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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I’ve always loved butterflies, because they remind us that it’s never too late to transform ourselves.
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.
When I worked as a District Naturalist for the state park system oh-so-many years ago, one of my favorite parks was Merchants Millpond State Park in northeastern North Carolina. It is a true natural gem of our state and remains one of my favorite spots to spend some time in the solitude of a beautiful swamp. The millpond was created in 1811 by damming Bennetts Creek to construct a grist mill, sawmill, and other commercial enterprises that gave rise to the name Merchants Millpond. Today, the park encompasses over 3200 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp and beech-mixed hardwood uplands. Melissa has a workshop on the millpond in a few weeks, so she wanted to do a scouting trip and introduce some of her co-leaders to the place. She decided to take a day off for exploring before her staff arrived, so we packed up the truck and threw our kayaks on top for a mid-week adventure in this perfect springtime weather.
I contacted our friends, Floyd and Signa, that live just outside the park, to see if they wanted to paddle with us on Wednesday. They are some of the best naturalists I know and certainly know the millpond better than anyone (Floyd was a ranger there for many years). They offered to take us up Lassiter Swamp to “the big trees”, a scattered group of Bald Cypress trees that are hundreds of years old and tower above the rest of the swamp forest – heck yeah!
The 760-acre millpond is dominated by two tree species – Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum. Stumps of ancient cypress cut in the 1800’s form islands of vegetation with Swamp Rose, Wax Myrtle and a host of other plant species. Spanish Moss is draped off most of the tree branches and Yellow Cow Lily (Spatterdock) is just starting to poke its leaves out of the water surface.
Paddle to the far end and you enter an entirely different world – Lassiter Swamp. The channel narrows and winds through a maze of gnarled Tupelo Gum that have been transformed into gargoyle-like shapes by Mistletoe (a semi-parasitic plant that causes the gum trees to create odd growths as they forms “scar tissue” in reaction to the Mistletoe’s intrusion). So many trees have been disfigured by the Mistletoe that the entrance to the swamp is known as “the enchanted forest” by locals.
I have always loved Lassiter Swamp for its solitude and abundance of wildlife. And this trip provided both. As we paddled around one bend, Melissa said, There’s a Raccoon in that tree. I looked, but didn’t see it at first. It was curled up inside a giant gnarl on a gum tree. We were all impressed she spotted it.
After a few hours of paddling, we started seeing some of the really big Bald Cypress scattered about the upper end of Lassiter Swamp. One of the big ones I remembered climbing inside years ago (9 people could stand inside the hollow base of the giant) had fallen victim to Hurricane Isabelle and lay covered in moss along the creek bank. But the matriarch of the swamp is still standing. This cypress was aged by the team that designated those well-known cypress along the Black River as the oldest known trees in the Eastern United States (one has been dated to be at least 2,624 years old). This tree is much larger than those on the Black River due to the nutrient-rich waters of this swamp and is estimated to be at least 1000 years old. It is humbling to stand next to one of these giants.
As we paddled back to the launch area, Melissa spotted a large Alligator basking in the late day sun. Floyd told us about the first confirmed Alligator sighting on the millpond back in 1996. Rumors of gators in the park had been around a couple of years, but, in 1996, a fisherman told Floyd he had seen one. In fact, he had caught it while fishing and had it in his boat (he didn’t know what to do with it and had brought it to shore hoping a ranger could help). After unhooking the ~3-foot gator, keeping it in an unused dog pen with a kiddie pool, and contacting wildlife officials, the decision was made to release it back into the millpond. There are now a few Alligators that call the millpond home, including one larger than the ~7-footer we observed.
A highlight of the trip was one that did not occur on the millpond but on the uplands. Our friends shared the location of an Eastern Screech Owl roosting in a hollow tree, something I have been hoping to find for several years now (I have seen them, but only when I didn’t have a camera in hand). The owl did not disappoint. It is a gray phase (they can also be reddish in color) and has a perfect perch in the hollow of a tree. We checked the tree each time we drove in and out of the campground and it has a habit of disappearing down into the hollow and then reappearing so you never know when it will be visible. What a treat!
Another wonderful wildlife encounter was the Bald Eagle nest in a tall pine out on the millpond. The eagle is easily seen with binoculars and must be sitting on eggs still as she didn’t move much on either day we paddled.
On my last trip by the nest tree, the male eagle flew in and perched nearby, giving me the side eye from behind a tree trunk. I paddled on not wanting to disturb them.
Thursday was even warmer and turtles were everywhere on the millpond. Pickerel Frogs and the occasional Southern Leopard Frog were calling as I paddled solo up the pond to spend the day in the swamp (Melissa was with her co-workers planning the workshop). There is something magical about being in a swamp by yourself. The quiet, the sense of isolation, and yet a feeling of being wrapped in the arms of a living forest. You tend to become a part of the swamp and more in tune to your surroundings.
I passed the Raccoon tree and found it empty, but there were plenty of birds and signs of animals (otter scat, beaver lodges and cut trees, raccoon tracks in the mud) as I paddled. Finally, I saw a swirl in the water along one side of the creek and then some movement – otter! I stopped paddling and slowly drifted with camera in hand as the four River Otter realized there was something in their creek and swam out to get a better view. They bobbed up and down, snuffing and snorting as they tried to figure me out. I never got all four in the same field of view at once, but it was great spending a few minutes with these aquatic acrobats. They finally had enough of me and headed upstream.
Two gorgeous male Wood Ducks graced me with their presence as I sat on a beech slope adjacent to the creek eating my lunch. Of course, the camera was in the kayak and as soon as I slowly tried to reach for it, one of the ducks spotted me and the game was over, off they went. On the way out, I paddled along the edge of Lassiter Swamp seeing plenty of Beaver sign and scaring up flocks of Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, along with a bunch of noisy pairs of Canada Geese.
My last wildlife highlight of the day was an Anhinga, a symbol of swamps and black waters in the south. I now see them much more frequently than when I first started paddling the swamps of the Coastal Plain some 40 years ago, but it is always a treat.
Merchants Millpond remains one of my favorites places to spend time on the water. It has a rich history, amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery, great facilities and staff, and can provide you with a sense of being one with a wild place like few other places so close to home. And seeing our friends and knowing all they know and do for the park, it reminds me how much I truly appreciate people like Floyd and Signa that have given (and continue to give) so much to help conserve and make one special wild place available to plants, wildlife, and people. That is one of the things that makes North Carolina State Parks so special, the dedicated people that love and protect them.
For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.
If you have read previous posts on this blog, you know that we are lucky to live in a beautiful wooded setting with abundant wildlife from insects to birds. But one of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic has been spending time with other wildlife, things we typically don’t see here at home. Yesterday, Melissa had to work (in one of her first in-person workshops in quite some time) so I decided to hit the road and visit some of my favorite spots – the wildlife refuges of Eastern North Carolina.
First stop, Pocosin Lakes (aka Pungo). I was surprised to see a few Snow Geese still around along with the usual late Tundra Swans. Several ducks (mainly Northern Shovelers) and four Bald Eagles were a good way to start. All were a bit too far off for photos, so I just watched though binoculars. Some roads are still closed due to the very wet weather and there were already 3 carloads of people at “Bear Road”, so I headed over to Lake Mattamuskeet to try my luck there.
I saw a post last week on Facebook about a Great Horned Owl nest out on the lake, and from the photo, I knew exactly which tree it was in – a small Bald Cypress out on the lake that had an old Osprey nest in it. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nest, but often use broken snags or nests of other large birds. I had to look from the top of the car in order to get a clear view over the tall Phragmites that lines the lake, but you can clearly see the owls in the nest with binoculars or a spotting scope. My 500mm telephoto (plus 1.4x teleconverter) brings it all in a bit closer, but due to the great distance over water, there is a bit of atmospheric interference, which makes a sharp photo difficult. I saw two young plus an adult at one point but have heard there may be three young in the nest.
Since many of the waterfowl have headed north, I was hoping to see some other critters as I started down Wildlife Drive. A small, dark rabbit greeted me near the entrance and seemed unconcerned as I slowly pulled over across the road. My first thought was this was a Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris. One of three species of rabbits found in NC (Eastern Cottontail and Appalachian Cottontail being the others), Marsh Rabbits are usually found in coastal regions near marshes and swamps. They tend to be slightly darker brown in color, have shorter ears, smaller eyes, and, most distinctly, lack the fluffy white underside to the tail that gives the more common and widespread cottontail its name (their tails are brownish underneath). Unfortunately, this little guy never showed me that part of its anatomy, but I’m still pretty sure its a Marsh Rabbit.
I enjoyed watching it for several minutes and managed a quick video clip of its constant munching.
I always enjoy the short hike along the New Holland Trail with its beautiful cypress swamp setting. The water levels are very high everywhere in our state right now and, for the first time I can remember, the walk to get to the boardwalk was slightly underwater. But that made for beautiful reflections in the swamp.
The far end of Wildlife Drive was closed due to high water and the back side of the loop around the impoundment had the most water I have ever seen. That meant fewer wading birds although I did spy a couple of egrets squabbling over feeding territory.
It was still fairly early when I finished my lunch, so I decided to head over to the last refuge for the day, Alligator River NWR. As soon as I drove in off Hwy 264, I spotted an otter in a roadside canal. I stopped to watch and it disappeared into the high water in the trees off the canal. It was the first of five River Otter I spotted in my couple of hours on the refuge. I ended up spending some time with one otter as it swam down a long canal. I would drive ahead and park on the opposite side of the road, then get out and use the vehicle as a blind and a support for my camera and snap a few photos as the otter swam by. Once it was down the canal a bit, I got back in and drove another hundred yards or so beyond the otter to watch it pass again. At one spot, there was an opportunity to get closer due to some trees and brush on my side of the canal. I sat and waited for quite some time and suddenly the otter was alongside me. I managed a couple of quick shots as it passed and then it slowed and turned to look back at me. I imagine the otter might not have been thinking the peaceful thoughts I was having, but it quickly continued on its way.
The opening quote above is from a wonderful book (Our Wild Calling) by Richard Louv on the value of human – wildlife interactions. It is the last line in part of a closing paragraph on something he says we should try to adopt in our relations with animal life – what he calls the reciprocity principle. Th other parts of that principle are equally worthy of our attention:
For every moment of healing that humans receive from another creature, humans will provide an equal moment of healing for that animal and its kin. For every acre of wild habitat we take, we will preserve or create at least another acre for wildness. For every dollar we spend on classroom technology, we will spend at least another dollar creating chances for children to connect deeply with another animal plant, or person.
Our wildlife refuges go a long way toward meeting the goals of that principle. And I have been lucky to have a small chunk of woodlands to care-take and to have spent a career trying to provide outdoor experiences for a wide range of people. Now I guess I need to figure out how to repay that otter…
Science has never drummed up quite as effective a tranquilizing agent as a sunny spring day.
~W. Earl Hall
It’s coming. We can see it and hear it in our woods. The big change is near – the approach of spring in the Piedmont! The first warm days last weekend ushered in a host of other firsts – our first butterfly of the season (a Question Mark), the first Spring Peepers calling, the first sightings of the numerous Green Frogs in our disheveled water gardens, and so much more. This morning I see the long-range forecast calls for a string of sunny days ahead, something that seems like another first for this year, so I anticipate a lot of other noticeable changes in the coming days. Here are a few of the highlights of our woods wanderings last weekend. As in many of our recent walks, all photos were taken with my phone. At the bottom is a list of bird species we saw or heard on Sunday, a very good day for bird activity, especially raptors and woodpeckers.
Birds from our Sunday explorations in our woods:
Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, and the still usual suspects at our feeders – Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco
Nana always said the rain was nature’s way of adding sparkle to the outdoors.
~Mehmet Murat Ildan
Surely the woods are sparkling now after what seems like weeks of rain. We actually have had some occasional nice weather, but the past few days have been soakers. Our clay soils have added some slickness to our woods walking and the usually intermittent stream below the house has been running at full capacity for several weeks now. Yesterday, there were two small waterfalls providing a wonderful soundscape for a walk in the woods. I have left the “real” camera at home this week and used my iPhone for recording what I see (plus a couple of trail camera images at the end of the post).
Perhaps the raindrops do provide a certain sparkle to the woods when you stop and look closely.
Rainy days definitely hep me walk more slowly and take notice of (and appreciate) details of our woods.
I have a dilemma with the trail cameras out now. I love checking them to see what surprises they unveil, but I hesitate to walk our woods too much for fear of disturbing the wildlife I am trying to record. But, the woods provide such a peaceful and fulfilling setting that I’m sure we will find a balance. I set one camera on still photos mode for the first time this week just to see how those images compare to the video. I put it on a small tree facing uphill on our south-facing slope where the deer have obviously been digging through the leaves for acorns (and maybe hickory nuts). Below is one of a series of images the camera provided. There were six deer in this herd and four of them were bucks with 6 or more points!
This week I started placing one trail camera on a specific spot of interest in the woods rather than along a main game trail or the creek. I’m hoping to learn how some various small woodland features are utilized. On one walk, we discovered a stump hole that had a smaller well worn hole in it. The camera shows a mouse running in and out after dark. This mouse seems to have a longer tail than most of the other mice I have seen, so I am not sure what species this is. If anyone has ideas, please drop me a note.
While we enjoy walking in our rainy woods, I am looking forward to that thing called sunshine returning this weekend. I believe the woods will start to explode with signs of spring over the next week. Stay tuned…
If one could take the cover off the ground in the fields and woods in winter, or have some magic ointment put upon his eyes that would enable him to see through opaque substances, how many curious and interesting forms of life he would behold in the ground beneath his feet as he took his winter walk.
I spent a lot of time outside this past week enjoying our woods. The trail cameras definitely help me spend more time exploring, walking slowly, or simply sitting and watching as I try to find new places for them or go every couple of days to open the surprise gift that is the record caught on the memory card. The week started sunny and mild (you remember that thing called sunshine, right?) and ended wet and cold. On those bright cloudless days, I spent some time observing the grosbeak frenzy at the feeders and tried to capture some more moments of birds in flight. I came close to getting the shot I had hoped for, the dueling grosbeaks in mid-air, but focus was a tad off. Here is a sampling…
Melissa participated in a museum live event yesterday with cameras on the bird feeders to make observations for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I spent some time watching the behaviors and tried to estimate the time it takes for a grosbeak to eat one seed. After many trials, it averaged between 4 and 5 seconds for an Evening Grosbeak to pick up, open, swallow the kernel, and discard the shell of a single sunflower seed. No wonder our bird seed budget has tripled since they showed up.
Throughout the week, we have spent time walking the winter woods, appreciating their quiet and beauty.
With the apparent onset of the monsoon season these past few days, it seems a perfect time to go out and search for lovelorn amphibians. Our friend, Alvin, called us Thursday night to remind us it was an ideal situation for the salamander run. Spotted salamanders breed on cold, rainy nights from January through early March. They migrate from their upland underground hideouts to vernal pools (that are fish-less) to breed. See a previous post for more on this fascinating behavior. We bundled up and headed out, and immediately found a group of swirling salamanders in one of our small pools out front. They are hard to see in the vegetation in this pool so we wanted to check some other likely places. We drove a couple of miles to a spot where they traditionally cross the road (or at east try to) to reach a nice vernal pool. We found some egg masses and one salamander near the pool but no large gathering. We did manage to help several across the road and saw a few that did not get any relief from oncoming traffic. I texted a neighbor to see if we could check his pool and when he welcomed us over, we stopped and walked up toward this created wetland. As we got close, we started seeing salamanders marching with us toward the water.
There were dozens of writhing salamanders in the water in what is known as a breeding congress. We were mesmerized by all the action. I was able to count 37 at one point but I’m sure there were many more out of sight in the fallen leaves and aquatic vegetation. Wow!
I’ll leave you with this short clip of action in the pool as an amphibian reminder that, in spite of it all, life goes on and we should enjoy what time we have on this magical planet. Happy Valentine’s Day!
A song is like a picture of a bird in flight; the bird was moving before the picture was taken, and no doubt continued after.
The Evening Grosbeaks continue to delight us by devouring sunflower seeds every morning in a feeding frenzy of yellow, black and white. My high count was one day this week when I managed to see 26 of them (mostly males) flitting between the two feeders. Things can get crazy when they all show up at once and jostle for position at the hanging sunflower tray outside our window.
I have many photos of them at the feeder and sitting in nearby branches waiting their turn. But, how many images of a bird on a stick (even a beautiful bird like an Evening Grosbeak) does one really need?
After watching them one morning, I decided to try to capture them in flight as they came into the feeder or hovered near it trying to find a space. At first, I was hand holding the camera (and 300 mm telephoto) trying to anticipate their movements. That resulted in a lot of photos like the two below…
I then figured out it might be easier to pre-focus on an area and snap the shutter when I thought the bird might cross through the field of view.
I didn’t like having the feeder in the photo, so I pointed the camera to the right of the feeder and hoped I could catch them coming in. I soon discovered having the camera on a tripod and just watching the birds (without looking through the viewfinder) was the easiest way to get some pics. I just pressed the shutter whenever any bird was flying (of course, this also left me with a lot of blank images to delete). Below is a selection of incoming grosbeaks…
So, I now have a bunch of images of birds in flight near the feeder. What’s next? Well, if they are still here the next sunny morning we have, I want to capture the full version of the pic below. Every once in a while, the birds take their feeder squabbles to the air and really go at it with beaks and feet locking as the fly in a tangle of brilliant feathers. I’ll let you know if I am successful.
There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.
I recently bought another trail camera and have been putting them out in our woods the past few weeks trying to document who shares our 14 acres. I look for game trails and natural junctures (like our creek bed), placing the cameras on trees for a couple of days, and then retrieving the images. It is always a thrill to see what triggered the cameras and when. I’m also starting to look for places where there has been obvious recent activity, like the pileated log from my last post. Of course, the photographer in me wishes the images were a higher quality, but the naturalist in me is delighted with what the cameras are recording when the woods are on their own.
By far, the greatest number of captures have been of Eastern Gray Squirrels. Our woods seem extra full of them this year, perhaps due to the extraordinary mast year we have had that produced an abundance of acorns and hickory nuts. There have been many trips that did not record any animal as there is a delay between when teh camera senses movement and when it starts recording. The mouse on the pileated log from the last post is a prime example. During the day, a quick moving squirrel or a bird flying in front of the camera can leave me with nothing but guesses as to what set it off.
Below are some of my favorite captures from the last four weeks of trail cameras (best if viewed full screen) with notes on each…
I usually take my camera with me when I go check the trail cameras, but earlier this week I was in a hurry and just wanted to make a quick trip. As I headed down slope, I noticed something through the gray tree trunks. I pulled up my binoculars…it was the Red Fox staring at me. It looked at me for a few seconds and then trotted off down toward the creek. Suddenly, three deer, apparently startled by the fox, came running up toward me. It was a doe and two beautiful bucks (the 6 and 8-pointers shown above). They stopped, looked at me, and may have realized I was without camera, so they gave me a nice pose. I decided to wait another day to retrieve the trail cam footage. I hope the other wildlife neighbors will reveal themselves “in person” some day. In the meantime, I’ll let the trail cams tell me who is out there.
Here is a complete list of species recorded this month:
Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, mouse (species unknown), Dark-eyed Junco; American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, Red Fox, Coyote, unidentified moths