Naming Nature

I wonder what it would be like to go into a forest where nothing had name. How would we act in a forest if there were no names for anything smaller than an ecosystem? How could we walk, if there were no way to talk about anything larger than a cell?

~Kathleen Dean Moore

When I am trying to get people excited about the natural world, I like to help them find identities for the things we observe. To name something is to know it a bit better. To know it is to open the door for wondering about it, and, hopefully, caring about it. So, today we will try to learn the name of something Melissa found in our yard a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps you have seen one of these small snakes, or something similar, in your own yard. I want you to use your observation skills and see if you can identify this creature by either using one of your own field guides or looking it up online. Here are a couple of useful links that may help (Reptiles and Amphibians of NC and the Virginia Herpetological Society). Be sure to zoom in on the photos and take a closer look. The answer and more information tomorrow. You herp people out there, hold your answers until tomorrow.

red-bellied snake

Small snake Melissa spotted in our yard (click photos to enlarge)

red-bellied snake belly

If you look underneath, some color is revealed

And now for another mystery…I saw this earlier this week in our yard…what is it?

mystery skin

Mystery item – answer tomorrow

 

Attention to Detail

Details create the big picture.

~Sanford I. Weill

Back in the day, I worked for a truly remarkable visionary, Mary Ann Brittain. I learned a lot from her and (I think) we made a good team for the museum as educator/naturalists. I remember when I first started going on the road with her to do school grounds workshops all over the state, I was amazed at how she could take a long nap in the car (as I was driving), arrive about 15 minutes before the workshop, get out and race around the school building, and then be prepared to take a group of teachers out and show them what they could find and use to teach all sorts of subjects outside their classroom walls. Of course, I also figured out that I had to be sure to bring the essential supplies or they might get left behind. We soon came up with a moniker for ourselves – Broad-brush Brittain and Detail Dunn. Well, over the years, I learned some of her techniques for quickly assessing the potential subjects to share with others out in the field. I’m afraid I also started relying on others to help take care of the details (yes, Melissa, I know).

Though I occasionally (okay, maybe more than that) forget the details of a task, I still find the details of nature extraordinarily fascinating and beautiful. So, here are few up close looks at some details of spring in our yard. See if you can guess what each thing is before looking at the list at the end of the post. After your first guess, try to match a name on the list to a numbered photo (the names are not in the same order as the photos). Some are pretty obvious, others maybe not. Expect more of these nature in detail images in coming posts. Meanwhile, get outside and look closely at what nature is sharing each and every day.

Bead-like spore containing structures on Sensitive fern

#1 (click photos to enlarge)

top view of foam flower

#2

silk trail left by eastern tent caterpillars

#3

muscadine grape tendil from last year

#4

looking down on flame azalea buds

#5

dandelion puffball

#6

cluster of Eastern tent caterpillars

#7

close up of umbel of goldne alexander

#8

flower tip of red buckeye

#9

spotted salamander eggs near hatching close up

#10

tendril tips of cross vine

#11

dwarf crested iris flower bud

#12

The photos above show details of the following (match an ID with a number – answers tomorrow).

  • Golden Alexander flowers
  • Muscadine grape tendril (a threadlike part of climbing plants that attaches to or twines around another object to support the plant)
  • Azalea flower buds
  • Dwarf Crested Iris flower bud
  • Sensitive Fern spore-containing structures on last year’s dried fertile fronds
  • Spotted salamander eggs one day prior to hatching
  • Tendrils of Cross Vine
  • Cluster of Eastern Tent Caterpillars
  • Red Buckeye flower
  • Foamflower
  • Silk highway from Eastern Tent Caterpillars
  • Dandelion seed head

Haw River Saunter

…whenever I felt emotionally overwhelmed, I would take a walk in the woods. Being in the stillness and grandeur of trees had always calmed me.

~Brenda Strong

We hiked (I suppose sauntered is a better word, really) along a short section of the Haw River with some good friends on Saturday (practicing social distancing, of course). It was a beautiful day and spring was putting on a display of varied forest greens, buzzing insects, and bird calls. I carried my 300mm telephoto (and some extension tubes), hoping to get some bird pics, but ended up using it as a long distance macro lens instead.

spring beauties

Spring Beauties are abundant in the woods bordering the river and small tributary (click photos to enlarge)

giant chickweed

Giant Chickweed provided a delicate display in scattered locations along the trail.

The start of the trail meanders through a tangle of invasive species for a few hundred feet before opening up into a beautiful forest dotted with spring wildflowers. Spring Beauties and Giant Chickweed were abundant and the bright greens of new tree leaves painted a hopeful picture in these challenging times. We saw numerous butterflies (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Falcate Orange-tip, Cloudless Sulphur, Eastern Comma, some Duskywings) and heard (well, at least Melissa and Deb heard) a variety of birds, including many spring migrants (Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush).

Cicada nymph uncovered 1

At the edge of the creek, someone had moved a rock, revealing a cicada nymph’s chamber.

But, on any saunter, we usually notice a lot of the small things, the things that blend into the background. I’ve never really been a fast hiker, and now, with some knee issues, my pace is interrupted with occasional sitting on a trail side rock or log. This gives me plenty of time to notice and appreciate the details of the woods.

Carolina anole

A Carolina Anole in its early spring brown suit.

toad

Your identification quiz for the day – which species is this?

Of course, sometimes I miss that which is right next to me. Melissa spotted this toad next to a spot where I was sitting. It remained perfectly still and allowed a few profile portraits. We discussed our opinions as to which species this might be (American and Fowler’s Toads are the common species in these parts) but they occasionally hybridize, making identification difficult. What do you think, and why? See this link and this one for some ID tips.

Six-spotted tiger beetle blue morph

I have not seen many of these beetles that are bright blue instead of the usual metallic green.

As we departed, Deb spotted a shiny beetle in a sunny spot on the trail. When she called out, I assumed it would be a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, a common species in our area in that type of setting. They are usually brilliant metallic green with a few white spots on the dorsal surface. But this beetle was a bright blue! But, looking online at a couple of resources, I think it is just a color variant of that species. It does have a couple of faint white spots on its back and there are examples of a blue coloration in some individuals of this species. Nature is nothing if not beautiful, and variable.

Alien Life Form Answer

There were a lot of interesting guesses and a couple of what I believe to be correct answers. I will preface this post with the disclaimer that I am certainly no expert on fungi (or anything else, for that matter) , but here is what I think our mystery photo is…

alien yard item

Starfish Fungus (aka Anemone Stinkhorn), Aseroe rubra.

I thought it was a stinkhorn of some sort when Beth sent me the photo, but this is one I have never seen. This unusual species is native to Australia and some tropical islands but has been introduced to other parts of the world, most likely through in garden or soil products. In the U.S., it is found primarily in Hawaii and a few southeastern states.

It feeds on decaying organic matter and is usually found growing in yards or compost. I think the diagnostic feature for me is the bifurcate appendages – the split ends on the arms of the “starfish”. Some other stinkhorns just have single extensions at the tips. Check this link for more information on this bizarre species. As always, if someone has other suggestions on the identity of this life form, please drop me a comment. Thanks for participating and thanks again, to Beth, for sharing her yard alien with us.

Alien Life Form?

I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe
is that none of it has tried to contact us.

~Bill Watterson

Today’s mystery comes to us courtesy of Beth Howard, a friend and teacher extraordinaire in the Wilmington area. She found this in her yard and sent me a pic hoping I could help her figure out what it is and whether she needed to sell her house. In her message she asked – What the heck is this? Is it some kind of alien life form or a carnivorous plant? That is a tunnel down through it.”

So, what do you think, and why? I’ll give you one clue…it smells a bit bad.

alien yard item

Alien life form or…? (click photo to enlarge) (photo by Beth Howard)

Melissa and I are happy to try to help solve your natural history mysteries (especially if you will allow me to post about it in this blog), so feel free to send me pictures of your alien life forms to roadsendnaturalist@gmail,com.

Cherry Tree Mystery Answer

We had a few good observations and comments on our mystery post from yesterday. Deb noticed the silk strand in one of the images (reprinted below) which made her suspect some sort of silk-spinning critter. That pretty much limits what type of animal since the only two groups of terrestrial critters I know that can spin silk are spiders and caterpillars. Of course, it could also be that a spider or caterpillar just happened to go by this spot before I took the photo.

cherry tree mystery 2

The single strand of silk in yesterday’s pic is one possible clue (click photos to enlarge)

The other clue I intended for you to see was the pic with the tiny hole in the emerging cherry leaf (see below). This indicates something has been feeding on the emerging leaf bud, again, hinting at the possibility of a caterpillar or some other vegetarian insect.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp.

Notice the tiny hole chewed in the leaf.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have seen these critters in previous springs. I observed them slowly moving on the cherry twigs with a head and some legs protruding out the end. As I recall, I assumed it was a caterpillar based on what I could see, and then I looked online for caterpillars in swirled casings. I found images of what I now believe is a type of Pistol Casebearer Moth larvae, Coleophora sp. Below are a couple of closer images of these interesting larval cases.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp. 2

Two of the mystery critters on a wild cherry twig.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp. 1

A close-up of a Pistol Casebearer Moth larval case (Coleophora sp.).

There are hundreds of species of Coleophora moths in the U.S. and several are called Pistol Casebearers due to the resemblance of the spiral-shaped larval case to old-time pistols. Based on my web search, this one could be Colephora atromarginata, because of the host plant (cherry) and the shape of the case. But, according to the online expert, it would take dissection of the gentalia of the adult moth to be sure (oh well…). Caterpillars of this group construct cases of silk, plant material, and frass (caterpillar poop). I think the small brown clumps you can see on the outside of the case are frass pellets. The silk is hardened by an unknown secretion (giving it the black color) and is enlarged as the larva grows (giving the case that segmented appearance). The caterpillars never leave their case and carry it with them as the crawl around on the host plant (much like a snail). When ready to pupate, they use a heavy pad of silk to attach their case to a substrate. They then turn around inside the case and eventually emerge out the back end of the case into a tiny moth. If this is the species I think it is, it overwinters as a caterpillar inside these cases, which explains why they are already this large just as their host plant leaves are emerging.

For a great video of a casebearer larva moving about, check out the incredible work of Sam Jaffe at The Caterpillar Lab. Sam is doing an amazing job of helping people see the magic all around us in the world of caterpillars.

I hope you enjoyed this mystery and we will have another challenge tomorrow.

 

Cherry Tree Mystery

He who finds a thought that lets us penetrate even a little deeper into the eternal mystery of nature has been granted great peace.

~Albert Einstein

Melissa and I have been talking about how we can help students and teachers during this time of online learning so I want to try to do some different things with the blog for a little while and see if it helps. Please comment if you find this useful or if you have other suggestions. Our goal is to provide content about nature that can be found in our area in backyards, greenways, parks, and other natural areas, and that can be used as learning experiences by people of all ages. So, here goes…

cherry tree mystery

Mystery item found on wild cherry tree (click photo to enlarge)

While we were out observing the Eastern tent caterpillars the other day, I noticed some tiny blobs on the emerging leaves and adjacent twigs of the wild cherry saplings in our yard. They are strange-looking little things just a few millimeters across (one would fit on top of a pencil eraser). They are dark and curved into a somewhat coil-like shape.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp.

Look for clues in the photo.

I had an idea of what they were, but I want you to use your observation skills and see if you can come to some rough conclusions. Are they from a plant, animal, fungus, or are they even a living thing? What clues can you see in the photos that might help you decide? What evidence do you have that supports your ideas?

cherry tree mystery 2

A last look…look for clues in the photos.

If you have cherry trees in your yard, go out and see if you can find any of these little blobs. I’ll also post this on social media so more people can answer. I’ll post more information and an answer tomorrow. If you already know, please wait until tomorrow to comment.