A Festival for Bears

May this intelligent animal always have a place. We need to better understand bears.

~Mike McIntosh

Last weekend was the third annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC. I have missed the previous ones due to trips to Yellowstone, but I finally managed to visit this year. I was curious how the festival was organized and what messages might be going out to the public about one of my favorite mammal species. My old workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, had been asked to provide guided tours of nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily, I was able to join as a volunteer guide for the tours on Saturday – three 3-hours tours starting at 5:30 a.m., 1:45 p.m., and 6 p.m. A full day! Between tours on Saturday we visited some of the festivities that ranged from the usual festival goofiness to interesting information about local wildlife.

Bear festival entrance

Entrance to the NC Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

Bearicade

Lots of plays on words at the festival

Bronco bear

Festival mascot taking a turn on the bronco bear. As the guy in charge of this ride said, you will not see this anywhere else.

Kiddie bear ride

The coolest kiddie ride I have ever seen – the bear train

The tours themselves turned out to be a great learning experience for all involved. During the three tours on Saturday we had 34 bear sightings, only a few of which were the same bear on different tours. I didn’t take many photos during the tours, but highlights included 3 cubs of the year in a tree, and, on a later tour, an adult lounging in a tree.

Black bear in tree

Black bear lounging in willow tree

Sunday morning, I decided to head over to the refuge by myself and then head home early. I spent a few hours cruising the roads looking for bears and whatever else the refuge might offer, and I was not disappointed. I ended the day with 14 bear sightings for a personal total of 48 for the two days I was down there. The 7 tours by the museum over the three festival days yielded an impressive 71 bear sightings, including several very close to the bus.

Below are some of the highlights of my time on the refuge:

Large black bear at sunrise

Sunrise bear

Large black bear at sunrise in soybeans

Sunrise bear in soybeans

Large black bear at sunrise on new bear rd

Sunrise bear checking me out before heading into woods

large bear on canal bank

Surprise bear

I was photographing a king rail (more on that in a later post) along a canal bank. A truck pulled up and stopped next to me to see what I was seeing. When they realized it was “just a bird”, they drove off. I glanced at their truck as they drove away. When I turned back to the rail, this huge bear had popped over the canal bank less than 30 feet away and was looking at me. The people in the truck never saw it.

large bear on canal bank 1

I have seen this big fellow before

I quickly switched lenses and managed a few photos of the “surprise bear” before it lumbered off.

tundra swans in summer

Tundra swans still hanging out at Pungo

This is the largest number of “lost swans” I have ever seen on the refuge after the migration season. Would love to know their story of why they are still here.

northern bobwhite in tree

Northern bobwhite quail

bear along road

Roadside bear

My last bear of the day was a small guy feeding along the roadside. It had a slight limp caused by a crooked left hind leg. I sat in the car and watched this bear for about 30 minutes as it grazed on vegetation and pulled at a few downed logs looking for a snack. It didn’t seem too hampered by its limp. I saw a couple of other bears on this trip with leg injuries – my sunrise bear had what looked like a swollen knee (see photo early in post); I saw another large male that had probably been in a fight with another male for breeding rights and had a severe limp and gash on a hind leg. But most of the bears we saw looked quite healthy. It is always a treat to be able to watch wildlife doing what they do – living their lives, feeding, resting in the shade high up in a tree, cooling off in a canal to beat the heat, or caring for their young. I think this is the real value of the festival, giving people a chance to see wild bears as beautiful creatures that have lives and struggles in some ways not all that different from ours. I hope it helps us all learn to share our habitats with these magnificent animals. And, once again, the Pungo Unit has proven itself to be one of the best places I know to share the magic of wildlife with others. I look forward to my next visit.

Those Eyes

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?

~Henry David Thoreau

On any woodland walk in the warm months, you will run into a variety of spider silk across your path. And so it was recently on a walk in our woods. It was mostly webs of small orb web weavers strung across the trail, but at one point I found myself staring at a spider dangling at eye level. I reached for it and realized the spider was no longer there, just its last set of clothes – a shed exoskeleton.
spider shed

Spider shed that was hanging by a thread along the trail (click photos to enlarge)

I am always fascinated by the remains of insect and spider sheds. The lighter-than-air remains cause them to dance in the slightest breeze, but the detail of their former inhabitants are so revealing and beautiful. In spiders, they have a pop-top shedding style so the cephalothorax is removed like a can lid so the “new” spider can pull itself out of the tangle of old leggings.

spider shed on moss

The eye coverings remain on the shed head seen on the left in photo

When I touched it for a closer look, the shed dropped to the ground and landed on a mossy rock. It looked as if the spider was ready to run off again, but with its head oddly trailing behind.

As we approached the house, I checked the small pawpaw patch out back and noticed something disappear under the broad leaves of a small sapling. I eased my hand under the leaf and a spider popped back out on the upper surface.

Magnolia green jumper male 2

Magnolia green jumper on pawpaw leaf

And what a spider it was! I have photographed the female of this species, a magnolia green jumper, but had never seen a male. They are characterized by the two huge eyes in front and their insanely long chelicerae.

Magnolia green jumper male under leaf

The magnolia green jumper under the leaf

This little guy was quite active and bold. I had to coax it out from under a leaf at first, but then it tended to move toward the camera and even jumped on the lens a few times. I would then ease it back onto a leaf and start the photography dance all over again.

Magnolia green jumper male eye arrangement

There are four rows of two eyes each, with the two in front being very large

Both sexes have a raised “eye mound” with 8 eyes surrounded by orange. These spiders can scan the area in front of them by moving the rear of their lens (the actual “eyeball” is fixed since it is built into the carapace). Because the rear of the lens is the darkest part of the eye and it moves around, you can often see a jumping spider’s eye changing color as in the photos below. When it is darkest, the spider is looking straight at you, because then you are looking down into its retina.

 

Magnolia green jumper male eye closeup 1

The retina sweeping side to side in the eye

This series of photos also shows the chelicerae (jaws) – the brownish orange appendages coming out beneath the eyes. Coming down on either side of those are the pedipalps (or palps).

Magnolia green jumper male eye closeup

One eye dark, one lighter

Pedipalps resemble small legs, but, in males, they serve a reproductive function.

Magnolia green jumper male eye closeup 2

Here’s looking at you…

The tips of male pedipalps are modified with small swellings (that look like small boxing gloves) that contain a complex copulatory organ. Males deposit sperm from under their abdomen into a small sperm web and the then suck it up into the palpal organ. When he finds a receptive female, he inserts the palpal organ into a slit on her abdomen and squeezes out the sperm. I suppose it is safer that way considering she might want to make a meal of him. Probably another reason to have a lot of eyes if you are a spider.

 

Hatching

The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.

~Zora Neale Hurston

A quick update on the tulip-tree silk moth eggs from my last post – they hatched!

Tulip tree silk moth eggs hatching close up

Close up of eggs hatching – viewed from below in clear plastic container (click photos to enlarge)

The moth laid eggs inside the container on the night of May 19. They started hatching early in the morning on May 30. They hatched as a group and within about 15 minutes, they all had emerged. I placed a leaf of their host plant, tulip poplar, in the container and they all gathered along the edge and started to feed.

tulip tree silk moth caterpillars after hatching

Tulip-tree silk moth larvae feeding as a group

This species feeds as a group in their early stages, then separate out and feed solo as they grow. I have never seen the early instars of this species before, but references say these are often high in the treetops. My plan is to release most on tulip poplar saplings around the Garden and here at home and then raise a few for programs (the above photo represents about half of the group that hatched).

tulip tree silk moth caterpillars after hatching 1

First instar tulip-tree silk moth larvae

They have a lot of eating and growing to do over the next few weeks. Mature caterpillars look very different (pale green with a few bright red and yellow bumps) and are a couple of inches in length. It turns out these were not the only eggs that hatched this week…

Assasin bug egg before hatching 1

Mystery egg in yard

As I always do when walking around the yard, I was scanning the vegetation looking for anything of interest when my eye caught a small egg on top of a leaf. I leaned in and took a closer look and saw some beautiful patterns – I could see the creature inside the egg! The egg was about 2mm long and contained what looked like legs ending in tiny black claws. There were some large dark dots, that I assumed might be developing eyes.

Assasin bug egg before hatching

Back-lighting the egg gave it the look of a miniature alien pod

I brought the leaf inside to photograph. The more I looked, the more it resembled a tiny alien from some sci-fi thriller. Ironically, I had found a similar egg the week prior on a hike at work as part of a citizen science program called Caterpillars Count. I had looked that one up in my go-to resource for such things, the excellent Tracks and Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates by C. Eiseman and N. Charney. Both eggs closely resembled their photo of the egg of leaf-footed bugs. I decided to wait and see what hatched. I didn’t have to wait long. The next day, I took it to work to show a few folks, and while I was in a meeting (dang meetings!), it hatched.

Assasin bug hatchling

Newly hatched mystery bug

It resembles assassin bug nymphs I have seen in the past, so that is what I first called it. But, I looked up leaf-footed bugs in my other go-to resource, Bug Guide, and there were photos of my same egg and nymph. So, this little guy is in the genus Acanthocephala, and will grow into a large (30mm long) true bug that feeds on plant juices, fruit, and other plant parts. It has a lot of growing to do before it will look like its picture in a field guide.

Assasin bug egg after hatching

Empty egg shell of leaf-footed bug

Once again, the world outside my door has proven to be fascinating and full of mystery and beauty. Guess I will be looking for more eggs in the coming weeks to see what emerges.

Giants of the Night

From behind its head came two large “feathers” that projected forward…This butterfly has antlers, I thought in awe.

~John Cody, moth artist, describing his first childhood encounter with a giant silkmoth

Something caught me eye one morning as I approached the outside door leading upstairs to my office. It looked a bit like a dried leaf caught in one of the cracks in the decking. But when I turned to look, I could see it was one of the giant silkmoths perched on the deck, wings upright. I walked over, watched it for a few seconds, then gently picked it up and took it up to the office, safe from the many potential bird predators around the building. I placed it in a plastic container with the intention of releasing it toward sunset.

Tuliptree silk moth head view

Close up of moth head (click photos to enlarge)

I had a full slate of programs that day so didn’t get back to the moth to observe or photograph it, and assumed it was a male based on a quick glance at the somewhat feathery antenna.

Tuliptree silk moth eggs

Moth eggs on side of container

Later, I was surprised to find a cluster of eggs adhering to the walls of the container. Turns out, my moth was a female tuliptree silkmoth, Callosamia angulifera. This is one of many species of giant silkmoth in this area. The group is so-named for their large size (this one has a wingspan of 4 inches) and use of silk in their cocoons. Other local species in this family of moths, the Saturniidae, include the luna, cecropia, and polyphemus moths.

Tuliptree silk moth side view view 1

Closeup of moth body

They are all large, beautiful moths, with “furry” bodies and somewhat velvety wings. They do not feed as adults due to under-developed mouthparts, and live only a week or so as adults, with their sole purpose being to mate, lay eggs, and then die.

Tuliptree silk moth side view

This species perches with wings upright

The tuliptree silk moth lays its eggs on leaves of tulip poplar, so I will transfer the eggs to some saplings when they hatch (in about a week).

Tuliptree silk moth

The moth quivers just before take-off

This species is identified by the brown and reddish-brown colors of the adults, and the presence of the angular, T-shaped spots on the wings. Late in the day, I placed the moth on a tree trunk and watched. She began to quiver her beautiful wings, the silkmoth version of revving your engines. This is how they get their body temperature up to a sufficient internal temperature for flight. It didn’t take long before this giant of the night sailed off into the trees. I’ll keep you posted on her eggs and larvae over the coming weeks.

 

They Are Catching More Than Just Gnats

may my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living

~ee cummings

Here is a long overdue update on those little birds that nested just outside the garden driveway gate at the Botanical Garden…I am happy to report these diligent parents were apparently successful in rearing their young. You may remember my earlier post where a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers were building the nest (they finished it around April 10). A few days after that post, I saw the female incubating the eggs, so I tried to keep an eye on her to see when they might start feeding the young. Finally, I saw her off the nest the first week of May. I wasn’t able to get out to photograph them until May 7. That was probably about 6 or 7 days after they hatched. I had trouble counting the tiny heads even after looking at my images from that first feeding day, but I could tell there were at least three young. Later, I saw the fourth beak pressing skyward on one of the feeding bouts, so the total was four.

BG gnatcatchers both adults at nest

Both parents arriving at nest together (click photos to enlarge)

The feeding bouts were fast and furious, with adults staying just a couple of seconds on each trip. What amazed me on that first day was the large number of huge craneflies that the parent birds were bringing in.

cranefly brought to nest

A large adult cranefly is jammed down an open mouth of one of the nestlings

close up of cranefly going to nestling

That a lot of wings and legs to swallow for such a tiny bird

BG Gnatcatcher at nest

Nestlings sometimes had to wait a bit before they could get anything else down

It seemed like about half of the food items brought on that first evening were craneflies. There is a nearby creek and large vernal pool that may be the source of so many of these huge flies (their larvae are aquatic), but I was impressed how many the adult birds were able to catch. Even more impressive was how many the tiny nestlings were able to swallow. On many occasions, a parent brought another food item, but I could still see the long legs of the previous meal sticking out of the beak of one of the recently fed young.

BG gntcatcher with fecal sac

Female removing a fecal sac from a nestling

Of course, what comes in, must go out, so after every few feeding trips one of the young birds would raise its rear end after the adult had passed on a prey item, and the adult dutifully plucked the pre-packaged fecal sac and flew off. Data shows they usually drop it after flying 30 to 40 feet away from the nest (this helps keep the nest area clean of smelly poop that might attract predators).

nestling begging

Nestlings are getting more feathers on their head by May 11 (compare to earlier photo)

I spent some time photographing the feeding of young on three separate occasions, all after the Garden closed at 5 p.m. By the third date, May 11, the young were noticeably larger, more active in the nest between feeding bouts, and getting more feathered, especially on the head. Their huge gape and bright yellow mouth linings were hard to miss, and surely provide a great target for tired parent birds bringing in the food.

feeding the group

Hungry mouths begging for food

I was amazed that, after that first day of a menu heavy on craneflies, the last day I watched them, the adults brought in nary a one. Most of the food items were much smaller, and were difficult to identify even after zooming in on the images.

Adult brining a small moth

Bringing in what looks like a small moth

But the pace of feeding had quickened. That last day, May 11, I decided to keep track of the feedings. I stood out there for a total of 86 minutes that evening. During that time, the adult birds made a total of 51 feeding trips. The longest interval between feedings was 6 minutes. On several occasions, there were 2 or 3 feedings within the span of a minute!

feeding from above

The last day, a new feeding perch was used…the hang-down-from-the-branch-above technique

Although I was hoping for another day of shooting the nest, I thought they might fledge before I returned, as I was taking a long weekend. Sure enough, when I returned to work on May 16, the nest was empty. Records show the young usually leave the nest 10-15 days after hatching, so that puts these guys right on schedule. Here’s hoping they all made it and are out there learning to be on their own.

Where Insects Fear to Tread

There is no exquisite beauty …without some strangeness.

~Edgar Allan Poe

Part two of our quest for carnivorous plants took us first to the Green Swamp, a well-known NC Nature Conservancy preserve site in Brunswick and Columbus counties. It was getting late in the day, so we went straight to the main access point, a small parking area next to a borrow pit along Hwy 211. We hiked in along the trail, through a short stretch of dense pocosin vegetation, and out into the open longleaf pine savanna.

Longleaf pine savanna, Green Swamp

Longleaf pine savanna in the Green Swamp (click photos to enlarge)

What you find here often greatly depends on the fire regimen – the year after a burn can produce spectacular wildflowers and make it much easier to see any in bloom. From the looks of it, I am guessing it may have been over a year since this particular tract was burned, but we could see some scattered spots of color poking above the clumps of wiregrass, especially along the pocosin edge.

Gras pink orchid

Grass pink orchid, Calopogon sp.

In addition to insect-eating plants, these pine savannas are well-known for their gorgeous orchids. Calopogon comes from the Greek words meaning beautiful beard, and refers to the bushy, yellow protuberances on the lip of this delicate orchid. These are designed to attract pollinators, thinking there might be a pollen or nectar reward, but it is a deception. The lip of the flower is hinged at the base, and when an insect lands, the lip drops and traps the insect among the flower parts, forcing it to wriggle its way out, and, in the process, hopefully pollinating the flower.

Butterwort

Yellow butterwort, Pinguicula lutea

Scattered along the edges of the savanna are small, bright yellow flowers of a carnivorous species, the yellow butterwort.

Butterwort leaves

Basal rosette of a butterwort

The business end of a butterwort lies at the base, where a tight cluster of sticky leaves serves to trap small insects by means of tiny stalked glands covered in mucilage. Other glands release digestive enzymes to help dissolve the soft tissues of the prey, with the nutrient-rich juices being absorbed by the leaf to supplement its nitrogen supply in this nutrient-poor environment.

Sundew

Pink sundew, Drosera capillaris

A similar, but more active strategy, is employed by another insect-eater, the sundews. Tiny rosettes of red leaves covered in what look like dew-covered hairs dot the moist soil in the savanna, especially any place that is muddy along a trail or ditch.

Sundew with prey

Close-up of a sundew leaf with a trapped insect

When a potential prey touch the stalked glands, it gets stuck in the “goo”. Adjacent tentacles move toward the prey, further entrapping it. Digestive enzymes are released and the rest is history.

We finally had to head back to camp, but a good day of carnivorous plant exploration with sundews, two species of pitcher plants, butterworts, two species of bladderworts, and some Venus flytraps. The next day would prove to be even better.

Longleaf pine savanna Holly Shelter

Longleaf pine savanna in Holly Shelter

I had heard about Holly Shelter Game Lands for many years, but never managed to visit until now. It consists of over 63,000 acres of mixed forest, pocosin, and other wetlands in Pender County. Since it is turkey season, we were advised to visit on Sunday when there is no hunting. We drove along miles of dirt roads to several spots recommended by a friend for their plant diversity.

Carolina laurel

Carolina wicky, Kalmia carolina

Horse sugar

Horsesugar, Symplocos tinctoria

A few small shrubs adding splashes of color in the longleaf forests, including a Coastal Plain relative of mountain laurel, Carolina wicky (also known as Southern sheepkill). Small starbursts adorn another savanna shrub, horsesugar (aka sweetleaf).

Holly Shelter oitcher plants

Small pond at Holly Shelter surrounded by yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava

Our first stop was amazing – hundreds of yellow pitcher plant flowers came into view as we approached a small pond. There was also the bright green of the emerging new leaves, so it was a perfect time to view this species.

Pitcher plant leaf before opening

An unopened pitcher leaf

It is easy to forget that in all of these carnivorous plants, it is the highly adapted leaves that are the trapping mechanism. In the case of the yellow pitcher plant, the leaf blade usually elongates a foot or more before the top splits open to form the deadly pitfall trap.

Pitcher plant opening

A leaf just beginning to split to form the pitcher

This pitcher has a hood (or lid) and usually has red veins that serve as nectar guides for potential prey, luring them deeper into the trap.

Fly going into pitvher plant

An open pitcher with an unwise fly

The trap is a simple one – lure your victim with nectar, a sweet reward concentrated along the rolled lip and down into the upper edges of the trap. Once inside, the walls of the pitcher change texture and become very slick, causing the insect to fall into the tube. Below the slippery zone, the walls have rows of down-ward pointing hairs that inhibit an upward escape. As the insect gets farther down into the trap, the tube narrows, making it more difficult for flying insects to use their wings to escape. Digestive enzymes at the base of the trap all but ensure the fate of the hapless insect.

Pitcher plant prey (2 pitchers)

Contents of two pitcher plants back at the NC Botanical Garden

A popular activity at work is for students to dissect old pitchers (last year’s leaves) and examine what the plant had for dinner. The enzymes only dissolve the soft tissues to release the needed nutrients, so the hard parts of prey remain – an assortment of wings, legs, and exoskeleton pieces. Coworkers gathered the insect parts from two pitcher plants in the Garden’s collection for the photo above: several moths (left side of photo); a cluster of flies (upper right); a wasp (top); some small beetles (lower right); and an assortment of unidentifiable wings, legs, and parts. A large amount of fine dust-like material from the trap is not shown in this picture. I need to collect a few dried pitchers from native habitats and see what the locals have been eating for comparison, but I have a feeling the menu could be similar based on that fly photo above. It was about to make a culinary misstep.

Purple pitcher plant

Purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea

Purple pitcher plants lack a lid and their pitchers usually contain rainwater. Prey fall into the pitcher and drown. Ironically, there is a species of mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, whose larvae live in these pitcher plants and feed on the microscopic community that exists in the water.

Hybrid pitcher plant

Possible hybrid pitcher plant

We did see a few pitcher plant clumps that looked like hybrids between the purple pitcher plants and the yellow. The pitchers look like the S. purpurea, but are much more elongate, like an S. flava. The flowers also seem to be a combination of the colors of the two species – both maroon and yellow tints.

Sundew intermedia

Spoonleaf sundew, Drosera intermedia

Along the path were large numbers of the pink sundews we had seen in the Green Swamp, but the edge of the pond had another species. The spoonleaf sundew is more upright in growth form and seems to do well extending out into the water’s edge.

Sundew close up

A tiny insect trapped in the sticky goo of the sundew

I leaned down for a closer look and could see more victims that had fallen for the glistening droplets that adorn these deadly tentacles.

Purple butterwort  flower and base

Blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

The Holly Shelter sites held two more species of butterwort – the blue and the correctly named small butterwort. The latter (which I failed to get a good photo of it turns out) has a pale, almost white flower, with a short flower stalk and a tiny rosette of leaves.

Purple butterwort group

Blue butterworts were very common

The larger, blue butterworts, were quite common and often occurred in patches of twenty or more individuals, scattered about the various sunny locations we visited.

Venus flytrap cluster

Venus flytraps, Dionaea muscipula, and a small purple pitcher plant

The Venus flytraps were amazing, as always, and abundant. Melissa mentioned all of these carnivorous plants in a recent post about one of her museum trips, so I won’t go into all the details of this, “one of the most wonderful plants in the world”, but I will share a few interesting tidbits.

Slide1

Close-up of a flytrap leaf, showing the trigger hairs

The trap is a modified leaf and has 2 to 3 trigger hairs on each lobe of the trap. Two triggers must be touched in succession within about 20 seconds for the trap to “spring” (or one trigger twice). Closing in less than a second, the Venus flytrap is one of a group of very few plants capable of rapid movement (other local rapid movement plants include Eastern sensitive briar, Mimosa macrophylla, and bladderworts, Utricularia sp.). The fleshy “teeth” along the edge of the trap mesh together to form a closed cage around any prey (usually crawling insects and spiders). The whole trap squeezes together more tightly when the prey struggles. Enzymes are then secreted by minute glands on the inner surface of the lobes and the victim is digested over the next few days. Afterward, the trap reopens, awaiting its next target (each trap can only spring a few times before that leaf dies).

Venus flytrap

Emerging flytrap leaves

The name, Venus flytrap, refers to Venus, the Roman goddess of love. The genus, Dionaea, refers to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and the daughter of Dione. The species name, muscipula, is Latin for mousetrap. It really is remarkable that the only place this amazing plant is naturally found is in about a 70-mile radius of Wilmington, NC.  This trip proved to be one of strange beauties and incredible adaptations, and is definitely one we will do again.

Bay Watch

Find one, and you’ll find yourself closer to the heart of what a Carolina Bay can be: an island of wildness in a world largely tamed, a few acres of the primeval past passed over by progress.

~T. Edward Nickens

The North Carolina Botanical Garden has an exquisite collection of carnivorous plants, and they are always a favorite stop on my programs. This encouraged me to revisit these mysterious beauties in their natural habitats in southeastern North Carolina. We got a few tips from our friend, Jerry, on some of the best locations, and headed out last weekend in search of insect-eating plants. This is part one of that exploration – the part we explored by kayak.

Jone Lake

Afternoon paddle on Jones Lake (click photos to enlarge)

Our home for the weekend was the campground at Jones Lake State Park, a beautiful park centered on one of the many Carolina Bays that dot the landscape in this part of the state.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 7.58.42 AM

Google Earth view of the area showing a small portion of the estimated 900 elliptical Carolina Bays found in Bladen County.

These unique land forms attracted attention after the onset of aerial photography in the 1930’s, when thousands of ovals of varying size (there are an estimated 500,000), aligned in a northwest-southeast direction, could be seen dotting the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New Jersey to Georgia. The greatest concentration was in the Carolina’s. That fact, combined with their usual dominant vegetation of various bay trees, gave them their name. Few open water Carolina Bays remain, but even those that have been drained and developed, or have naturally filled with vegetation, are still visible as elliptical shapes in satellite images like the one above.

Many hypotheses have been proposed on the origin of Carolina Bays (including that they were formed by impacts of a meteor shower), but no single explanation is universally accepted. Many scientists now subscribe to the so-called oriented lake theory. It suggests that as the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, shallow pools of water remained throughout the Coastal Plain. Prevailing winds and resulting waves from the north elongated the ponds into their present elliptical shape. Whatever their origin, there is a large concentration of these bays in the Bladen Lakes area, and, fortunately, many are now preserved as state-managed lands.

Jones Lake sunset 1 Lake sunset

Stunning sunset from our kayaks on Jones Lake

Jones Lake sunset 1

Cypress tree with Spanish moss at sunset

Our first evening, we paddled our kayaks around the lake and enjoyed a spectacular sunset all to ourselves among the scattered cypress trees along the eastern shoreline.

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

The next morning we headed over to nearby Horseshoe Lake (aka Suggs Mill Pond). It is an aptly named shallow lake that is part of Suggs Mill Pond Game Lands, managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Suggs Mill Pond is an old millpond formed by damming a large peat-filled bay.

Horseshoe Lake wide angle

A sea of yellow pitcher plant flowers in the wetlands at Horseshoe Lake

It is spectacular this time of year as it contains thousands of yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava. Their unusual flowers can be seen stretching across the wetlands along the lake edge.

Pitcher plants along shoreline

Yellow pitcher plants in bloom along the shoreline

The new growth leaves that will form the pitchers are also visible, with many already opening into the deadly traps that will consume an array of insect prey over the next growing season.

Dragonfly shed on pitcvher plant flower

Shed skin of a dragonfly where it transformed  from an aquatic nymph into the winged adult

Sometimes the plants can serve as a place of “birth” instead of death. There were large numbers of dragonflies and damselflies on the wing and ample evidence of their amazing transformation from underwater predator to aerial acrobat scattered about on any upright surface sticking above the water – even on the flower of a pitcher plant.

Lily pads on Horseshoe Lake

White waterlily pads dotted the lake surface in many areas

One of the dominant plants in the lake was the beautiful white waterlily, Nymphaea odorata. The cleft leaves dot the surface with an array of colors, from green to red, and provide a place for all manner of creatures to sit upon the water.

cricket frog

Southern cricket frog, Acris gryllus

The repeated gick-gick-gick calls of Southern cricket frogs could be heard everywhere we paddled, along with the occasional katunk-katunk-katunk of carpenter frogs.

Lilypad forktail male

Male lilypad forktail damselfly

Delicate damselflies glided along our path, pausing briefly in their pursuits of prey, or each other, to rest upon a lilypad. The lilypad forktail is aptly named, as it almost always rests on lilypads, and characteristically touches the tip of its abdomen to the leaf surface.

Lilypad forktail imm female

Immature female lilypad forktail

Adult males are brilliant blue with dark thoracic stripes. Adult females are lighter blue and immature females are a bright orange.

white water ilies

The flowers of white waterlily

The elegant flowers of the white waterlilies always tempt me to lean just a bit too far over the side of my canoe or kayak in order to capture their pleasing low-angle reflection.

Common grackle

Common grackle

We spotted several species of birds on the lake, including a green heron, red-shouldered hawk, northern parula warblers, Eastern kingbirds, wood ducks, mallards, and several common grackles busy setting up nest sites. This striking fellow allowed me to drift close enough to his perch to catch his iridescent colors…

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

…and to see his “third eyelid”, the nictitating membrane.

bladderwort

Bladderwort flowers

In addition to the thousands of pitcher plants, another carnivorous plant species was incredibly abundant at this location – bladderwort, Utricularia sp.

Bladderwort mass

Bladderworts, showing vegetative portions beneath the water surface

These mostly aquatic plants (there is a terrestrial species that occurs in moist sandy soils) have delicate flowers perched on slender stalks above the water, but the bulk of their biomass is beneath the surface. Scattered among the feathery vegetative portions, they have minute bladder-shaped organs with trap doors that can suck in tiny invertebrates that come in contact with the trigger hairs. Some areas of the lake had so much of this plant that it was like paddling through pudding at times as the vegetation clung to your paddle with every stroke. But, Horseshoe Lake is, nevertheless, a truly magical place, especially by kayak or canoe. Part 2 of our quest for the carnivores of the plant kingdom in the next post.

Catching Gnats and Plucking Lichens

More than with most species of small birds, the attention and interest of the observer center about the nesting habits of the blue-gray gnatcatcher because of the great beauty of its nest.

~Francis Marion Weston, 1949

One of my favorite spring arrivals is the plucky little blue-gray gnatcatcher. It is tiny, but bold. It looks a bit like a tiny mockingbird, but builds a nest like a large hummingbird. My friend, Mary, found a nest at the Garden recently and emailed me where to look as I prepared for a program. I never did find that one (they are often very well camouflaged on a branch). But, a week later, as I was leaving work, I heard the familiar “Steeve” call, looked up, and saw one fly into a small tree. I got out my binoculars, and was pleased to see a nest in progress.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest empty

Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest (click photos to enlarge)

A few evenings later, I brought my camera and spent some time watching this industrious duo go about the business of finishing what is certainly one of nature’s most beautiful nests. By this time, it looked like the nest was nearing completion, but the gathering of materials, and fine-tune adjustments, continued for over an hour as I watched.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher with spider silk on bill

Female bringing in spider silk

The nest is a deep (about 3 inches) cup about 1.5-2 times the size of a ruby-throated hummingbird nest. Otherwise, they look almost identical – a somewhat high-walled, elastic nest covered on the outside with lichens and held together with spider silk. The inside is lined with soft materials like plant down, hair, and fine feathers.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 2

Male checking the feel of the nest

As I watched, both adults were busy contributing to the efforts. During the breeding season, the male blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo above) can be distinguished from the female (photo below) by the presence of their black forehead and supercilium (a stripe that runs from the base of the birds beak and above its eye). The female’s head is plain gray.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 3

Female inspecting the progress

I had my big telephoto plus a teleconverter, so I was well away from the nest. The birds chose a very busy location for their activity, right next to a road and walkway that is popular with Garden visitors, so I don’t think they minded me watching them.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 5

Male placing a lichen

There were times when nothing happened at the nest for 10 minutes or so, then there were bursts of activity with a bird bringing in materials (especially pieces of foliose lichens – they look like lichen cornflakes) every minute or so. The usual routine was to fly into  a branch next to the nest, pause, then hop into the nest and place whatever material was brought in. Then there was often some fine-tuning, placing the lichen just so, inspecting it for a second, and then off again. Time spent in the nest on any one visit was usually less than 20 seconds. References say it takes about a week to complete a nest, but I think this pair could do it much faster based on what I saw.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher singing

Male singing

Blue-gray gnatcatcher preening

Male preening

In between nest-building activities, the pair would pause for some singing, preening, or the important duty of nest protection. I am a bit worried about this particular nest, since it seems in a more open location than many I have seen. There are a lot of hazards to any nesting bird, especially one so tiny. I witnessed a few bouts of territorial defense as this pair chased after a crow and a pair of blue jays that flew through their air space. And a pair of brown-headed cowbirds received a lot of attention when they perched within 50 feet of the nest. Both adults repeatedly dive-bombed the cowbirds, who seemed uninterested. They eventually flew off, and nest building resumed about 5 minutes later.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher pressing down in nest 1

Shaping the cup

The final stage of nest building is refining the shape of the cup. This is something they put their whole body into…the adult plops down into the nest with just their head and long tail (the tail accounts for about 45% of the total body length) visible and pushes against the sides of the nest, shaping it as they rotate their body around, flexing the sides until it is just right.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher pressing down in nest

Putting your whole body into getting the shape just right

At times, I could barely see their head at all, with just the slender bill projecting above the lichen wall. I checked on the nest the next few days and saw no activity, so I figured they had completed construction. And now, I see the female sitting in the nest for long periods of time, so I assume she is incubating her eggs. I will keep you posted on their progress.

Unfurling

Only spread a fern frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in.

~John Muir

Before there is a fern frond, there is a fiddlehead. The curled tip of an unfurling fern frond resembles the curled ornamentation (called a scroll) on the end of a stringed instrument, such as a violin. It is also called a crozier (or crosier), from the curved staff used by bishops, which supposedly has its origins in the shepherd’s crook.

It is a ritual repeated every spring, and one that always catches my eye…the beautiful and detailed unfurling of the frond, starting at the base of the leaf blade and progressing outward and upward. It is one of the simple delights of spring.

A gallery of ferns unfurling from the woods behind our house, to the NC Botanical Garden to the Green Swamp…

Fern fiddlehead

Southern shield fern fiddlehead (click photos to enlarge)

early Cinnamon fern

Cinnamon fern

Cinnamon fern fiddlehead

Cinnamon fern fertile frond

Cinnamon fern unfurling group

Cinnamon fern group

Cinnamon fern unfurling 1

Cinnamon fern

Christmas fern fiddlehead pair

Christmas fern

Royal fern unfurlng 1

Royal fern

Royal fern unfurlng

Royal fern

Bracken fern unfurling 1

Bracken fern

Bracken fern unfurling 2

Bracken fern

 

 

Swarming Season

The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.

~Jacques Yves Cousteau

Just at closing one day this week, a coworker at the Garden sent an email alerting everyone to a swarm of honeybees just outside the back gate. I was getting ready for programs the next day so wasn’t able to get down there for an hour or so, but finally grabbed the camera and went out to see if I could find it. I asked a couple of people that were standing there talking if they knew the location of the swarm, but they had not seen it. About then, I saw some flying insects, and quickly found a ball of bees about 12 feet up on a small tree trunk.

Honeybee swarm

Honeybee swarm

I’m always amazed when I see one of these swarms…a buzzing blob that may contain hundreds to thousands of honeybees. Beneath all that is royalty, the queen. Swarms usually occur from late spring into early summer and appear more common after a mild winter and an early spring, like this year. A swarm is the process by which honeybees form a new colony. When the colony needs room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen. The old queen then leaves the hive with several thousand of her followers, leaving enough workers behind to take care of the new queen and the business of the old hive.

Honeybee swarm1

Scout bees are looking for a new hive location

The swarm usually flies a short distance away from the old hive and settles on some object (it can be a tree branch, a light pole, or even some part of a house). The queen is usually somewhere near the center of the cluster. Bees in a swarm are usually docile so there is no need to panic should you find yourself near one. The swarm stays in that temporary location anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days until scout bees locate a suitable new hive location, like a hollow tree or other protected spot. In the case of these bees, a local beekeeper was contacted and he came by the next day (unfortunately I had programs so did not get to witness this). He used a “bee vacuum” (a contraption that looks like a shop vac hooked to a box) to literally suck up the swarm so he could then relocate them to a backyard hive for honey production. Apparently, there is a network of beekeepers that can be called on for just this sort of service, which becomes even more valuable if bees decide to set up their new hive inside a dwelling or some other unwanted space.  In this case, both bees and human benefit from a sense of swarm on a late spring afternoon.