Butterfly Courtship

My scientific life has been spent describing the interactions that occur when butterflies meet and trying to understand what is going on and why…I persist in following butterflies with stopwatch and notepad.

~Ronald L. Rutowski, North American Butterfly Association

Yesterday’s sunshine (why can’t we seem to have at least two days in a row of that here lately?) brought out the invertebrates in the yard. I looked out the window at one point and saw a fluttering small white butterfly checking out the Hairy Bittercress weeds in the front yard. It was a female Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea), and those weeds, members of the mustard family, are one of her host plants. These tiny butterflies are one of the sure signs of spring as they fly for only a couple of weeks early each year, looking for members of the mustard family on which to lay their eggs.

Hairy bittercress

The distinctive developing seed pods of the common yard weed, Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta (click photos to enlarge)

I grabbed my camera and by the time I got outside I saw another butterfly, this one with orange wing tips (a male Falcate Orangetip), pursuing the female. What followed was 3 minutes of intense butterfly behavior (and burst mode shooting on my part). The male’s flight pattern was rapid and erratic and he would dive in and briefly flutter near her before darting off and circling back.

Falcate orangetip butterflies mating behavior 2

Male Falcate Orangetip (with orange wing tips) fluttering near female perched on one of her host plants.

Falcate orangetip butterflies mating behavior

The female maintained an abdomen up position the entire time.

Falcate orangetip butterflies mating behavior 1

It seems as though the male’s efforts were unsuccessful as he eventually flew off and she continued patrolling the yard for bittercress.

I have seen this abdomen up behavior before when watching Falcate Orangetips. I have always assumed it was the response of a female that is not interested in the male’s attention. But, some research on a closely related European species shows that both receptive virgin females and non-receptive, previously mated females, show this raised abdomen behavior when a courting male comes a calling. The difference may lie in what chemical compounds the female is releasing when the male gets close. In one case, it may be an attractant pheromone. In the already mated females, it is believed to be a repellent.

Falcate orangetip egg

A single tiny egg on the flower of the host plant.

After the male departed, I tried following the female around the yard to see if she was going to lay an egg, but she eventually wandered off through the woods. I went back to the original plant I had seen her land on and began to search it for an egg. I finally found one – a tiny sculpted egg, laid at the base of a flower, just where the online references had said it would be. She supposedly deposits a pheromone on the egg that keeps other females from laying an egg on that same plant as the larvae are known to be cannibalistic. Now I want to try keep track of it as the larvae (and especially the thorn-like chrysalis) are extremely hard to find. The things you can do in self-isolation…

For more on the behavior of butterflies and their mating habits, check out this article, When Butterflies Meet, from the North American Butterfly Association.

Mason Farm Meander

No one who loves the woods stays on the path.

~Millie Florence

Last Sunday, we wandered over to one of my favorite local spots, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Given to the University in 1894 by Mary Elizabeth Morgan Mason, the 367-acre tract consists of a number of Piedmont habitats from bottomland hardwood forests to old fields. This variety makes for a great diversity of plants and animals. We started off on the 2+ mile loop trail and then cut into the woods to look for a red-headed woodpecker we heard. Once we entered the woods, we started seeing Spring Beauties everywhere. So, we just sauntered through the large tract of woods looking for anything we might find. I’m hoping my former co-workers at the Garden aren’t upset for me posting about being off trail, but we didn’t tromp through the meadows where I know they are reintroducing several species of wildflowers to compliment their mowing and prescribed burning efforts. And, in these crazy times, a little distance from the other trail users isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you are respectful of the forest inhabitants.

violets and spring beauties

Violets and Spring Beauties growing against a tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

spring beauty flowers

A pair of Spring Beauties showing the difference in age of the flowers – the one on the left is younger since you can see the stamens loaded with pink pollen; the one on the right has the three-part pistil showing and the stamens have laid back against the petals to lessen the chances of self-fertilization.

atamasco lily

A pleasant surprise was finding many clumps of Atamasco Lily throughout the forest floodplain.

Devil’s Urn or Black Tulip (Urnula craterium)

A clump of Devil’s Urn (aka Black Tulip) fungi, Urnula craterium.

I noticed some interesting looking fungi along the edges of a branch lying on the ground. I remember seeing these in a recent FB post from Southern Piedmont Natural History (check out their free ebook here).

Devil’s Urn or Black Tulip (Urnula craterium) closeup

A closer view of Devil’s Urn fungi. As they mature, they get the scalloped edge.

This species typically is one of the earliest spring mushrooms and is usually found growing along the edge of fallen logs or branches (like we found them). When I looked online, I discovered a pretty cool fact about these unusual fungi – they hiss! Apparently, if you blow on them, they will release a cloud of spores and in doing so, make a hissing sound. Now I want to find some more and test this out (yup, our lives are pretty exciting).

marbled salamander

A beautiful female Marbled Salamander. They always seem to be smiling.

As we crossed back to the other side of the loop trail, I turned over a few logs looking for the salamanders that frequent this area. Melissa got lucky and found a beautiful female (they tend to have grayish blotches and males are usually white) under a rock. We admired her for a second, put the rock back in place, and gently laid her down alongside it, and she crawled back underneath. About then, our friend, Mary, was coming up the trail, camera in hand. She is an excellent naturalist and photographer, and gave us an update on some of the birds she has been seeing. We went looking for a barred owl she sees frequently, but had no luck. But, given how things are, I think we will have ample time for another visit to check things out. Here’s hoping you all can get out and enjoy your surroundings…stay safe.

How Much Wood Could a Wood Beetle Chew, If…

The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Last week I cut and split some firewood from a hickory that fell across the road in the storms of October, 2018. The wood has been stored under a tarp (with sides exposed) since that time. When I pulled the tarp off to start cutting, I immediately noticed the many piles of sawdust from the activities of wood-boring beetles.

sawdust on wood pile

Sawdust on the hickory wood pile (click photos to enlarge)

I have often encountered the grubs of beetles while splitting wood, but I soon realized this was an exceptional concentration of these guys in this pile.

Hickory borer beetle larval chamber

A split log reveals the source of the sawdust – galleries from the chewing of wood-boring beetle larvae.

Hickory borer beetle grubs

The excavators – the fathead grubs of a long-horned beetle were falling out as I split the hickory logs.

As I was chopping this wood, I had a whole new respect for the chewing abilities of these larvae. I mean, hickory has a well-deserved reputation as a very hard hardwood (hence its common use for tool handles, etc.), and on several swings of the maul it seemed like I was trying to split petrified wood. And yet these 1/2 to 3/4 inch grubs had tunneled through it like it was cream cheese.

Hickory borer beetle pupal chamber

Pupa of a long-horned beetle in a chamber in the wood.

Hickory borer beetle pupae

Several long-horned beetle pupae that were exposed as I split wood.

This species of long-horned beetle emerges in early spring, so these pupae are almost ready. After mating, a female will lay up to 50 eggs (that explains the abundance in my logs) in the bark of weakened wood or wood that has been dead for no more than a year. Hatched larvae chew into the wood and feed for 10-12 weeks before making a larger chamber for pupating, where they will remain until the following spring.

Hickory borer beetle

One beetle started slowly crawling after it dropped out of a split log (I don’t think it was quite ready to be out in the world). It is a Hickory Borer (aka Painted Hickory Borer), Megacyllene caryae. This species closely resembles the Locust Borer Beetle, and both are considered wasp mimics due to their appearance (but they are harmless).

firewood

The freshly cut and split firewood. The dark spots visible on some log ends are the long-horned beetle galleries.

I admit to feeling a little guilty about dislodging all these beetle larvae and pupae but I think the Carolina wrens are quite happy about my wood chopping endeavors. But, I think there will be plenty of survivors in the remaining stack of logs to continue their boring behavior this spring. Seeing this community of critters in the wood and then feeling the warmth of the fire from these logs serves as a vivid reminder of the lasting legacy of a single tree. I look out the window and see so many stories in the forest…

Waiting for Warmth

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.

~Ralph waldo Emerson

These are interesting times for sure and we are all going to need a large dose of patience to get us through to the other side. Melissa and I are lucky to live in a place where it is easy to be socially distant and yet have the beauty of nature just outside our window. I know that is not the case for everyone. But, wherever you live, there is a bit of nature close by…birds singing or flying overhead, yard weeds growing in your garden or cracks in the sidewalk, a greenway or local park, or a schoolyard or church cemetery. Nature has some claim in the most surprising places. So, to help myself through this time of self-isolation, and maybe to encourage others to spend more time in the healing presence of nature, I am going to try to post observations more frequently these next few weeks (ideally every day, but at least 4 or 5 times a week). I think most will be rather short with a single topic and only a few photos. It would be great if environmental educators and other nature-lovers would post informative and fun nature stories that can share the wonders around us and maybe even be of some use to teachers and students that are looking for ways to integrate natural science into their disrupted class schedules. I wish I could produce some simple videos of natural moments, but I worry that our incredibly limited internet here in the woods will be a limiting factor (but I may try anyway).

So, here is something we discovered over the weekend while working in the yard. We are building some new garden beds for herbs and wildflowers and Melissa was rearranging some rocks to make a new tiered bed. She picked up a smallish, moss-covered rock and started to move it a few feet away and discovered a beautiful surprise…

rock with skink under it

This rock turned out to have a nice surprise underneath (click photos to enlarge)

It was a juvenile Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) curled up waiting for winter to finally be over. Reptiles are not true hibernators, but go through a state of inactivity or torpor known as brumation during periods of cold weather. In our area, you may see these and other lizards (or snakes) out on warm winter days and then disappear again with the return of cold temperatures. This species typically becomes active in late March or earl April here in the Piedmont, so this little guy doesn’t have to hide much longer.

Skink uder rock

A juvenile five-lined skink waiting for the warmth to return

I have to admit that I find it difficult to distinguish between the three species of blue-tailed skinks in our area (Five-lined Skink, Southeastern Five-lined Skink, and Broadhead Skink). Herpetologists can often do it by sight alone, but the best way is to do scale counts around the jaw and/or underneath the tail. I didn’t want to disturb this one to look under its tail (how rude), but I think it is a Five-lined Skink as I can only count 5 lateral lines down the body (the other two species have 7), and this habitat is not particularly dry (the Southeastern Five-lined prefers sandy habitats). As always, if someone out there knows for sure, please drop me a note. Oh, and in case you were wondering, we postponed our rock movements until warmer weather and very gently replaced this one.

Oh Yeah, It Must Be Spring

The incredible but annually commonplace change that is life eternally renewed has begun to stir.

~Hal Borland

My last post dealt with the rapid changes in weather from the first spring wildflowers in our yard to the switch to bitter cold and time for chopping more firewood. The vagaries of “spring” weather really hit home when I went to visit my mother over the weekend and it snowed two inches overnight. Back at home earlier this week, I looked out the window and saw butterflies! I actually saw my first butterfly of the season last week, but didn’t manage to get out to get a photo before it disappeared. Tuesday, it was the same species, and not just one, but two, American Snout butterflies, flitting about the yard interacting, resting, and nectaring at one of the few flowers to be found, the diminutive yellow blossoms of Northern Spicebush.

American snout butterfly on spicebush

American Snout butterfly, Libytheana carinenta (click photos to enlarge)

This is one of my favorite, and certainly one of the more bizarre, local butterflies. I don’t remember seeing them before as my first butterfly of the season, and here were two chasing each other around. After a brief bout, they separated with one going to spicebush flowers, the other settling on a post in the garden. I grabbed the camera and went out to try to document the event, but, at first, they were having none of it and were difficult to approach. That surprised me a bit as I have described this species to folks as “the friendliest butterfly” around. They have a habit of landing on people to imbibe our salty sweat and being somewhat fearless in doing so. I have had this happen several times in places where they congregate at puddles or other moist soil sites to gather minerals.

Snout

The common name comes from the enlarged labial palps, which give the appearance of a long snout.

I finally positioned myself and stood still, waiting for one to return to the tiny yellow flowers. That paid off and I was rewarded with several minutes of close observation. When I did a little research on my “nosy” neighbors, I was surprised to learn that this species overwinters as an adult, and thus is often one of the earliest butterflies seen. The large palps (part of the mouthparts of all butterflies, but greatly elongated on this species) that give the American Snout its name are believed to provide some additional camouflage for this unusual creature. This species often rests on a twig, head upward, snout and antennae touching the twig. Look at that first picture again and imagine it is not on the flower but on the twig. The brown coloration of the underwings resembles a dried leaf. When the snout and antennae rest on the twig, they resemble a leaf petiole, so when this guy stops and rests on a twig, it virtually disappears as dead background vegetation!

American snout butterfly on spicebush wings spread

The squared off shape of the edge of the forewing is also characteristic of this species.

American Snout caterpillars feed exclusively on species of Celtis (Hackberry and Sugarberry in our area) and are more common in hardwood forests, especially near bottomlands. In the southwest, they occasionally undergo massive unexplained irruptions that can darken the sky and have been estimated to number in the millions. I was thankful to have just these two to brighten my day.

Syrphid fly on spicebush

A Calligrapher Fly, Toxomerus sp.

While waiting for the snouts to land near me, I started noticing some other early spring visitors to the spicebush. A few syrphid flies were buzzing around and collecting nectar or pollen. I got a close look at one and believe it is a member of the genus Toxomerus. The genus name comes from the Greek, taxon, bow, and meron, thigh, and refers to the bow-shaped leg segment (femur) which can be seen in this photo. The other characteristic of this group is the V-shaped notch along the trailing edge of the eye (again, visible in this picture). These flies are wasp/yellow jacket mimics, but are harmless.

Lady beetle on spicebush

An Asian Lady Beetle (ladybug), Harmonia axyridis. I didn’t notice the small spider nearby until I looked at the image on my laptop.

Asian Lady Beetles (also commonly called Multicolored Asian Lady Beetles) are a highly variable (in color and pattern) species originally from eastern Asia. One key to identification is that they generally have a white pronotum (the shield behind the head) with what looks like an M or W showing. They have been intentionally released in various states since the early 1900’s as a biological control of aphids, but it wasn’t until  the 1980’s that the species really took off nationwide. They are considered a pest by many for their habit of overwintering inside dwellings and their impact, through predation, on many of our native ladybug species.

Sprig azure on spicebush

A dainty Summer (?) Azure, Celastrina neglecta

My second butterfly species of the season caught my eye as a tiny light blue speck flitting across the yard and then landing on a dead leaf on the ground. I assumed it was a Spring Azure, but was unable to approach close enough for a photo. Once again, I stood next to the blooming spicebush, and my quarry finally landed close enough for a portrait. When I went online to confirm its ID, I was reminded by several sources that the azures are a complex group of species that can be very difficult to sort out. My favorite source of information on butterflies in our state, the Butterflies of North Carolina, states that Summer Azures are more abundant and fly just as early as Spring Azures. The Summer Azure is considered the palest in color (both above and below) and in comparing images online, it seems like this one more closely matches the Summer Azure photos I saw. Of course, if any readers have an opinion, I’d love to hear it. This may be the best thing about retirement, the ability to take the time to observe and learn something new about the many incredible natural moments that happen right outside my door.

Wasn’t it Just Spring?

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

~Anne Bradstreet

The past couple of days have been warm and spring-like with highs around 60. Yesterday morning dawned with a gray coating of fog across our woods, coating everything in tiny jeweled droplets that highlighted the onset of early spring wildflowers. Today changed all that with high temperatures more than 20 degrees colder and a brisk wind. Even though I love the cold weather (and it is much better for tasks like chainsawing and splitting firewood which I did today), the taste of spring was appreciated. Here are a few photos of what was out yesterday and a hint at what is coming…

spider web in fog

The first spider web of the season on the arm of a twig (click photos to enlarge)

wild columbine flower bud

Wild columbine flower bud covered in “fog dew”

wild columbine leaves after foggy morning

A black and white of fog dew on wild columbine leaves.

spicebush blooms

The tiny spicebush flowers have opened.

bloodroot buds

Buried in snow last week, this bloodroot flower bud is now reaching high.

windflower

Windflower, one of my favorite spring ephemerals.

spring beauty

Spring beauties have been blooming for several days now, but are mainly closed today in the cold.

giant chicweed flower

The first giant chickweed flower of the season.

giant chickweed flower close up

When I looked at the image on the computer, I noticed a couple of insects I had missed while taking the photo.

Trout lily flower buds

Trout lily flower buds on our north-facing slope are a bit behind those in some other woodlands in the area.

yellow jessamine flower

A yellow jessamine flower. This is the first year (after climbing a dead snag a few years ago) that this vine has flowered.

 

Snow at Last

Oh winter! One never, never loses the surprise and wonder of new fallen snow…

~Emily Carr

And surprise it was….they predicted it, and it actually snowed! That has been an unusual happening in these parts for over 450 days (I believe I heard the last measurable snow fall in central North Carolina was about 469 days ago). It started about 3 p.m. Thursday and lasted well into the night. The other surprise was how it affected the trees – it was a wet heavy snow with temperatures dropping rapidly, so ice built up on delicate tree limbs. By Friday morning, it looked as though all our small trees were bowing to the snow gods.

Driveway after snow

The view of the lower driveway with trees bending across the road (click photos to enlarge)

tree with crusted snow

Brilliant white branches against a bright blue sky.

Snapped branch fro redbud tree

The redbud trees took a hit with several having split trunks or falling over due to the weight of the snow.

With such cold temperatures (in the 20’s) and a crust of frozen snow on most surfaces, the birds were busy at the feeders out back. I sat for a couple of hours watching their comings and goings before I just got too cold and had to retreat.

Carolina chickdee

Carolina chickadee with a freshly hulled sunflower seed between its feet.

The most abundant birds I saw around the feeding station were pine warblers. They are the most common warbler we see in this area in winter (most warblers migrate out of our area to warmer climates). They can be found at both seed feeders (another unusual trait for a warbler) and suet (the latter is the preferred feeder here). They tended to come into the feeders in groups (typical behavior of winter feeding flocks) and exhibited quite a bit of aggressive interactions at times. I never managed to grab an image as a pair engaged in their brief battles where they fly up against one another, lock beaks, and spiral downward before releasing and chasing one another. I guess it is always good to have higher goals in life…

pine warbler on branch

One of several pine warblers that stayed busy at the suet feeder. This one is waiting its turn as a more aggressive one is feeding.

male pine warbler

A brightly colored male pine warbler looking his best in the snow.

pine warbler

I appreciated the opportunity to take in the subtle differences in color of the pine warblers.

downy woodpecker

This downy woodpecker is a bit aggravated that the pine warblers are hogging the feeder.

ruby-crowned kinglet  with wing outstrecthed

The most difficult subject to photograph – a constantly moving ruby-crowned kinglet.

ruby-crowned kinglet showing crown

Though I saw it many times, I never captured the full extent of his ruby crown when he was agitated because he just would not sit still long enough.

ruby-crowned kinglet

Still one of my favorite winter birds in spite of (or maybe because of) his high speed antics.

The snow is stubbornly clinging here on our north-facing slope, but temperatures are supposed to rise to 50 degrees later today, so I imagine it will all be a memory by tomorrow. Snow in the Piedmont is an excellent metaphor for life – enjoy it while you can.

Natural Art

All nature is but art unknown to thee.

~Alexander Pope

Earlier this week, I accompanied some friends on a stroll through one of my favorite local natural areas – Johnston Mill Nature Preserve in Orange County.  This area is managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy and is one of their more popular sites. I love exploring this beautiful tract, especially in early spring when sections are carpeted with wildflowers like trout lilies and spring beauties. But, this time of year, a stroll through the bare forest allows you to notice and appreciate other details of the landscape – tree bark, fungi, textures, shapes, and, on a warm day like last Monday, the early stirrings of insects, amphibians, and other animal life.

mossy tree trunk

Vibrant green moss at the base of a tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

I appreciate the winter woods for their openness and the ability to see the bones of the landscape – the trees, vines, and boulders that give character to a forest. The trails at Johnston Mill are well-marked and pass through a variety of habitats from bottomlands to beech bluffs to open meadows along a power line. My favorites were the new Aphid Alley Trail (not yet marked on the kiosk maps but available on their maps online) and the Beech Loop. They highlight beautiful American beech trees and some steep slopes along creeks with wonderful vistas.

creek

A beautiful stream flowing through a beech forest is a trail highlight

_-2

Boundary lines between crustose lichens on a tree trunk

Beech trees often provide a perfect canvas for a variety of interesting lichens. These flattened colonies of symbiotic algae and fungi are known as crustose lichens. I learned a new word when looking for information on lichen competition online – corticolous. This refers to lichen communities that grow on tree bark (those on rocks are known as saxicolous). Melissa mentioned she had learned in a lichen course that the distinct lines that you can see between some colonies could mark sort of a DMZ between warring lichens and that lichens may use chemical warfare to guard their boundaries. My online search shows some evidence for this but it still seems a bit controversial. It is a bit mind-boggling that these slow-growing assemblages set up zones of defense to ward off intrusions by their neighbors.

lichen patches on tree trunk

Modern art or lichen competition?

Tree trunks rarely get their due outside of winter, and even then, few hikers probably pay them much attention. But I find them fascinating, especially when covered in moss and lichen or when sporting unusual growths like the numerous burls we spotted on a few maples.

gnarly maple trunk

A knotty Red Maple trunk adds modern sculpture to the forest

Burls are a bit mysterious in origin with common causes believed to be infection by bacteria, virus, fungi, and perhaps certain insects.

shagbark bark

Peeling plates of bark help to identify this tree as Shagbark Hickory

The peeling bark of American sycamore and shagbark hickories are another tree trunk treasure easily observed in the winter woods. Once again, the reasons for this phenomenon are not clear cut. Some trees may exfoliate (the term that describes shedding of bark) to rid the trunk of parasites, others to increase gas exchange or photosynthesis of bark tissue, but I’m mystified as to the ecological advantage of peeling plates of bark on a shagbark. Undoubtedly, it makes for good habitat for a host of associated organisms from insects to bats, but I’m not sure what the advantage is to this species of hardwood (I welcome your thoughts or references).

odd hollow tree trunk

An unusual hollow trunk beckons a closer look

Sycaore roots in crrek

The gnarly texture of the root mass of a blown over sycamore along the creek bank

japanese honeysucj=kle vines twisted

Entwined honeysuckle vines

Celtis bark

One of the most noticeable tree textures along the trail – the warty bark of a Hackberry

I have  hard time passing by the knobby bark of a hackberry without pausing to look closely, or rub my fingers across it. I took a few quick images of the layered bark bits and moved on. As often happens, when I was reviewing images and adding some sharpness (I usually magnify the image for this), I saw something I had missed earlier. Even with magnification, I was lucky to notice these ragged shapes hidden among the stacked hackberry bark pillars. After searching online I believe they are larvae of fireflies in the genus Pyractomena. Their distinctive head shape and the fact that they were out this time of year is pretty diagnostic. Larvae from this group are known to climb tree trunks to pupate in late winter or early spring and emerge as the first firefly adults of the season. They apparently hunt snails and other soft-bodied critters.

insects hiding in Celtis bark

A closer look reveals some hidden surprises

lacewing larva

A lacewing larva carries its texture on its back wherever it goes

slime mold reproductive structures on tree trunk 1?

We thought at first that these tiny fruiting bodies were from a slime mold, but experts are now suggesting otherwise…

During a brief pause, I glanced down and saw a line of tiny mushroom-like structures on a nearby tree trunk. Our first thought was slime mold fruiting bodies. My friend, Jerry, submitted some pictures to his local fungi expert who thinks it is probably a fungus, maybe Phleogena faginea. One common name I saw for this species is Fenugreek stalkball. When warmed, the fruiting bodies apparently smell like fenugreek (another new word for me), a curry-like powder derived from a plant of that name.

slime mold reproductive structures on tree trunk close up?

A local mushroom expert suspects these are the fruiting bodies of a fungus,

fungi on log

Patterns of fungi on a fallen log

slime mold?

That same log had a patch of what looked to me like a slime mold…but…

It’s not only upright, living tree trunks, that are adorned with interesting garb, but also fallen logs in various states of returning to the soil. One large log had a variety of mosses, lichens, fungi, and a mysterious orange blob that we thought might be a slime mold. It turns out to be a fungus in the genus, Phlebia (thanks, Van Cotter, for the fungi ID assistance). Once again, when I looked at the image on my laptop in higher magnification, my eye caught something I had missed in my quick field photo. Along the upper edge of the picture are some dark elongate “mini-bugs”. They look like springtails of some sort.

slime mold close up with springtails?

When I looked at the image on my computer, I saw some tiny dark-colored organisms along the edge – Springtails

Springtails are members of the Class Collembola and most are defined by an usual forked appendage called a furcula. The furcula is tucked up under their abdomen and acts like a spring to propel these tiny beasts many times their body length (not all Collembola can spring). These are abundant creatures and play an important role in decomposition and may also graze on molds and mildews. Many species are aquatic and some are active in the dead of winter where they aggregate on the surface of snow (snow fleas).

ceramic fungi (Xylobolus frustulatus))

The aptly named Ceramic Fungus looks like broken pottery

deer skull

An eight-point buck skull found near the trail

running cedar

Discovering a patch of Running Cedar always brings a smile

Spissistilus festinus - Three-cornered Alfalfa Hopper ?

I believe this is a Three-cornered Alfalfa Hopper, Spissistilus festinus

Three-cornered alfalfa hopper

Characteristic shape of this hopper group can be seen from above

spring beauty

My first spring ephemerals of the season, a few Spring Beauties in bloom along the trail

We ended up spending a few hours hiking a little over 4 miles (a naturalists’ pace) and found several mysteries, natural sculptures, and other natural art to provide a memorable sensory experience on a warm winter walk.

Wherever I Go, I End Up At Pungo

Every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there…

~Christopher Alexander

On Day 3, my last day of this coastal adventure, I drove down Hwy 12 to Pea Island NWR. But, as I had feared, the predicted winds were also there, blasting 15-25 mph with sand piling up on the highway. It wasn’t looking good for exploring the refuge or photography. At the visitor center, white caps in the pond were a sure sign that bird life would be elsewhere. I did spend some time at the next pond watching some American white pelicans in their delicate feeding ballet, but they were far out on the water and the wind was shaking the car, so I reluctantly headed inland. I drove through Alligator River without much to see (waterfowl far out in the flooded fields and an occasional raptor) and then on to Mattamuskeet. The winds seemed to have every living thing laying low. I spent a few minutes walking around and observing some cormorants as they came in for a post-breakfast siesta, but I soon decided to head on towards “my” refuge, the Pungo Unit.

Cormorants on log

The only thing I photographed at Mattamuskeet that last morning was a group of double-crested cormorants getting out of the water onto a fallen tree (click photos to enlarge)

I drove through the refuge scouting for bear, otter, or beaver, but saw none. So, I settled into the corner of Marsh A where a small group of tundra swans was feeding alongside a few ducks (mainly Northern shovelers, mallards, and Northern pintails). The sandhill cranes out toward the middle of the marsh were the main attraction for the two other cars at the site, so I had my little corner all to myself. I pulled my car in at a slight angle (off the road enough to allow easy passing by other cars), got out the camera, and sat and watched and waited. When I first pulled up, the pintails flew off, and the swans swam slowly away, but then stopped when I stopped. This is where so many people make the mistake of getting out of their car which often causes any nearby ducks to fly, and may send the swans swimming even farther off. Your car is definitely your best blind, and patience is your ally.

pair of swans in late afternoon light

I apparently can’t get enough of the tundra swans in Marsh A

northenr shoveler drake

Northern shoveler drakes remind me of mallards dressed up for an evening out on the town

The longer I sat there, the closer the birds came, and the more other birds started to join them. The wind was still blowing but it became a photography assistant as birds were held in suspension as they flew in to join those on the water.

northern shoveler landing

A Northern shoveler drake with landing gear down

black duck in flight

Black ducks can be recognized in flight by the silvery patches under the wings

pintail flying over

A Northern pintail drake flies by checking out the marsh

pintails setting their wings to land

Northern pintails coming in for a landing

pintail landing

A Northern pintail setting down in the marsh

I was amazed when I heard the snow geese lift off the lake that I had spent the last two hours sitting in that spot watching birds come and go. But, the geese soon settled back down, so I continued my vigil. Then I heard the sounds of just a few snow geese overhead, and saw a small flock of 100+ flying south. Over the next 30 minutes, small groups of snow geese lifted off and headed out. It was earlier (about 3:30 p.m.) than my previous visits, and unlike before, a few hundred here and a few hundred there were flying off, instead of the massive flock all at once.

snow geese lifting off from lake

Snow geese lifting off but settling back down from an unknown disturbance

I finally decided it was time to head out toward the entrance for the evening show. As I pulled up to join a few other carloads of goose watchers, the snow geese were doing their thing, circling in large numbers and gradually settling into the field alongside the swans.

birds in front fields

The flock settling into the field late in the day

snow geese landing

Snow geese landing in late afternoon light

The light was perfect on the circling birds, causing them to blink their whiteness as they turned at different angles to the setting sun. The sounds of thousands of birds flying and feeding in the fields is somewhat mechanical, like being inside some huge factory with rumbling machinery. Then, a lull in the noise, followed by an explosion of wing beats as the snow geese lifted off in waves.

sno geese flying over field

Thousands of snow geese suddenly exploded into the sky

As I watched them circle, I saw a dark form flying far out over the field. This was what spooked them, an eagle! I snapped a few pictures, trying to get the eagle in the same field of view as the panicked snow geese, and then resumed watching the birds quickly return to the field to feed as the eagle disappeared. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the images that I got a nice surprise…I’m pretty sure that potential goose predator was a golden eagle! Golden eagles are not common sights here in NC, but I have seen them several times in winter over the years here at Pungo, lured no doubt by the thousands of waterfowl on the refuge. This is a heavily cropped image, but all indications are it is a golden eagle, not an immature bald eagle. The lack of any whitish mottling under the wings and what looks like a golden neck sure seem diagnostic, but if any of my bird nerd friends have a different opinion, please let me know

eagle fly by

Then I saw the cause for concern – a lone eagle flying over the fields looking for an easy meal

As the sky turned orange I once again drove to the other side of the fields, where I sat, alone, watching silhouettes head back to the lake. Once again, the sights and sounds of Pungo filled me with awe and a sense of place that I seem to find in only a few other locations (Yellowstone being the other that I visit regularly). I know there are magical things to be found in so many natural areas throughout this land, but, for me, there are some special places that always evoke wildness, freedom, and peace. Familiarity is probably part of the reason for holding these places close to my heart. Pungo is such a place. No matter where I travel, I will always return to sit in wonder at the spectacle that is Pungo, and will feel the need to share and protect this land and the wild things that call it home.

Cruising the Coastal Plain

Never stop wandering into wonder.

~Suzy Kassem

Day two of my wanderings started at sunrise at Marsh A in the Pungo Unit, watching the swans’ world awaken. There were two other cars enjoying the start of the day as hundreds of swans started to stir.

Swans at sunrise

The colors of sunrise provide a gorgeous backdrop to the stately shapes of swans (click photos to enlarge)

Swans landing at sunrise

A staircase of swans coming in for a landing.

When the orange backdrop faded to white light, I drove down the road hoping to see, well, anything really. I did find some birds and lots of signs of critters (deer tracks, beaver-chewed logs, etc.). I headed back toward Marsh A and found the seven sandhill cranes preening in the middle of the swan flock, a bit closer to the road than the day before. They soon started walking around and then suddenly took flight, headed to the same field of corn stubble I had seen them in last week.

Sandhill cranes

The sandhill cranes have been a big draw for visitors to the refuge this winter.

Sandhill cranes in flight

The cranes (6 of the 7 in this photo) heading out to feed in a nearby field. One bird had its legs oddly tucked as it flew.

As I sat in my car enjoying the scene I saw a man trotting down the road toward me, camera in hand. He stopped, pointed his lens toward the canal and fired a couple of shots, then resumed heading my way. I soon saw the object of his obsession, a beaver swimming in the roadside canal. I got out and fired off a few myself as the beaver swam by, probably heading to the chewed trunks I had seen earlier.

Beaver

A beaver swims purposefully up a roadside canal.

A cold wind had most of the songbirds puffed up, hunkered down, or trying to find a sunny spot to stay warm.

Northern mockingbird

A Northern mockingbird is fluffed up in the cold.

red-bellied woodpecker male

This male red-bellied woodpecker posed nicely in the morning light.

Savannah sparrow

Savannah sparrows tend to stick close to the ground and are found foraging along roadsides and the shorelines of canals at Pungo.

I saw a stopped car down the road with people out looking at the canal. Based on the location, I guessed otter. As I headed that way, they got back in their car and drove off leaving me thinking whatever critter it was had given them the slip. But as I got to the spot, I saw a ripple in the canal where something dove underwater. In a few seconds, up came an otter and then, just as quickly, it disappeared. I got out and waited. There were three otter! But they were being skittish and moving quickly. Finally, one came out on the bank opposite me and started munching on something (it looked like a fish). The otter made quick work of it and was back in the water.

otter eating crayfish

One of three river otters I saw in D-canal.

After a few minutes of hide and seek, two otters came up and one was loudly crunching its catch. This happened a few more times in that same spot and after carefully looking at the images I could see this hungry fellow was catching large crayfish.

river otters in D-canal

One otter caught and crunched three crayfish while I was watching.

After spending several minutes with these furry dynamos, they went underwater just across the canal from me and vanished. I looked up and down the canal and waited, but they did not reappear. Even though one had hidden under some overhanging vegetation at one point, I don’t think that was the case this time. I can only guess there is a hole in the bank that is their refuge once they have had their fill. So, I decided to head out and wander to my other destinations for the day – Mattamuskeet and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges. Driving into Wildlife Drive at Mattamuskeet, I stopped at the usual spot near the entrance and watched a stoic great blue heron surveying its world.

great blue heron at Mattamuskeet

A great blue heron looking rather dapper in its feather finery.

heron catching minnow

The heron made a quick move and nabbed a tiny minnow snack.

After catching one small minnow, the heron flew off down the canal with dreams of bigger fish. There were the usual hundreds of ducks, Canada geese, and swans in the marsh along the drive, but the light is usually too harsh for very good images, so I drove on to the end of the dirt road. There is a small loop trail at the end that crosses a canal and leads to a large marsh. A few ducks were scattered in the marsh and several songbirds were moving around the thick brush along the trail.

white-throated sparrow eating privet berry

A white-throated sparrow helping to spread invasive privet by munching on one of the fruits.

Things were kind of slow, no doubt in part due to the blustery conditions. On my way out, I spotted an anhinga drying its wings on the bank. It was shivering in the cold and any time a cloud passed, it pulled its wing in against its body, then stretched them back out when the sun returned. Though not common in this part of the state, I often find these ‘snake birds” at Mattamuskeet in the winter. I think this one was wishing it was in Florida.

anhinga drying wings

A shivering anhinga drying its wings in the sun.

From Mattamuskeet, it is about an hour drive to Alligator River NWR along Hwy 264. You pass through some of the most desolate (but hauntingly beautiful) landscapes in our state. Once on the refuge, I spotted groups of waterfowl (mainly mallards, pintails, and swans), one bald eagle, and a few other raptors, but all were pretty far out, so I just observed sans camera in the rapidly fading light. As I headed out toward the Outer Banks for my night’s lodging (mainly so I could dine at Tortugas Lie restaurant – I highly recommend it), the sun dipped below the bank of clouds, setting the landscape to the east on fire with red light, and painting the western sky with bold swaths of orange. Another good day of wandering.

sunset glow on trees

A setting sun created a glow on the pocosin vegetation.

sunset at ALRNWR

A beautiful sunset at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.