a rock. Nearby was a small cloud of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails puddling for minerals along the bank of an island in the river channel.

mayfly on finger 1

Mayfly nymph pulled form underside of a rock in the river

But what we really wanted to learn was what was in the river, so most of us waded out into the water, sampling with nets as we went, and trying not to slip on the slick diatomaceous slime coating most of the boulders. This slippery surface is caused by a coating of algae and associated organic matter that coats the outside of underwater rocks and logs, especially in the slower moving portions of the river. It is an important food source for many macro-invertebrates, but can make for tricky footing for river monitors (it helps to have a long-handled net to brace yourself). I walked out a few steps and picked up a softball-sized rock in about a foot of water. Turning it over, I found two mayfly nymphs clinging to the underside. They were both very flattened, an ideal adaptation for living under rocks in swift water.


A mayfly nymph in the family Heptageniidae

Almost any small rock that could be turned over had one or more of these flattened bugs crawling about. As any trout fisherman knows, mayflies often constitute one of the primary food sources for fish in flowing waters. They belong to a family of insects called Ephemeroptera, derived from the Greek “ephemera”, meaning short-lived, referring to the short lifespans (hours or days) of most adult mayflies. North Carolina has over 200 species of these fascinating insects. As a group, they vary a great deal in size, shape, and habit, but can be distinguished from other macro-invertebrates by the presence of three (sometimes two) tail filaments, and gills along the sides of the abdomen.

mayfly tiny

Tiny mayflies were the most common invertebrate we netted

As it turned out, mayflies were, by far, the most abundant organism we collected.And most of them were very small ones that resembled this tiny guy. I am not sure, but I think it is a member of the family Baetidae, one of the most abundant types of mayflies in North Carolina.

river rapids

Looking across the river at our sample site

Much of the river bottom is exposed rock outcrop and boulders with fast flowing water. Our most productive sampling occurred closer to shore or in areas with vegetation.

underwater vegetation

Underwater view of vegetation on a boulder in the river

I found myself going back to details I learned in classes I took years ago at Virginia Tech to try to identify (at least on a broad scale) many of the critters we uncovered. But a few things threw me and required some additional sleuthing. An early find resembled a globular egg mass on a tiny twig, but, when I discovered a more complete specimen, turned out to be a water-logged cluster of sweet gum flowers (duh). But another mystery proved to be something more worthwhile.

pupal cases on leaf

Small brown cases lined up on leaves of underwater vegetation

Some leaf fragments of some underwater plants ended up in my net and they had several small brown case-like structures adhered to them.

pupal cases on leaf close up

Closer view of cases

When I magnified the image back home, I could see white strands on one end of the case. This reminded me of the tracheal tube remains you see in a shed skin of a cicada nymph, so I assumed this was some sort of pupal case or shed skin of an aquatic critter.

blackflies on vegetation

A close up view of the underwater vegetation helped solve the mystery

When I took a closer look at the underwater image from the spot where these cases were collected, I saw a line of black flies lined up on one of the leaves. I then found some images online that suggests the cases are pupal cases of black flies.

blackfly larva

Black fly larva

A few of our samples contained some of the distinctive fly larvae. The larvae produce a silk pad and then attach to it with tiny hooks on the tip of their abdomen.

dragonfly nymph dragonhunter in hand

A huge dragonfly nymph was the catch of the day

The best catch of the day was a huge dragonfly nymph. The broad abdomen of this species is diagnostic, and probably helps hide the nymph among the underwater bark and leaf debris it calls home.

dragonfly nymph dragonhunter

Dragonhunter nymph

This is the distinctive aquatic stage of the dragonhunter, Hagenius brevistylus. Dragonhunters are the largest of the so-called clubtail dragonflies in the family Gomphidae. Adult dragonhunters, as the name implies, feed on other dragonflies and other large insects such as butterflies. The immature stage is easily recognized by the huge abdomen and “mickey mouse ears”, which are actually short, rounded antennae. The nymph is exceptionally long-lived, staying underwater for 4 or more years before emerging as a winged hunter.

dragonfly nymph

Another dragonfly nymph

In that same spot, we found another, smaller, dragonfly nymph. Something we noticed about both of our dragonfly specimens was the abundance of tiny tubes covering their body.

tubes on dragonfly nymph

Mystery tubes on dragonfly nymph

I’m not sure what they are, but they resemble the mud or silt tubes made by certain species of chironomid midge larvae. If anyone knows for sure, please drop me a note in the comment section. Our samples turned up quite a variety of macro-invertebrates, enough that the water quality index for this site was rated excellent. Below are a few more of the denizens of the Haw we found in our nets…

mayfly humped

Large mayfly nymph, possibly in the family Isonychiidae

caddisfly larva green

Caddisfly larva, family Hydropsychidae


hellgrammite 1

Dobsonfly larva (also called a hellgrammite)

stonefly shed

Shed skin of a stonefly nymph


Aquatic isopod

We will be sampling again in a few months and I can’t wait to see what we find. We all hope the river can maintain its beauty and diversity of life in the face of increasing pressures within the watershed. And we all owe a huge thank you to the many people and organizations (like the Haw River Assembly) that work so hard to help protect this, and the other waterways, of our state.

First Bison

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

~Greg Dodge

The first bison calf of the season was reported yesterday from Yellowstone National Park. It is the first of many hundreds to be born over the next couple of months. Act now and you can join me to view these babies, and much more, on the trip of a lifetime to one of the great wildlife-viewing areas in North America. Join me June 2-9, 2016, for another great trip to explore the world’s first national park. Details and registration information are on my trips page.

Baby bison profile

Spend time watching wildlife in one of the world’s great natural areas


Bald is Beautiful

With the exception of a body of rocks looking like the ruins of an old castle, near the southwestern extremity, the top of Roan may be described as a vast meadow, without a tree to ob­struct the prospect; where a person may gallop his horse for a mile or two, with Carolina at his feet on one side and Tennessee on the other, and a green ocean of mountains rising in tremendous billows immediately around him.

~Elisha Mitchell, 1835

Celo Inn

The Celo Inn (click photos to enlarge)

Last weekend we took a mini-trip to the mountains on short notice. Original plans were to travel to South Carolina, but weather reports called for rain much of the weekend. A last minute change of schedule had us headed to one of my favorite spots in our mountains to spend a night or two – the Celo Inn. Located near Burnsville, the Inn is both simple and elegant. I have stayed here many times over the years, including on several museum workshops, and it has always been a pleasure. The innkeepers are wonderful folks, and the breakfasts are a delight. Plus, the location, just a few miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway, is ideal for all sorts of mountain adventures.

Roaring Fork Falls

Roaring Fork Falls

After checking in, we headed to a nearby waterfalls for a short hike before dinner. Roaring Fork Falls is a 100 foot cascade up an easy 1/2 mile trail. It is a well-used area but is still a beautiful setting. Unfortunately, all of the hemlocks at the falls appear to now be dead from the effects of the introduced Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. It makes me wonder what impacts there have been (or will be in the future) on the aquatic life in this, and so many other beautiful mountain streams. Shade cast by the dense canopy of the large hemlocks helped cool the temperatures in the streams and, undoubtedly, provided a lot of organic input every year. Only time will tell how these mountain streams will fare without the hemlocks along their banks.

tree root on rock

The sinuous track of this tree root reminded me of the path of the water cascading beside us

Roaring Fork Falls slow shutter 1

A slow shutter speed creates a misty flow in the cascade

liverorts close up 1

The reptilian texture of liverworts growing on a stream-side boulder

Just sitting by a clear ribbon of water is a soothing way to spend time, and helps me take in the scene more clearly. I think I notice subtleties better when listening to flowing water.

Red spruce at start of trail

A red spruce grove near the start of the trail up Roan Mountain

The next morning we drove about an hour to a new area for me, the so-called highlands of Roan Mountain. The Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses the road at Carver’s Gap and heads up on both sides to a unique habitat in the Southern Appalachians – mountain balds.  We arrived at the trail head to discover it really is one of the more popular hiking destinations in the region. I am guessing there were 40 or 50 vehicles parked in the lot and along the roadsides. The guidebook said most people only walked to the top of the first bald and, beyond that, the trail would grow less crowded. We headed north along the AT, crossing through a dense grove of red spruce, before breaking out into a clearing bordered by rhododendron.

Roan Highlands trail

The trail soon becomes a pathway in the sky

Mountain balds come in two flavors – grass balds and shrub (or heath) balds. The term “bald” here refers to mountain summits that are covered in grasses or shrubs where you would normally expect to find forests. The origin of these treeless areas is still a mystery, although current theory suggests that grazing by large native herbivores (some of which, like ground sloths and woolly mammoths, are now extinct) in prehistoric times, and later by elk, bison, and introduced livestock with the arrival of settlers, has maintained these unique vegetative communities. Whatever their origin, they are a hiker’s delight. But, conditions are changing and shrubs are beginning to encroach on many of the grassy balds in the region. Land managers are trying various strategies (grazing, mowing, hand cutting) to maintain these scenic vistas.

view from Roan Highlands 2

View across the grassy balds of Roan Mountain

Along our section of trail, there are three high elevation balds – Round Bald (5,826 ft.), Jane Bald (5,807 ft.), and Grassy Ridge (6,158 ft.). This section of trail across the Roan highlands is said by many to be the most scenic section along the entire 2000+ mile Appalachian Trail.

Jane's Bald sign

Trail sign at Jane Bald

The trail literally straddles the NC-TN state line as it gradually climbs over the ridges. Along the way, you pass through a few shrub-dominated zones containing Catawba rhododendron, green alder, and blueberries.

rhododendron tunnel

The trail passes under a rhododendron tunnel

After Jane Bald, the AT veers off down a slope, but we continued on a well marked trail up toward the summit of Grassy Ridge. In a scene reminiscent of my recent Everglades trip, we passed under a tunnel of vegetation, but this time it was rhododendron, instead of red mangroves, brushing my hat.

Rhododendron thicket along trail

Rhododendron thicket along trail reminded me of an upside down mangrove thicket

After the short stint of ducking under low branches, you come out into a vast open area, which keeps getting more spectacular as you climb.

View from Grassy Bald

You can’t beat the views from Grassy Ridge

This is Grassy Ridge, and on a clear day, waves of undulating lines stretch out before you – Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock, Hawksbill, and countless lesser known peaks and ridges that seem to go on forever. This is why this section of trail is so popular. I can only imagine what it must be like in late June when the rhododendrons are in bloom, along with the occasional rare Gray’s Lily. I suppose I will need to return to see for myself.