They’re Back and All is Right with the World

Birds have always had the ability to bring me out of a dark space and provide relief in bad times.

~Jason Ward

You may have noticed I have fallen way behind in my musings on the natural world this past month. I still haven’t even finished posting about our last road trip back in October! I guess there have been a lot of distractions lately (for all of us) – some good, some stressful. We are lucky to live in a place where we can connect on a daily basis with the beauty of nature so that has helped. But here lately, it has been too easy to get involved in some chore outdoors or a minor repair on the house, so it was good to have an excuse earlier this week to help travel back to my favorite wild place in North Carolina…Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Melissa needed to test the feasibility of doing a remote broadcast for a museum program being planned for early December on some of the wonders of winter wildlife found on our coastal wildlife refuges. Limited cell phone service throughout the region would be the challenge and it requires a lot of gear and coordination with her co-workers, so she asked me to help. The plan was to hit both the Pungo Unit and Lake Mattamuskeet and try to broadcast live images and sound back to folks in Raleigh via Zoom. We would camp overnight in our trusty truck at Pettigrew State Park, to enable us to get both a sunset and sunrise to maximize our chances for seeing wildlife.

Canid tracks (most likely a Red Wolf based on their size) at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

We arrived at Pungo mid-morning and drove toward the observation platform to check on the swans and the cell signal (not my usual combo on these trips). Melissa soon spotted some tracks in the sandy road and they turned out to be those of a large canid, most likely a Red Wolf, one of only one or two believed to still roam the refuge. Unfortunately, there was no service at the platform, but we could see swans far across the lake.

Tundra Swans have returned to Eastern North Carolina for another winter

The next stop was Marsh A, a managed impoundment that has been a hot spot for swans for many years and so it is again this winter. The signal here was weak and it kept dropping during the test, which is unfortunate because the birds were putting on a great show of both sights and sounds.

Black Bear sow and cubs far across the field

Our next stop was “Bear Road” which had a couple of other groups with cameras and long lenses out looking for bruins. They reported seeing a few that morning, and we soon spotted one, and then several, all far across the field. We did have a weak signal here and could send images, but the lack of swans and the great distances and unpredictability of seeing bears may make this location less than ideal for the broadcast. Of course, while we were focused on the bears off in the distance, I forgot one of the main lessons you learn about the bears at Pungo….always look behind you. Sure enough, a bear had come out of the woods behind us (quite close according to other people on the road) and walked away from us toward a path that leads over to the adjacent cornfield. When I turned and saw it, I managed a few seconds of video before it disappeared into the canal and up into the tall cornstalks of its dining room.

A bear heads for the corn across the canal (this is a screen capture from a video clip); note the photographer down the road looking back at the bear and us

We headed back to Marsh A hoping for a better signal since that spot provided the best bet for a sure wildlife moment for the broadcast. We drove along, checking our phone signal strength at various spots, but it was still weak and somewhat variable. Toward one end, I suddenly heard the distinctive bugling call of a Trumpeter Swan (it reminds me of a clown car horn from the cartoons) mixed in with the cacophony of Tundra Swan oo-oo-oo’s and hoots. For the past several winters, we have seen a few of these magnificent birds, the largest of our native waterfowl, at either Mattamuskeet or Pungo. I started scanning the seemingly endless sea of white necks and heads looking for the less discernible bill traits of a Trumpeter Swan (larger and straighter than that of a Tundra Swan and their eye is usually not distinctly separate from the bill as those of a Tundra Swan). I finally found one swimming and honking in the mix. I kept trying to make others nearby into trumpeters, but can’t say for sure, even after looking at my images. Trumpeters are larger than Tundra Swans (as much as a foot more wing span and up to 10 pounds heavier on average), but that is tough to tell in the field. Plus, to make matters more difficult, Tundra Swans can vary quite a bit in bill size, eye position, and whether they do or don’t have the usually diagnostic yellow patch on the bill near the eye. For more details on distinguishing between the two species, see this link.

A Trumpeter Swan (the bird on the right facing left)

Mid-day on our second day, we drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge to scout for birds (and cell service). The problem with Mattamuskeet (as far as video or photography is concerned) is the lighting is very bad (harsh back-lighting) on the impoundment along Wildlife Drive for most of the day. There certainly are a variety of birds that are easily seen, but finding a good spot for the broadcast was a challenge, although in general, there is a better signal for sending images over most of the accessible parts of the refuge. We found a nice variety of birds and other wildlife and are now thinking that this may be the best spot for the program. The next few images show some of the highlights of the couple of hours spent at Mattamuskeet. One nice surprise we found that I didn’t have a chance to photograph was an American Bittern that flushed from the side of the boardwalk in the cypress swamp.

A juvenile Anhinga bobbed its head as we drove across the canal bridge
A huge Golden Orb Weaver along the boardwalk
A vertical pano of the cypress swamp along the boardwalk lends a strange curvature to the trees
Bald Cypress needles carpet the water surface

Our last stop was a return to Pungo, hoping to get some more bear footage. When we arrived at the spot, there were already 4 cars parked at the gate, so we decided to skip the bears and spend the rest of the day at Marsh A enjoying the sights and sounds of the elegant swans. Late in the day on both of our afternoons, the swans starting taking off in large numbers from Marsh A, presumably heading out to nearby fields for their last feeding of the day. With so many birds head bobbing (they usually do this as a prelude to take-off) and slapping their feet across the water to get airborne, I can’t resist the urge to capture some lift-off moments. The answer to Melissa’s question of How many pictures of swans taking off do you need? is…there’s never enough.

Looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks for the program (and hoping technology and weather will cooperate). Information and registration for the upcoming NC Museum of Natural Sciences virtual program on winter waterfowl in this region (which targets a family audience, including young children) is on their web site here.

The energetic take-off of a swan trailing behind one that left splashes in its wake
A pair of swans seem coordinated in their take-off
After a long run and much flapping, a successful lift-off in the golden light of sunset

October Surprises

The surprise is that you continue to be surprised.

~Jill A. Davis

I interrupt the truck camping travelogue posts to bring you some current yard sightings. We have been gone quite a bit the past couple of months so the “yard” has taken on more of a jungle look. On Friday, I started some long overlooked chores like washing all the windows and trimming back some of the plants in front of said windows so I can get to them. Our dining room window has a Beautyberry growing in front of it (I know, not ideal placement, but I like to watch the birds feeding on the berries), so I started trimming it to allow access for the long-handled window squeegee. After a few cuts, I saw something on one of the remaining stems – a Green Treefrog! It was clinging to the branch with that typical Buddha-like expression that this species pulls off so well. Though it is likely the same individual I saw in this part of the yard back in August, I can’t be sure as I photographed them from different sides so I can’t compare the location of the few gold flecks of color (I’m not even sure if these gold spots are a constant over time on an individual treefrog).

Green Treefrog clinging to a Beautyberry branch (click photos to enlarge)

It surprised me that this little guy was still clinging to the plant I had been cutting on and jerking around, but perhaps the cool temperatures has made it more accepting of my intrusions.

That peaceful treefrog pose

As I moved around the plant to photograph the frog, I found another surprise – a late season sphinx moth caterpillar. Over the past few years, we have found several Rustic Sphinx Moth larvae feeding on Beautyberry, so we routinely scan these shrubs for signs of caterpillars.

A Rustic Sphinx Moth larva on Beautyberry

I had noticed some of the Beautyberry leaves had been eaten when we first got back home from our road trip, but assumed the caterpillar had already moved off to pupate, since most larvae are scarce by mid-October. Like the treefrog, this caterpillar did not move while I was shaking its habitat. In fact, I kept a check on it from Friday (when I first saw it) until late Saturday afternoon. It didn’t move for that entire time and then late Saturday, it was gone. Not sure if a bird found it or if it had had enough of my yard work and just crawled off to find a suitable place to pupate.

Wondering what the purpose of all those bumps might be

One last Beautyberry surprise was under a leaf near the Rustic Sphinx – a small “inchworm” of some sort. Needless to say, I carefully looked over the branches I had trimmed to make sure I wasn’t displacing any other inhabitants (I didn’t see any). This is one of the reasons I usually leave the yard a bit untidy (okay, I guess that is a bit of an understatement) until March or so – you never know what is using those standing dead flower stems and branches as habitat.

An unidentified Geometrid moth larva on Beautyberry

I found another late caterpillar yesterday afternoon as I was mowing, a tussock moth larva. Wasn’t sure at first which species as it lacked the usual hair pencils (tufts of setae) on the front end. But, after looking at BugGuide, it must be a Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar. One of the experts on that site speculated that these larvae may lose the hair pencils as they near pupation.

Banded Tussock Moth larva (it is missing the anterior hair pencils)

It will be interesting to see how these and other yard invertebrates (like the few remaining orb weaver spiders) will survive the next few predicted cold nights. But no matter, it is getting to be that time of year where change is inevitable, but a few surprises may linger. And these are the only types of October surprises I am in the mood for right now.

Caterpillars and Such

When summer gathers up her robes of glory, and, like a dream, glides away.

~Sarah Helen Whitman

Though the temperatures sure don’t seem like it, I’m seeing signs that Summer is coming to a close and Fall is just around the corner. The butterflies that so many thought had forsaken us this year are now everywhere and the hummingbirds are squabbling over the feeders and flowers in preparation for their departure in a few weeks. The house seems suddenly shrouded in orb webs and a yard tour quickly turns up a host of caterpillars. And though I feel sapped of all energy every time I try to do anything outside, nature (especially in the invertebrate world) seems to be in high gear as we get ready to turn the calendar page again. Here are a few of our tiny neighbors enjoying the jungle of native plants in our slightly sunny hole in the canopy.

Black Swallowtail larva on Golden Alexander (click photos to enlarge)
Variable Oak Leaf Caterpillar
Rose Hooktip Moth larva, the only Eastern caterpillar with a long unpaired “tail”. This one is on one of several Viburnums on our property
Melissa found this Purple-crested Slug larva on the underside of a Redbud leaf
Double-toothed Prominent on elm. The jagged dorsal surface mimics the serrated edge of an elm leaf
Grasshoppers and katydids are larger and more noticeable now. I think this one is a Short-winged Green Grasshopper, Dichromorpha viridis
This is probably a male Short-winged Green Grasshopper (males are generally two-toned, green and brown)
The splayed leg Clipped-wing Grasshopper, Metaleptea brevicornis
One of several skipper species frequenting the yard now, a Clouded Skipper, Lerema accius
Always one of my favorite yard finds, a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar with its glorious fake eyes
After mowing yesterday, I walked the edges and noticed some rolled leaves on this legume (I think it may be a Naked-flowered Tick-trefoil, Hylodemum nudiforum)
I held up one of the rolled leaves and this little guy came out – a new species of caterpillar for me, a Long-tailed Skipper!

The highlight was definitely the last thing I found on my sweaty yard tour – several rolled leaves made by early stage caterpillars of a Long-tailed Skipper. I wrote about seeing one laying eggs in the yard last week and here are the fruits of her efforts. The abundance and variety of our mini-beast neighbors continues to fascinate and amaze us.

Return to Pungo

There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.

~Bill Waterson

This past Thursday evening, Melissa participated in a Science Cafe hosted by her workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She joined a couple of other staff that had been authors of chapters in a book released this spring entitled, 30 Great North Carolina Science Adventures, edited by April C. Smith. Melissa had written a chapter on one of her favorite places, the Lower Roanoke River. I enjoyed watching the Cafe and learning more about the book from April. I had also written a chapter for the book on two of my favorite outdoor areas in our incredibly diverse state – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges (no surprise there to any of you that read this blog regularly). For a great overview of some fabulous natural areas to visit across North Carolina, I highly recommend this book (and we don’t receive anything for plugging it as it was all done on a volunteer basis).

As it turns out, I decided a couple of days before the Science Cafe that it was high time I visited my favorite place in North Carolina again. So, I headed east to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). My last trip was in late January so I was way overdue for a day in the wilds of eastern North Carolina. Summer is a great time to see bears, so I was hoping to spend some time observing them as they feed in the crop fields and as new mamas teach their rambunctious cubs the ways of the world. Melissa had to work, so it was just me, with no agenda other than to hang out and enjoy the beauty of this special place.

I didn’t get as early a start as I had hoped, so it was almost 10 a.m. when i drove into the refuge. But, it was only 5 minutes down a dirt road that I had my first bear encounter. I didn’t get a photo (unfortunate, because it was a beautiful bruin) because it was a bear that stood up across the canal as I drove by, then retreated back into the corn when I stopped.

Soon, I was seeing clouds (or maybe cloudlets) of butterflies – primarily two species, Sleepy Oranges and Zebra Swallowtails. As I have mentioned before, this refuge, and nearby Pettigrew State Park, are two of the best places in North Carolina to see one of my favorite butterflies, the Zebra Swallowtail. They are abundant here because of the large stands of their host plant, Pawpaw, in the understory.

Zebra Swallowtail on scat (click photos to enlarge)
Zebra Swallowtails on scat gathering minerals. They were also puddling in muddy spots along many of the dirt roads.

My next bear was one I spotted down the road ambling toward me when I turned a corner. It was a few hundred yards away, so I pulled over under an overhanging limb as far off the road as I could (which wasn’t that far) and got out and sat in front of the car. This was a large bear, most likely a male, and he sniffed the ground and nearby vegetation as he slowly made his way toward me.

A large bear walking down West Lake Road

When he was about 100 yards out, he suddenly realized that something was in his path (my car) and he stood up to get a better look. Impressive! The heat waves made for a slightly soft image with my telephoto lens, but I always love to see these magnificent animals stand to check things out. He did this two more times as he walked and then decided that, yeah, that is something up there, and headed into the vegetation. When viewing the images at home, I saw something I had not noticed in the field. Another bear crossed the road far behind the one I was watching, and I was so intent on photographing this big guy, that I missed it.

The big bear shows just how big it is when it stands to check me out

Each winter, I spend hours at a particular marsh impoundment on the southwest corner of Pungo Lake observing the thousands of Tundra Swans and other waterfowl that rest and feed in its shallow waters. This time of year, that area is packed with water lilies, frogs, and wading birds like egrets and herons.

Great Egret stalking its prey
There were several Immature Little Blue Herons in the wetland. They are noticeably smaller then the Great Egrets and have a dark tip to their bill. They will attain their grayish-blue adult plumage next year

The marsh and roadside canals are also home to thousands of dragonflies. I noted 6 species while driving along – Halloween Pennant, Needham’s Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Great Blue Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, and Slaty Skimmer.

The colorful Halloween Pennant typically perches atop a tall grass or stick
A female (or immature male) Needham’s Skimmer
One of the most abundant dragonflies at Pungo, a Blue Dasher

Around 3 p.m., I headed to North Lake Road. A fawn grazed along the roadside until I got too close, then vanished in the tall grasses. I parked and started strolling down the path that I have walked hundreds of times in the past 35 years. I was lucky, there were no other cars at the gate, so I had the walk to myself (an increasingly rare event). One of the things I like most about Pungo is the quiet, the almost total lack of human sounds (most days).

Large fawn grazing roadside grasses

The soybeans and corn are at their peak now, so a bear can easily disappear in the crops or the tall roadside vegetation. It was hard to keep an eye out for the large critters when there were so many small ones all around me on the path. Butterflies, lizards, songbirds, and even a Bald Eagle accompanied me as I walked.

Sleepy Orange butterfly
Common Checkered Skipper

After taking a few butterfly pictures using a telephoto, I looked up the road and saw a bear headed my way. I sat down as the bear stopped to scratch and look around. It was visibly panting from the heat and definitely had an itch as it would walk a few steps, then stop and scratch. It walked from side to side in the road, sniffing, scratching, and occasionally nibbling at vegetation. Finally, it wandered off the path and into the woods. I waited, hoping it would return, but, after a few minutes, I continued my stroll.

The itchy bear

I stopped to look at some tracks in a mud puddle, and when I stood back up, I saw a bear coming out of the woods behind me. I got down on my knees and the bear caught my movement and stood up. I thought it might be the itchy bear, but it stared for a few seconds, then slowly lowered itself and went back into the trees. Again, I waited…

A bear stands to investigate that thing that just moved (me)

The wind was in my favor so I was hopeful. About a minute passed, and I saw the dark head of a bear coming back out. But now, she had two little ones trailing her.

The mother bear brought her two little ones out

She sniffed, looked in my direction, and headed down the road away from me, the cubs tightly on her heels. Twice, she stood and looked back, presumably making sure that blob in the road was not a threat to her little ones. She finally led her cubs into the canal and across to the corn field and disappeared for her evening meal. Again, after looking at the sequence of images, I saw a bear I had missed seeing (the dark blob in the photo below) cross the road way beyond the mother and cubs.

Mother bear checking the scene. Notice the dark blob way down the road behind her

After that encounter, I continued down the road until I was a little over a mile from my car. I sat for about 30 minutes and watched and listened. No bears, but a satisfying peacefulness that comes from being in a wild place by yourself. On my way back, frogs started calling, and the phenomenal big sky of the flat lands of eastern North Carolina put on a colorful show as developing thunderheads were tinted pink and orange by the setting sun.

A bear pokes its head up out of the soybeans as I walked by

A couple of hundred yards from the car, I noticed something dark in the soybeans. It was the top of a bear’s head. The bear swung its head around, nose pointed up, mouth open, sniffing the air. I stood still, hoping it would stand. But, it just sat there, panting and sniffing, occasionally turning more towards me, but seemingly unaware of my presence. The air was still and I was at least partially hidden behind some tall goldenrod. After several minutes, I was surprised when another bear stood up behind the one I was watching.

Suddenly, another bear stands up

After a few looks around, it dropped and disappeared in the soybeans. Finally, the first bear stood up, glanced back and forth, and sat back down. That one moment in good light was a great way to end the day. I shouldered the tripod and camera and headed back to the car for the long drive home.

This beautiful bear finally stood up to give my last photo of the day

The standing bears and seeing the cubs were definitely highlights of the day. I ended up seeing 6 cubs for the day, 21 bears in total (I’m not counting those two I did not see until I reviewed images at home). Along with the birds, butterflies, and serenity, it was a pretty good return to Pungo. It felt good to be back.

Long-tailed Skipper

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Went wandering in the yard this weekend and I caught a glimpse of an infrequent visitor to these parts – a Long-tailed Skipper, Urbanus proteus. Long-tailed Skippers are more common on our Coastal Plain and sometimes undergo northward and westward migrations (one-way, I presume) in late summer and fall. This is when we typically see them here in the Piedmont. I have seen them in our county once or twice every few years over the last decade or so.

Long-tailed Skipper in the yard this weekend (click photos to enlarge)

This one was a very fresh-looking individual with tails intact and a bright blue-green color on the dorsal surface of its wings.

Long-tailed Skipper on Ironweed

It was nectaring on the many Ironweed plants out front so I grabbed the camera and went out to follow it around the yard. It was mainly staying on one or two plants, but then suddenly wandered off, flitting around and alighting briefly on a variety of leaves. I recognized this as the flight of a female looking for suitable host plants on which to deposit her eggs. She will fly a lilting flight, touching down briefly to “taste” the plant with her feet (the location of some sensory cells that can detect plant chemicals). If it is not the right plant, she moves on. I wasn’t sure what the host plant was for this species so I continued to follow her as she searched. Finally, she stopped on a legume of some sort (Desmodium sp. perhaps?), tucked her abdomen for a few seconds, and flew off.

Female lays an egg on underside of leaf

I moved over, flipped the leaf, and there it was, an egg! I am admittedly surprised to find an egg of this species this far inland, but maybe it is not as uncommon as I assume. The eggs are yellow and have some slight raised ribs coming upward from the base.

Long-tailed Skipper egg

The freshness of this particular butterfly made me wonder if she had hatched from an egg here in the yard. I started looking at all the legumes I could find. I did find a couple of hatched eggs, but I am not 100% sure which species they are from, although they do resemble the general shape of those of the Long-tailed Skipper.

Hatched butterfly egg

Seeing a couple of hatched eggs gave me hope that I might find a caterpillar for this species, one I have never seen. Spotting a leaf nest got me excited (I had googled the larval form of this species and saw that they form leaf nests by stitching a couple of leaves of their host pant together). I gently pulled it apart to reveal…a larva of a relative, the Silver-spotted Skipper.

Leaf nest of caterpillar
A Silver-spotted Skipper caterpillar inside

Even though I was disappointed at not finding a new species of caterpillar, I must admit I always enjoy seeing the chunky little Silver-spotted Skipper larvae with those bright yellow fake eyes.

Long-tailed Skipper sunning with open wings

Though she stopped at a few other legume leaves, I could not find any other eggs. But, there is a good chance she laid some more so I will keep an eye out over the next few weeks to see if I can discover one of her fascinating larvae. Just before she disappeared, she stopped momentarily on a leaf in the sun, spread her wings, and soaked up a little warmth, giving me one last glimpse of this beautiful butterfly.

Walking Small, Part 2

Look slowly and hard at something subtle and small.

~Philip Pearlstein

Some more finds while wandering in the heat in our yard jungle. The first one was a challenge. I noticed missing leaves at the tip of a Virginia Creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Only the curved stems of the leaves remained. I looked closely, and gently pulled the vine up from the sapling it was climbing for a closer look. At first, nothing. Then, something I touched moved. I stared at it and realized it was not a leaf petiole…it was a caterpillar.

geometer moth larva

Tentative identification is the caterpillar of the Lesser Grapevine Looper moth, Eulithis diversilineata (click photo to enlarge)

geometer moth larva close up

A close up helps to find the well-camouflaged caterpillar

These petiole-mimic larvae often rest underneath a leaf (of wild grape or Virginia Creeper) in a curved position where they really do like like a leaf petiole!

Lacewing larva

Lacewing larva with fuzz from flatid planthopper nymphs (probable prey items) stuck to its back

I always stop to look at the fuzzy little blobs that crawl along the trees in the yard. They are usually the larvae of lacewings, armed with sickle-shaped jaws that pierce aphids and planthopper nymphs. These tiny predators then place the discarded remains on spines on the back to complete their wolf-in-sheeps-clothing disguise.

Large Milkweed Bug

A Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, probing a milkweed seed pod

The milkweed patch continues to provide some nice finds. I spotted a Large Milkweed Bug in the typical dress of orange and black for a critter that is distasteful to potential predators due its toxic diet of milkweed. These are primarily seed feeders, piercing through a seed pod into developing milkweed seeds with their sharp proboscis. They then inject digestive enzymes which dissolve the nutrients within the seed, allowing the bug to suck it up through that long beak. One interesting tidbit about these bugs is that they undergo migrations every year with overwintering southern populations migrating northward in spring to colonize milkweed patches as far north as Canada. As day length shortens with accompanying cooler temperatures, they migrate back to warmer climes.

As always, any slow stroll around the yard leads to a variety of tiny discoveries that are part of the complex matrix that helps a system function. Here are a few more of the pieces that make the machine that is our yard’s machinery work. Be sure to get outside and check your yard’s or neighborhood’s engine and see what makes it click. If you have a variety of native plants, you’ll be amazed at all the parts.

Banded Longhorn Beetle, Typocerus velutinus

Banded Longhorn Beetle, Typocerus velutinus

Handsome trig nymph

Nymph of a Handsome Trig, Phyllopalpus pulchellus (missing one leg)

Preying mantis nymph

Nymph of a Praying Mantis

Scudder's bush katydid nymph on black-eyed Susan

Another colorful nymph of a Scudder’s Bush Katydid, Scudderia sp.

Leaf-footed bug nymph with parasitoid egg on  it

A more ominous-looking nymph of a Leaf-footed Bug, Acanthocephala sp. (notice the lwhite blob, a ikely parasitoid egg, on its thorax)

Wheelbug nymoh

A definitely ominous-looking nymph of an Assassin Bug (aka Wheel Bug), Arilus cristatus

Colonus (puerperus)? jumping spider

Dorsal view of a tiny jumper – most likely Colonus puerperus

Colonus (puerperus)? jumping spider side view

Nice eyes

hummingbird at bee balm

I cheated a little on this one – a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) feeding on Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), shot through the glass in our sun room window

Frog Friday

You can’t tell by the look of a frog how far they’ll jump.

~Paul Doiron

Took a stroll around the property yesterday, camera in hand, looking for the tiny creatures who share these woods. One thing really impressed me – the amazing number of spider webs that seemed to block my way at every turn. When I spotted one, I tried to side step it so as to not ruin a night’s work, but I still managed a head full of silk strands (luckily, it blends in well). While focusing on the tiny subjects without backbones, I caught a quick movement over by the wet weather stream in our ravine. I looked, and saw nothing, but I suspected I knew what it had been. I turned, and stepped in that direction, and off it went, a Northern Cricket Frog. I leaned in for a photo but it leapt into the creek and disappeared.

northern crickrt frog

A more cooperative Northern Cricket Frog, Acris crepitans (click photos to enlarge)

Just a few steps more, and I encountered another, this one resting at the base of large tree. This is a common species here and I find them down along the creek and in our yard in the vicinity of our two water gardens (although they often wander far from standing water). Their calls sound like clicking two pebbles or pennies together. They are excellent jumpers for their size, often leaping more than 3 feet to escape danger (or silk-covered giants).

 

northern crickrt frog from above

Cricket frogs blend in with their surroundings

They are small frogs, reaching a little over an inch in length. They can be identified by the backward-pointing triangle between the eyes (the color can be quite variable, but usually either brown or green). They often have a contrasting color, Y-shaped stripe, going from that triangle down the back (in this one it is a very faint cream color, but is often much more noticeable). This species is replaced by the Southern Cricket Frog as you move toward the coast.

green treefrog dorsal view

A Green Treefrog, Hyla cinerea, outside our window

When I got back home, I was watching the butterflies and hummingbirds feeding just outside the sun room window when I noticed a green lump on one of the Jewelweed stalks. It was one of my favorite frogs, a Green Treefrog. We are at the western range of this beautiful species, but we have had one every year for the past several years (I’ve never found more than one and never heard them call here). Online resources say this species can live up to 6 years in captivity, but that would surprise me if this is the same individual, year after year, but who knows.

green treefrog side view

The diagnostic white racing stripe down the side

One of the things I love about this species is their Buddha-like presence, as if they are serenely contemplating the world around them while maintaining a stoic position of deep reflection (have I been self-isolating too long?).

green treefrog ready to move

The frog finally tired of my presence and camera flashes, and moved as if to jump, so I departed to leave it in peace

Plus, they are just a beautiful creature – the colors, those eyes, the enlarged toe-pads, all an incredible design that helps them blend into and function in their green world. After a few shots, the frog started to move, so I stepped away and let it return to its composed demeanor. Perhaps I can learn something about our current condition from these frogs…stay calm, or leap like crazy when it gets to be too much. Be like a frog…

Baby Saddlebacks

Relative to other caterpillars, slug caterpillars seem more fantasy than reality.

~David Wagner

It is getting to be that time of year – caterpillar time! As summer draws to a creeping close, one of the things that lifts my spirits above the stifling heat waves is the increasing abundance of larval Lepidoptera. And one of our favorite groups, the slug caterpillars, is starting to show up in greater numbers in our woods and yard. Earlier this week, Melissa was out in the garden and harvested some of our collards, since it was obvious they were becoming riddled by insect chewing. When she pulled one leaf she saw two tiny Saddleback caterpillars, Acharia stimulea. The female moth tends to lay clusters of eggs and the young feed gregariously at first. They are extremely variable in their choice of host plants. We have found them on tomatoes, various tree leaves, iris leaves, and now, collards. This may be why so may people recognize this as one of our most common so-called, stinging caterpillars as you can find them almost anywhere. You may accidentally brush up against one while weeding your garden and you won’t soon forget that encounter as they pack a powerful punch resembling the pain associated with a wasp sting. You can read more about them in an earlier blog post here.

Saddlebacks on collards

Two tiny Saddleback Caterpillars feeding on a collard leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Saddleback on collards

They are already sporting the pattern that gives them their name – the distinctive brown saddle outlined in white in the middle of their back

Saddleback with ballpoint pen for scale

Ballpoint pen tip for scale

Though these guys are extremely small (the tiniest Saddlebacks either of us has ever seen), I think they have probably molted at least once already. Online descriptions say that the earliest instars lack the prominent tubercles on either end.

Saddleback day 2

After one day, the caterpillars’ colors had already darkened and taken on more of the pattern of later instars

One scientific study I found said it was extremely difficult to accurately determine how many times this species molts during its larval development since the head capsule is hidden beneath the body and they almost always eat their shed skin. It is certainly more than the usual five molts of many butterfly and moth species, and may be as many as eleven or more and may require several months before pupation. Once again, I’m afraid we have taken on more than we bargained for in raising some caterpillars (we still have a few Cecropia larvae that hatched on June 10!). But, Saddlebacks will eat a variety of leaves are are not nearly as voracious in their feeding habits as most other species. I’ll try to keep you posted as they mature.

Saddleback caterpllar side view 1

What they will look like in a month or two

 

Itsy Bitsy Spiderlings

When we’re distracted, we are still paying attention—just not to the task that was the previous still point of our intentional neural processing.

~Dale Keiger

I’m afraid I have a long history of being “distracted” by the natural world. I remember a time as a young teenager when I was helping my father nail shingles on the roof of our soon-to-be new home in Stafford County, Virginia. The property was on a freshwater tidal tributary to the Potomac River and was set in a forested landscape with large trees. It was spring, and warblers were moving through the trees, and now I was up at eye level with them. My Dad noticed a lack of hammering in my direction and looked over to see me trying to figure out what bird that was without my binoculars. I believe there was some quote like, quit watching them $%$^ birds and get back to nailing. Years later, when I started work as a naturalist for NC State Parks, he remarked how he was amazed I was actually being paid to watch birds (a bit of an oversimplification, but, yes, I did get to observe all sorts of nature on my job).

In retirement, I’m not sure I can really call it being distracted. In fact, maybe the tasks and chores I do are the actual distractions and the nature observation is my primary duty. Well, a couple of days ago I was on task to weed eat some of the dreaded invasive, Microstegium, along the roadside outside our deer fence. I try to cut it a few times every year as it nears seed set to reduce the amount of seed released back onto the landscape. I had finished one patch and was walking up toward another. Just as I revved the motor, I was “distracted” by a slight movement on the ground. I stopped and stared, but saw nothing at first. Then, a tiny movement and something pushing under a piece of dead leaf on the ground. I leaned in and was surprised to see this staring up at me.

wolf spider in burrow

A large wolf spider retreats backwards down into its burrow (click photo to enlarge)

It was a large wolf spider retreating into a burrow. I couldn’t tell which species for sure, but it reminded me of common one in this area, the Rabid Wolf Spider, Rabidosa rabida. The unfortunate name comes from their quick and somewhat erratic movements, not that are carrying rabies. As I watched, I saw something move just outside the burrow. It was tiny spiderling that crawled toward the large spider and then pulled itself onto her back. It had apparently been dislodged when she backed down into the hole. Many species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs around attached to their spinnerets at the tip of the abdomen. When the young hatch, they cling to their mother’s back for a short while until they disperse and fend for themselves (usually after their first molt).

wolf spider with young on back top view

When the spider came back out, I could see she was a mom carrying a full load of babies on her back

I sat still for several minutes and the large spider finally crept out of the hole and allowed me a closer look and the chance to grab a few photos. Now I could see the jumble of babies clinging to her. It looked a little like a pandemic hair style for spiders, but upon closer inspection, I could see a tangle of patterned bodies and legs. It’s hard to tell how many layers of spiderlings  there are, but it appears there is likely more than one. Studies have shown that egg sacs for wolf spiders contain on average 200-300 eggs.

wolf spider with young on back side view

The spiderlings will stay with their mother until their first molt

If you enlarge the image and start counting, you can easily imagine there being over 100 spider babies with what looks like more partially hidden underneath. This spider stagecoach is for the benefit of the young until they are a little more mobile. This group of spiders does not build a web to ensnare prey, but rather stalks and pounces on its victims, so carrying the young around for too long would undoubtedly be a hindrance to the adult spider.

One of my favorite nighttime activities is looking for spider eyes. You hold a flashlight on your forehead or nose and shine it out into the woods onto the ground. Wolf spiders (and other nocturnal non-web building spiders that depend more on eyesight for capturing their prey) have reflective chemicals in their eyes causing a tiny bit of light to be reflected back to your light (which is why you need to hold it near your eyes). This is similar to the phenomenon of eye-shine in nocturnal mammals like deer. It is a real treat when you find a mother spider like this one carrying her young as you get the reflection from multiple sets of eyes, giving the spider a sparkly look like a tiny jewel on the forest floor. Give it a try. Even if you don’t see a mama with her baby cargo, you’ll be amazed at how many spider eyes are out there!

Anybody Home?

Every night in the woods, when most humans are safely indoors, strange creatures emerge from their lairs and leap into the air, swooping silently among the trees.~Michael Farquhar

I was strolling the yard yesterday, looking for whatever small critters caught my eye, when I walked over to the front of the house where we have some shade-loving wildflowers planted. A couple of years ago I put up a new hollow log nest box in that bed, but have had no takers, so I assumed there was a design flaw of some sort or that perhaps bees or wasps had taken over.

IMG_9318

Hollow log nest box in the yard. The PVC pipe surrounding the pole is to help prevent snakes from climbing into the box (click photos to enlarge)

I periodically check all our boxes by gently tapping on the sides or looking inside (on the bluebird boxes with opening fronts) but had never seen anything in this particular nest cavity. So, as I walked by yesterday, I gently tapped the sides, but didn’t bother to look at the box as my gaze was on a fallen log just beyond where I thought I saw something move. After a few seconds, I turned and was pleasantly surprised to see something quietly staring back at me.

Southern flying squirrel at nest box

A calm Southern Flying Squirrel wondering why I woke it up

I was only about two feet away, so I slowly turned, pulled my phone out and snapped a pic. The little guy didn’t budge, so I stepped out in front of the box to get a more straight-on view. Again, I snapped a few images, and it just quietly stared back, not twitching even a whisker.

Southern flying squirrel at nest box front view

After snapping a few photos, I stepped away to let this cute little fur ball return to its afternoon nap

I didn’t want to startle the squirrel, so I walked away without looking back until I was about 20 feet from the pole. When I glanced back, the flying squirrel had pulled back into the hole but was still keeping an eye on the bipedal interloper.

I have reported before on the flying squirrels that visit our bird feeder out back and, though I have not seen them lately, I suspected they were back at it as the sunflower seed seems to be disappearing quicker than usual. Last night, I turned the porch lights on just before heading to bed, and there was a flying squirrel hanging on the tube feeder, stuffing itself. I guess I show my bias when I am happy to share with these smallest of NC’s tree squirrels and much less tolerant of their gray daytime cousins.