Beginnings – the Southern Route

My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.

~Claude Monet

On our previous two truck camping road trips, we headed due west across the plains through Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, until we hit the mountains. This trip, we had no real plans, just head west. We played with the idea of going to Big Bend National Park in Texas, but by the time we would have arrived, temperatures were already heading into the high 80’s and low 90’s (not my favorite temperature range for camping), but we did decide to take a more southerly route than before. Our first night was in Natchez Trace State Park in Tennessee, a pretty typical campground, with sites too close together for our liking (we’ve been spoiled by Forest Service dispersed camping) but with a beautiful lake and lots of bird life (tanagers, woodpeckers, thrushes, various warblers).

We had heard some good things about the natural beauty of Arkansas, so we pointed the truck in that general direction the next day and Melissa worked her navigation magic from the passenger seat by downloading Vehicle Use Maps from likely national forest units we would pass and reviewing satellite images to ground truth what the terrain might be like. She is also very kind to me in our on-the-fly planning and looked for side trips to wildlife refuges along the way (we both love viewing wildlife, but I probably need a wildlife pic fix more often than she does), so we hit Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge in TN and Bald Knob NWR in Arkansas the next day. Hatchie is a beautiful cypress swamp and had lots of warblers (especially Blackpolls and Prothonotaries).

Bald Knob was great with a variety of habitats and we soon found ourselves following waves of Bobolinks and Dicksissels as they flew up from the vegetation along refuge roads (although it was challenging to get close enough for photos). These are two species that I have seen occasionally in NC. They are both grassland species so I have observed them in migration near the coast and at the Museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation. And on the Museum’s Spring Mountain Birding trips, I have seen Bobolinks in some fields in the mountains where they are known to nest. But this was amazing, as they seemed to be everywhere along these roadsides.

Pair of Bobolinks at Bald Knob NWR in Arkansas (click photos to enlarge)
Dicksissel

At Bald Knob NWR, we came across what is now one of my favorite birds – the elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I had seen one in the NC Sandhills years ago but they are considered a rare migrant and even rarer breeder in my home state. We spotted two sitting on a barbed wire fence next to a road so I pulled the truck up alongside for a closer look. They were very cooperative and let us hang with them quite awhile as they scanned the skies for an insect treat.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on barbed wire

Just look at that tail! The tail usually makes up over half the overall length in this species, with males generally having longer tails and more color on their sides. After taking way too may photos of them sitting on the wire (a very common pose we were to learn), we hoped to get a shot of one in flight highlighting that forked tail (the long tail is useful for making quick turns in flight as they pursue flying insects). I waited, and waited, and finally one took off and I just squeezed the shutter in burst mode and tried to follow it. Though not as sharp as I wanted, I was pleased with the sequence showing a successful snag of a fly.

Launching from the wire and showing that awesome tail
In hot pursuit of a flying insect
Eating the fly you just caught

After spending a lot of time with flycatchers, we moved on to Ozark National Forest and camped along beautiful Richland Creek for the night. I’m not sure why, but the waters in this area are some of the bluest freshwater I have ever seen.

Our campsite next to Richland Creek

Melissa had scoped out some trails very close to our campsite, so the next morning we walked up the road a short distance and hiked along a well-marked trail leading to Keefe Falls. The forest had been burned, probably last year, and the resulting wildflower display was amazing all along the trail.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.) in our campsite
Phlox and Fire Pink along the trail
A white Larkspur (Delphinium sp.) was scattered in the woods and on the upper rim of the waterfall

The state motto for Arkansas is The Natural State. And after our day in the Ozarks, we know why. As we hiked, the trail split and we decided to take what looked like the lesser traveled route which climbed a slope and soon came to a cliff of loose sandstone. The trail started to disappear as we headed down-slope toward the creek and the sound of a waterfall. The last 50 yards or so were a bit dicey, with slippery soil on a steep slope, and then we rounded a corner…

We were both stunned when this tropical-looking waterfall came into view

I can truly say this is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. The greenery-covered walls and the aqua blue color of the water with rays of sunshine piercing the still developing forest canopy…and we had it all to ourselves!

A side view of what we think is Splashdown Falls
It is a magical place and we had it all to ourselves

We lounged by this pool for quite some time (someone I know took a swim), and, once again, we took way too many pictures trying to capture the beauty of this tropical-looking scene. On the hike back we encountered another couple hiking toward Keefe Falls. We told them about our find (which we now think is called Splashdown Falls) but warned them about the steepness of the last section. They shared an encounter with a rattlesnake on their hike to another nearby waterfall and told us about the abundance of beautiful falls and cascades in this forest.

One of the spectacular roadside waterfalls, Six Fingers Falls

On our way out the next morning, we stopped at two of the more popular roadside waterfalls – Falling Water Falls and Six Fingers Falls, and they did not disappoint. Arkansas maybe should change their motto to The Waterfall State if this one section of Ozark National Forest is any indication of what can be found elsewhere. Needless to say, we will return to Arkansas on future trips. But for now, we headed west (more in the next post).

On the Road Again

Oh, the places you’ll go.

~Dr. Seuss

Yep, we did it again, another awesome truck camping road trip. We just returned home Wednesday morning at 3:30 a.m. after an epic 18-hour drive from Missouri. We had planned at least one more night on the road, but the weather wasn’t cooperating and we were following a large rain-making system across the middle part of the country. After camping in fairly dry weather for almost a month, we decided to just head home rather than deal with the wet conditions. We traveled almost 7,400 miles over 29 days (see map below). We visited three state parks, a state conservation area, six national parks (including three new ones for me), a national monument, a national preserve, a national recreation area, seven national forests, and nine national wildlife refuges. I think we can safely say, we love our public lands! We did stay with friends a couple of nights in Jackson, and hotels or an Airbnb for a total of 5 other nights. The rest of the time, we camped in our truck, mostly dispersed camping in national forests. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post some more details of the trip (and probably some highlights of things going on here in our woods).

Our road map for the last month (click photos to enlarge)

For more details on the locations highlighted on the map, see this link.

One of the many great U.S. Forest Service dispersed campsites on our journey
Wild Geraniums, one of the countless wildflowers we photographed on our trip (this one in Ozark NF in Arkansas)
Falling Water Falls in Ozark NF
Maybe my new favorite bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher – so many in Arkansas and Oklahoma
Melissa in an awesome slot canyon – Buckskin Gulch
North rim of the Grand Canyon
Spires in Bryce Canyon National Park
American Avocet in Bear River National Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah
The majestic Tetons
Back in our happy place, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP
One of our wildlife highlights was having this Red Fox trot past us in Yellowstone
We had to switch our campsite plans in the Bighorn Mountains due to snow (this was near the site we eventually selected)
Melissa in one of her favorite places, the Sandhills of Nebraska

Of Moose and Men (and Women)

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

~Henry David Thoreau

This is a post about the final leg of our journey last fall on our truck camping adventure. From the deserts of Utah, we herded into familiar territory of Kebler Pass in the Colorado Rockies. We had camped there the year before in peak color of the aspens and it had been glorious. This year, we were just past peak and a wind storm two days before our arrival had stripped the trees of most of their leaves. But, the scenery is still magical and the wildlife put on quite a show.

We wanted to camp at the same site as before, with a view into a beaver dam filled creek surrounded by high mountain peaks. As we were driving to our site, we saw some folks gathered down by the stream and Melissa soon spotted a large dark shape in the tall willows. We pulled in and got the scoop from the others that a bull was following a cow as she was browsing in the dense vegetation.

A bull keeping an eye on a cow as she feeds in the willows (click photos to enlarge)

She finally headed to the edge of the creek and broke out in the open in front of a beaver dam.

The cow walked out in the open in front of a beaver dam

We waited, and, sure enough, he followed.

Bull Moose following his female

The next morning we drove back down to the site and found her again, out in the willows. She bedded down and we waited, but did not see the bull anywhere.

She is almost impossible to see, but is bedded down along the shore in thick brush

We waked around to the other side of the creek for better light and sat for quite awhile as she lay in the sun, but almost invisible to our eyes. She finally got up, and, then, nearby, so did the bull, who had been there the whole time but hidden from our view.

She finally got up, started feeding, and then waded across the creek
The bull follows again

After crossing the creek, she began running in tight circles in the willows and snorting, and finally went into thicker vegetation and disappeared (maybe she had had enough of this young male?). The bull ended up crossing back across the creek and vanishing in the huge willow thicket upstream.

Having spent a couple of hours with these moose, we felt privileged and couldn’t imagine having that kind of luck again. But, when we found ourselves in a beautiful valley of the Taylor Park region, we picked a campsite along a meandering stream valley full of beaver dams with lots of moose and elk sign in the surrounding forest.

Sitting near our campsite looking out over the beaver marshes

That afternoon, we went out looking for wildlife and Melissa soon saw something and whispered, “I see a moose, no, two moose, wait, three, no four moose!”. Indeed, there was a group of four moose feeding in a beaver pond downstream of our campsite – a cow, two young ones, and a bull. The late day light flooded the area and we spent a long time basking in the sight of these magnificent animals doing what they do, wading in a beaver pond, feeding on vegetation, and looking regal.

Melissa spotted the Moose in a nearby beaver pond
The cow was ever alert as she dipped her huge snout into the water for vegetation
As soon as the cow and young ones moved off, the bull followed
After the moose departed, we sat next to a beaver dam and soaked in the scenery (what a vista these critters have)

After the phenomenal moose encounter, we relaxed by a large beaver pond just upstream. Soon, we were rewarded with an eye level view of one of the inhabitants.

A beaver swan out of the lodge and eyed us before deciding we weren’t bushes that sprang up during the day
The resounding slap of a beaver tail as it sounds the alarm

We decided to leave the beavers to their kingdom and retreated back to our chairs with a view of the incredible surroundings.

Sunset from our campsite in beaver and moose country

The next day, we headed out, bound for home, with three stops along the way at familiar types of campsites – a state fishing lake, a state conservation area, and the gorgeous Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

Another restful Kansas State Fishing Lake campsite
A Missouri campsite next to a vernal pool
A view of the unusual landscape of Red River Gorge
Our final two nights on the road in crowded Red River Gorge, but we managed to backpack in a short distance and find a secluded ridge-line

It’s always good to get back home after an adventure, but it definitely whet the appetite for more, especially in isolated-truck-camping-loving Melissa. So, stay tuned for more…

Dry, Dusty, Beautiful

There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation.

~Edward Abbey

Hard to believe it has taken me this long to finish posting about our second road trip way back last Fall, but it has been a busy several months since our return with a lot happening. It sort of slipped my mind after a month or so, but I figured I better write this up before things start to get too busy as the weather warms. So, here is a continuation of our last truck camping adventure (some of you may have thought we were still in Colorado!). I’m going to share this post and the next one (the last from our journey last Fall) without much commentary and will let the images speak for themselves.

From where we left off on our last western truck camping post, we drove from the mountain scenery to a very different landscape – the dry and starkly beautiful deserts of southwest Colorado and adjoining Utah. It was a sharp transition and the scenery seemed to grow more grandiose as we drove. We debated our options and then decided on a slight meander to visit Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. Evidence of fires over the past few decades were evident throughout our drive into the park. Due to Covid, most of the facilities were closed and there were no tours into the amazing structures. Mesa Verde was established in 1906 to preserve the truly remarkable cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Archeological site at Mesa Verde National Park (click photos to enlarge)
A large buck Mule Deer casually strolling alongside the park road.

Our next destination was the vast stretch of BLM lands outside Canyonlands National Park. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore! The land stretches on forever, the rocks now become the dominant feature of the landscape, with patches of green scattered to the horizon.

The Needles overlook on BLM land
Campsite on BLM land outside Canyonlands NP
Spectacular sunset at our campsite
There are lots of pokey things in the desert
One of the so-called Six-shooters just east of Canyonlands National Park
The Needles section of Canyonlands NP
Sandstone weathered into columns
Our second campsite at Mineral Canyon on BLM land outside the park

The public lands were being well-used while we were in the Canyonlands area. We tried to get into Arches National Park, but the extremely long wait line at the entrance, and the large numbers of unmasked people we encountered in Moab, caused me to turn around and head back to the BLM lands. We drove around to some more of the incredible sites in Canyonlands and did some short hikes, but then headed back to our campsite.

Vastness, another word for this landscape
Islands in the Sky in Canyonlands NP

And this is when we had our only mishap of the trip – a flat tire on a Saturday evening. Luckily, we noticed it as we were turning around on a large flat rock slab on the otherwise sandy back country road. After changing the tire, we knew we had to head out the next day to try to find a place where we could repair it or buy a new spare. Sunday is not the best day for such things, but in looking online (glad we had cell service) we found a place in Grand Junction, Colorado, and off we went. That meant staying in an Airbnb, and we were lucky to find one with good Covid protocols (and no recent guests) close to the tire place. We ended buying a totally new set of tires since these were the original tires on this 2003 truck (you my remember it was my dad’s truck and he had used it sparingly as a farm vehicle).

While the beauty and expansiveness of the desert landscape is appealing, I must confess I found myself wanting to head back into the forests and mountains. Our last leg of the journey took us through some familiar territory and some encounters with one of my favorite animals. More next time…

Spring Birds

The presence of a single bird can change everything for one who appreciates them.

~Julie Zickefoose

An annual highlight for us living in these woods is the arrival of the spring migrants. They all bring a touch of excitement and joy when you see or hear the first of their kind arriving at the breeding sites (our woods) or passing through to places higher up or farther north. Our woods have been alive with the sounds of Wood Thrushes, Ovenbirds, and a few warbler species these past few weeks, plus the calls of our local nesters, the bluebirds, wrens, and cardinals. Last weekend was the first screeching call of a Great Crested Flycatcher, and two nights ago, the booming sound of a Chuck-wills-widow, one that I have not heard here in over a decade. But certain birds carry a special excitement for me – the first hummingbird, the first melodious Wood Thrush, and the first tanager among them.

And so, this past week we heard the calls of Summer Tanagers, and two days ago, while I was loading some stuff into our truck, I heard the chip-burrrr call of a Scarlet Tanager just behind me. I turned, and there was a female, snagging a mulberry not 10 feet from me! No camera, of course, so I just watched as she ate one more berry, and then flew off. The mulberry has al lot of berries, but few are close to being ripe, so there is not a lot for them to feed on just yet. Plus, the squirrels have discovered the tree and, true to their nature, have decided to claim it by eating the unripe berries and cutting the tips of many branches off and letting them fall to the ground. I’m afraid the berry buffet will not be as large this year for the birds.

On my next walk by the tree, a male had flown in and sat for a minute while I watched. That was enough to prompt me to take a break from the chores, get the camera, and sit at the shop entrance to see what might happen. A few minutes later, he returned.

A male Scarlet Tanager snagged a fly in the mulberry tree (click photos to enlarge)
Their red color is so intense against the green background of leaves
A rare pose out in the open while he looks for ripe berries
There are only a few ripe berries right now so he had to come down close to me for this one
Stopping for a moment in full sun

The male put on a nice show as he searched the branches for ripening fruit. The tree usually makes for a busy background, but I’ll take that as long as I can watch these incredible beauties up close. A pair of Summer Tanagers flew in at one point, but were chased away by the male Scarlet Tanager. Just another day in the woods.

Oh, and the grosbeak show continues, now with the arrival of the migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I’m amazed that there are still a few Evening Grosbeaks still making regular forays to the yard. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks seem a bit intimidated by the noisy big beaks, so it is somewhat rare to see them both on the feeder at once. Of course, as I was writing this, a male of each species shared a few moments on one feeder, until I reached for the camera. But, I”m not going to complain. The Carolina Wren singing 3 feet from the kitchen door and the bluebirds sitting on the garden gate right now are telling me that it’s all good, that spring is here, and so are the birds.

And then there are the grosbeaks

Swarms

What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bees.

~Marcus Aurelius

Earlier this week I was walking down in our woods mid-day, switching out the memory cards in our trail cameras, when I came across a termite emergence near the opossum hole. What I noticed first was a group of large dragonflies, maybe 30 or more, swarming in a sunny patch down by the soon-to-be-dry creek. There were a couple of species of dragonflies, though the larger ones (probably some species of darner) were by far the most abundant. They were zooming back and forth snagging winged termites as they fluttered up from the ground in their nuptial flight. I sat mesmerized for several minutes watching the proficiency of these aerial hunters. I thought I should try to capture some video of this spectacle, but then walked on, figuring I couldn’t capture anything worthwhile with just a phone (boy, was I wrong about that, as you will see later).

I walked about 150 feet along the creek and encountered another, smaller, termite swarm, but with few dragonflies present.

The second termite emergence spot where alates (that’s the caste of winged, reproductive termites in a colony) gathered on a twig tip before taking flight with more on the log below (click photos to enlarge)

I wrote about termite swarms a few years back and pondered then about the triggering mechanism for such synchronous swarms. I found suggestions that temperature (air and/or soil), humidity, conditions before or after storms, etc. as the causes for nearby termite colonies all emerging around the same time. Well, this happened on Tuesday last week, with no significant change in weather before or after that day, so I am still baffled (and in awe) of this phenomenon. After taking a couple of pictures, I continued on up toward the house for lunch.

As I reached our little footbridge, there was another emergence (probably 300 feet from the last one). Interestingly, they were emerging on the same log that I had photographed them on when I wrote that last termite post. When I looked at the photos from that blog post, I saw the date they were taken was May 2, 2015.

Termites emerging on the same log I photographed some on in 2015

The alates followed the same path along the log as they had back then, working their way up toward the tip (the highest point) where most of them took flight.

Here’s a short video clip of the tip of that log and the emerging brood of termites (almost identical to the video clip from 2015).

Termite emergence in our woods last week

As I had found back in 2015, these emergence flights don’t last very long (15-30 minutes), and many predators, both terrestrial (ants, spiders, lizards, etc.) and aerial (dragonflies, birds, bats in the evening, etc.) gather to take advantage of this slowly flying buffet. As this swarm started to thin, I walked up the trail, only to encounter one more emergence. This one was smaller, in deep shade, and had only two dragonflies in attendance. Still, the number of dragonflies I had seen in our woods on this walk was way above any number we normally see, especially down by the creek.

I soon got to the top of the ridge and walked through our side gate to find Melissa out in the yard with her phone making video clips of a cluster (one of the proper collective nouns, although I prefer the more fanciful, dazzle) of dragonflies attacking yet another large termite swarm. There were at least 50 dragonflies (mostly large darners, and we both think they were probably Swamp Darners) swooping to and fro in our side yard out near one the water gardens (this area is basically a small, sunny hole in the forest canopy. I was impressed by the quick clip she showed me and we continued to watch and marvel at the aerial capabilities of the dragonflies as they turned on a dime and snatched a hapless alate out of the air. After a successful snag, a dragonfly would munch in the air (you could see termite wings drop from on occasion) before continuing the hunt, with success after success in grabbing an in-flight meal. Once inside, I was blown away by what Melissa captured on video (and her editing abilities).

So, we present this short video of the amazing airy antics we witnessed (too bad the Oscars are this evening). The first segment is actual speed, but she filmed the rest in slow-motion video. Watch the sharp turns the dragonflies make as they hunt. And keep your eyes on prominent termites as they fly through the screen…do they make it?

Melissa’s iPhone video of a dragonfly swarm feeding on emerging termites in our yard near one of the water gardens and campfire ring (the large stumps)

Once again, we have witnessed synchronous termite swarms in our woods – five swarms over a distance of about 1/4 mile and a time span of about 45 minutes from creek bottom to the top of the ridge. This probably helps with genetic diversity by allowing mates from different colonies to find each other during the short nuptial flights (they drop their wings shortly after landing). But what triggers this synchrony over unknown distances and seemingly varied micro-climates?

And now I have another big question…how the heck do all these dragonflies suddenly appear at these termite emergence sites? We are both amazed that so many dragonflies appeared seemingly out of nowhere (the greatest number of darners I have ever seen patrolling the yard is probably 3 or 4 at any one time). Our friend and researcher at the museum, Chris, has studied dragonfly swarms, and states that this type of swarm is probably a static swarm (feeding swarm), although she speculated these may also be related to migratory swarms (yes, many species of dragonflies migrate). One study showed that the number of dragonflies you see in a swarm is just the tip of the iceberg, with those you count representing fewer than 20% of the number in the vicinity. Where are all these dragonflies on a normal day? Are they cruising the treetops, out of our sight? Can they communicate with one another in some way to take advantage of a short-term food bonanza? I’m hoping Chris sees this and comments with any updates from dragonfly researchers that may shed additional light on how dragonflies can gather so quickly for such ephemeral feeding frenzies. However it happens, it is something special to behold, so be on the lookout for a swarm near you (and have your phone ready).

Almost Normal?

…It is always my place to come back and feel normal again.

~Alana Blanchard

That quote referred to a special place for its writer, one of the Hawaiian islands. For me, one of the special places I seek is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina. I had not been in many months, so, when our good friend Scott paid a visit (the first overnight guest we have had in over a year), he and I decided to make a road trip back to normal (we are vaccinated now).

Arriving at the refuge, we found a large section of the road system remains closed. which concentrated the many carloads of visitors even more. We soon managed to spot some birds along one of the canals and pulled over for a closer look. Sitting alongside a trio of large turtles was a oddly paired duo – a Blue-winged Teal and an American Coot. We sat with these birds for almost an hour, watching their feeding behaviors and reactions to what was happening around them.

Blue-winged Teal along a canal at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Blue-winged Teal are so named because of the blue visible in their wings when in flight. In the photo above, you can see a tiny hint of that baby blue color.

The teal was dabbling along the edge as it fed. Check out the sheen on its head feathers.
American Coot hanging out with the teal – those lobed toes are incredible!

Field guides almost always describe the American Coot as a plump, chicken-like bird (if the shoe fits…). It is North America’s largest rail and is found near wetlands throughout much of the country. They tend to be gregarious (I have seen hundreds together at Lake Mattamuskeet in winters past) but this one had decided to just hang with his buddy, the teal. Coot feed primarily on aquatic vegetation which they grab from the surface or dive to get. They don’t nest here in NC, but undergo nocturnal migrations to freshwater marshes in western and northern states.

These two hung out together and alternately fed, preened, and rested while we observed them

While we were watching the bird buddies from the car, I looked down the road and saw a Raccoon heading toward us. It swam across the canal and began foraging in the shallows fifty feet or so behind the birds, who seemed unconcerned. It was the first of four Raccoons we saw that morning, all searching for a meal at the edge of a canal.

A Raccoon pauses to check us out before continuing to search for food
This Raccoon, the second of four we saw at Pungo, was intent on finding a meal
Two of the Raccoons we watched used the same hunting technique – rapidly walking in shallow water and doing short lunges with both front paws out, flailing around for anything that moved or felt right

Though there were several cars at “Bear Road” each time we drove by, we finally decided to check out the fields, and, right away saw three bears out from the edge of the far woods. They soon went back in and we hiked a bit to see what we could see. As we rounded the edge of a tree-line we spotted a mother bear with three of her yearlings coming out into the field. Though she was a considerable distance away and the wind was in our favor, she apparently spotted us kneeling along the edge of a well-worn bear path, one she has no doubt walked many times in the past. I am guessing she recognized that there were two new bumps sticking out near her favorite trail and wasn’t quite sure what they were. She didn’t rush away, but did stop and stare at us and her cubs soon became a little nervous, so they all sauntered back into the woods.

A mother bear with three of last year’s young

That would be the first of a total of nine bears we saw, the others being on the stretch of pocosin on the south shore of Lake Phelps.

A Palamedes Swallowtail nectaring on a thistle

One of the highlights of any springtime trip to Pungo is the abundance of butterflies. Palamedes Swallowtails were everywhere last weekend, with most preferring to nectar on the scattered thistles instead of the large swaths of ragwort blooming along the roadsides (the yellow in the background in the photo above). I spent several minutes watching one thistle that was quite popular with the passing swallowtails (when I first saw it there were four of them fluttering on it).

Palamedes Swallowtails loading up with nectar on a thistle flower

We also saw some Black Swallowtails, a few Zebra Swallowtails, and my second Monarch Butterfly of this spring season.

My second monarch sighting of this spring, this male was feeding on the abundant ragwort flowers

Late in the day, we decided to head over to Mattamuskeet NWR via the long route through the other section of Pocosin Lakes NWR. It requires heading over to the south shore of Lake Phelps and driving for an hour or so on gravel roads through a landscape of thick pocosin and swamps. You never know what you might see but our main sightings on this day were a ton of turkeys, doves, and other birds (and the five bears we saw before we got back onto the refuge roads).

A great way to end a day, a spectacular sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet

Our quick drive around Mattamuskeet as the sun was getting low on the horizon yielded no wildlife, but it did provide a very nice sunset to cap off what was almost a normal day for two old friends that finally got to spend some time together doing what we love to do. Get your vaccine and you can get back to almost normal too.

Opossum Hole Happenings

The opossum hasn’t changed since the days when European explorers captured it and proudly sent it to their kings. We’ve just lost a bit of our wonder.

~T. Edward Nickens

NOTE: I think this has now been corrected to show thumbnails (I hope)

I admit to always having had a soft spot for these unusual mammals, North America’s only marsupial. I, as probably many of you, have encountered them in trash cans, had one in the crawl space of a house, and, unfortunately, one beneath the car I was driving when a wayward opossum ran (who knew they could move fast) out in front of me one night.

But I owe my newfound fascination to the work of our friend, Jerry, who has had trail cameras out on a opossum den for quite some time and has documented the goings on in his Possum Hole Chronicles Facebook posts and in a wonderful YouTube program that was originally presented as a Lunchtime Discovery Series talk with the NC Office of Environmental Education.

Because of Jerry, I now have three trail cameras and have been putting them out on our property since the start of this year. I move them around quite a bit and have been pleased with the variety of creatures they have recorded. A little over a month ago, I put one on a large fallen double-trunk tree that crosses our little creek. The usual Raccoons showed up and one Virginia Opossum, although they all took the trunk without the camera for their path. On my next memory card exchange, I moved the camera to the other trunk and faintly recorded something exciting off in the distance one night – the opossum gathering leaves. I figured this meant a den nearby, so I placed all three cameras around the root ball of the tree which had a couple of holes at its base.

That was the start of my version of a ‘possum’s life – Opossum Hole Happenings (I like Jerry’s title better). So, below is a series of short video clips of what has been happening in the vicinity of this one opossum hole in Chatham County for the past two months.

The fallen tree is a superhighway in this part of our woods. Most nights, the ‘possum does this – comes out of the hole on the left of the tree in the root ball, crawls up and walks across the log for a night of foraging.
This was an unusually late return to the hole since it was after daybreak. Most returns are while it is still dark.
I have lots of footage of at least two different Raccoons traversing the tree.
One night, a Coyote sneaked by the tree, obviously on the prowl.
I had not recorded the Red Fox in quite some time, but it spent a few minutes one night checking out the ‘possum log.
Three deer lounge around the ‘possum tree – I wonder if they are aware of the sleeping opossum nearby…
An opossum rubbing a stick near the den entrance. I assume it is scent marking by rubbing secretions from glands in the head and neck region. If so, this is probably a male. I think I have recorded at least two different opossums at the hole based on slight differences in tail shape.
One thing I was hoping to capture – the opossum carrying leaves into its burrow in its tail. Jerry had filmed them collecting leaves with the front paws, transferring the leaves under the body to the hind feet, which then gather them into a ball in the curved tail for carrying.

There have been many other critters around the ‘possum hole over these past few weeks. I have only one camera on the hole now (the view is that of the first few video clips in this blog). The most common day-time visitor are Gray Squirrels, followed by White-tailed Deer, Eastern Chipmunks, and various birds (especially the feathered equivalent of chipmunks, Carolina Wrens). At night, Raccoons, lots of deer, mice, moths, and a stray cat. I’ll leave this camera up for the next few months and will share anything new and interesting that happens at the ‘possum hole. Thanks, Jerry, for the inspiration.

Blending In

I’ve always preferred moths to butterflies. They aren’t flashy or cocky; they mind their own business and just try to blend in with their surroundings and live their lives.

~Kayla Krantz

Went for a walk in the woods yesterday and as I approached one of our woodland benches, my eye caught something on the large Tulip Poplar trunk next to it….do you see it?

The large Tulip Poplar on one of our trails below the house is hosting something special (click photos to enlarge)
A closer look….now you see it

It is one of my favorite moths, a Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria. It is very common here and a frequent visitor to our windows at night.

Tulip-tree Beauty Moth

Their gray-brown colors, wavy lines, and scalloped wing edges help them blend in perfectly with tree bark, which is where they usually can be found resting during the day. They also have a very flat profile which helps camouflage them. Caterpillars feed on the leaves of several tree species in our woods like Tulip Poplar, Pawpaw, and Sassafras.

Completing the Circle

I’ve always loved butterflies, because they remind us that it’s never too late to transform ourselves.

~Drew Barrymore

Last year I finally had success in photographing a chrysalis of a beautiful spring-time butterfly, the Falcate Orange-tip. I collected four eggs and their host plants and brought them inside to rear because I had no success in locating their thorn-mimic pupa in the wild. I have kept them on the screen porch all year so they would be exposed to cold temperatures and humidity. I saw my first Falcate Orange-tip flying in the yard on Tuesday of this week, so I figured it was time to start observing my pupae. Sure enough, two emerged yesterday and one early this morning. I photographed the freshly emerged adult (a female) right before releasing her.

Below is the entire sequence from an egg from last March, to larva, to chrysalis, to the adult from this morning. The circle is complete…a sure sign of Spring.

Falcate Orange-tip butterflies with male in courtship flight (click photos to enlarge)
Egg (orange-colored structure) on host plant
Late instar larva of Falcate Orange-tip
Prepupa
The thorn-mimic chrysalis on a twig
Just emerged Falcate Orange-tip female on twig above spent chrysalis
She is hardening her wings by pumping fluid from her abdomen through the wing veins
A closer view of the head of a Falcate Orange-tip