It’s the Small Things

Nothing is more humbling than to look with a strong magnifying glass at an insect so tiny that the naked eye sees only the barest speck and to discover that nevertheless it is sculpted and articulated and striped with the same care and imagination.

~Rudolf Arnheim

A view of the the native plant jungle that is our yard…there really is a walkway to the door, I promise (click photos to enlarge)

I’m blaming it on our month-long trip out West back in May. At least that’s what I will tell anyone that wonders why our yard is so, well, jungle-like. Over the years, I’ve kind of let plants do what they wanted to do, in violation of most standard gardening practices. There are tall Joe-Pye-Weeds in front of shorter plants, a couple of species of ferns have run amok and taken over large portions of beds, and the tree canopy has grown so much that most wildflowers are abnormally tall and leggy and therefore often fall over without adding plant supports. But, it helps keep the invasives, especially Microstegium, at bay (a little). And then there are the rabbits that like to munch on the species I truly prize (like Cardinal Flower and Rosinweed), so the garden definitely has a mind of its own in terms of species make-up and arrangement. But, it provides food and shelter for a pretty amazing array of creatures, big and small, that keep me company when I wander with my camera. The past few days, I have not had much energy for yard chores due to the heat (another reason it looks this way) but I have managed to stroll through the jungle, looking for some of our tiniest of neighbors.

On of the reasons we have so many insect and spider neighbors is the abundance of native plants like this Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a favorite of both day and night-time pollinators.

Below are some of the small things we see on our meanders through the greenery…

One of the most abundant group of insects right now are the planthoppers. I believe this is a nymph of a Northern Flatid Planthopper, Flatormenis proxima. The waxy filaments may serve a protective function.
An adult Northern Flatid Planthopper. Most planthoppers (and other members of the Hemipiteran suborder Auchenorrhyncha) have piercing-sucking mouthparts for feeding on plant sap. They also have powerful legs for jumping, making some rather difficult to photograph.
Another common planthopper species in our yard, the Citrus Flatid Planthopper (the adult in lower right of image). The nymph above it may be a Two-striped Planthopper.
The SEEK app identifies this as a Two-striped Planthopper nymph, Acanalonia bivittata. It looks to me like some sort of armored creature from a Star Wars movie.
A very tiny insect that SEEK identifies as a Coppery Leafhopper, Jikradia olitoria. I tried to confirm these ID’s using online resources like Bug Guide and the Hoppers of North Carolina, but if anyone knows what they are for sure, please let me know.
A very persistent mating pair of Versute Sharpshooters, Graphocephala versuta.
A beautiful Broad-headed Sharpshooter, Oncometopia orbona. Sharpshooters filter huge amounts of liquid from plants through their digestive system in order to obtain nutrients. They frequently must forcibly eject the excess water in a fine stream, hence their unusual common name.
One of my favorite insects to photograph, a wandering Red-headed Bush Cricket (aka Handsome Trig) nymph, Phyllopalpus pulchellus.
A tiny nymph of one of the Lesser Meadow Katydids (Conocephalus sp) sprouts an impressive pair of antenna.
One of the bigger challenges for a macro photograph, a species of quick-on-its-feet-and-wings Long-legged Fly. These come in a variety of metallic colors and often jump out of the frame when the flash goes off and then return to the leaf. I discovered this when I kept getting blank photos but they were still on the leaf when I looked after taking the picture.
A common small moth that I frequently scare up when walking through the yard, a Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus.
These little dots of debris are very common right now. They slowly waddle along the vegetation, and cause you to do a double-take when you see that lichen or that tuft of fuzz move..
Beneath all that debris is a voracious predator of small insects, especially aphids and planthoppers, a larval form of one of the species of Green Lacewing. They have spines on their back that they attach material like lichens or the waxy remains of their victims (like planthopper nymphs) to as camouflage. Check out those mandibles on this one!
A tiny Crab Spider (perhaps a White-banded Crab Spider) awaits its next meal on the head of a Purple Coneflower
Another tiny predator is fairly abundant this week, a Spined Assassin Bug, Sinea sp. This aptly named little terror is covered with stout spines and has huge raptorial front legs it uses to grasp prey.
Once it catches an insect (in this case a hapless ant), it pierces it with its needle-like proboscis, injects a toxin and a digestive enzyme, and then sucks out the nutrients. This one also had a Freeloader Fly (tiny winged insect on the ant’s head) along to lap up any spilled juices.

Completing the Circle

I’ve always loved butterflies, because they remind us that it’s never too late to transform ourselves.

~Drew Barrymore

Last year I finally had success in photographing a chrysalis of a beautiful spring-time butterfly, the Falcate Orange-tip. I collected four eggs and their host plants and brought them inside to rear because I had no success in locating their thorn-mimic pupa in the wild. I have kept them on the screen porch all year so they would be exposed to cold temperatures and humidity. I saw my first Falcate Orange-tip flying in the yard on Tuesday of this week, so I figured it was time to start observing my pupae. Sure enough, two emerged yesterday and one early this morning. I photographed the freshly emerged adult (a female) right before releasing her.

Below is the entire sequence from an egg from last March, to larva, to chrysalis, to the adult from this morning. The circle is complete…a sure sign of Spring.

Falcate Orange-tip butterflies with male in courtship flight (click photos to enlarge)
Egg (orange-colored structure) on host plant
Late instar larva of Falcate Orange-tip
Prepupa
The thorn-mimic chrysalis on a twig
Just emerged Falcate Orange-tip female on twig above spent chrysalis
She is hardening her wings by pumping fluid from her abdomen through the wing veins
A closer view of the head of a Falcate Orange-tip

Return to Merchants Millpond

Paradise is just a paddle away.

~Author unknown

When I worked as a District Naturalist for the state park system oh-so-many years ago, one of my favorite parks was Merchants Millpond State Park in northeastern North Carolina. It is a true natural gem of our state and remains one of my favorite spots to spend some time in the solitude of a beautiful swamp. The millpond was created in 1811 by damming Bennetts Creek to construct a grist mill, sawmill, and other commercial enterprises that gave rise to the name Merchants Millpond. Today, the park encompasses over 3200 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp and beech-mixed hardwood uplands. Melissa has a workshop on the millpond in a few weeks, so she wanted to do a scouting trip and introduce some of her co-leaders to the place. She decided to take a day off for exploring before her staff arrived, so we packed up the truck and threw our kayaks on top for a mid-week adventure in this perfect springtime weather.

Truck camping with some new accessories on top (click photos to enlarge)

I contacted our friends, Floyd and Signa, that live just outside the park, to see if they wanted to paddle with us on Wednesday. They are some of the best naturalists I know and certainly know the millpond better than anyone (Floyd was a ranger there for many years). They offered to take us up Lassiter Swamp to “the big trees”, a scattered group of Bald Cypress trees that are hundreds of years old and tower above the rest of the swamp forest – heck yeah!

The dominant trees on the millpond – Bald Cypress (left) and Tupelo Gum (right)

The 760-acre millpond is dominated by two tree species – Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum. Stumps of ancient cypress cut in the 1800’s form islands of vegetation with Swamp Rose, Wax Myrtle and a host of other plant species. Spanish Moss is draped off most of the tree branches and Yellow Cow Lily (Spatterdock) is just starting to poke its leaves out of the water surface.

Spanish Moss adorns many of the trees on the millpond

Paddle to the far end and you enter an entirely different world – Lassiter Swamp. The channel narrows and winds through a maze of gnarled Tupelo Gum that have been transformed into gargoyle-like shapes by Mistletoe (a semi-parasitic plant that causes the gum trees to create odd growths as they forms “scar tissue” in reaction to the Mistletoe’s intrusion). So many trees have been disfigured by the Mistletoe that the entrance to the swamp is known as “the enchanted forest” by locals.

Paddling up Lassiter Swamp with our friends
The Tupelo Gum take on new forms under the influence of Mistletoe

I have always loved Lassiter Swamp for its solitude and abundance of wildlife. And this trip provided both. As we paddled around one bend, Melissa said, There’s a Raccoon in that tree. I looked, but didn’t see it at first. It was curled up inside a giant gnarl on a gum tree. We were all impressed she spotted it.

The Raccoon tree
A closer look reveals the sleepy Raccoon
Swamp cuteness

After a few hours of paddling, we started seeing some of the really big Bald Cypress scattered about the upper end of Lassiter Swamp. One of the big ones I remembered climbing inside years ago (9 people could stand inside the hollow base of the giant) had fallen victim to Hurricane Isabelle and lay covered in moss along the creek bank. But the matriarch of the swamp is still standing. This cypress was aged by the team that designated those well-known cypress along the Black River as the oldest known trees in the Eastern United States (one has been dated to be at least 2,624 years old). This tree is much larger than those on the Black River due to the nutrient-rich waters of this swamp and is estimated to be at least 1000 years old. It is humbling to stand next to one of these giants.

Standing next to an ancient sentinel of the swamp
This Bald Cypress is estimated to be over 1000 years old
Golden light in the swamp

As we paddled back to the launch area, Melissa spotted a large Alligator basking in the late day sun. Floyd told us about the first confirmed Alligator sighting on the millpond back in 1996. Rumors of gators in the park had been around a couple of years, but, in 1996, a fisherman told Floyd he had seen one. In fact, he had caught it while fishing and had it in his boat (he didn’t know what to do with it and had brought it to shore hoping a ranger could help). After unhooking the ~3-foot gator, keeping it in an unused dog pen with a kiddie pool, and contacting wildlife officials, the decision was made to release it back into the millpond. There are now a few Alligators that call the millpond home, including one larger than the ~7-footer we observed.

Alligator sunning on the bank

A highlight of the trip was one that did not occur on the millpond but on the uplands. Our friends shared the location of an Eastern Screech Owl roosting in a hollow tree, something I have been hoping to find for several years now (I have seen them, but only when I didn’t have a camera in hand). The owl did not disappoint. It is a gray phase (they can also be reddish in color) and has a perfect perch in the hollow of a tree. We checked the tree each time we drove in and out of the campground and it has a habit of disappearing down into the hollow and then reappearing so you never know when it will be visible. What a treat!

The screech owl tree
A closer view of a sleepy Eastern Screech Owl

Another wonderful wildlife encounter was the Bald Eagle nest in a tall pine out on the millpond. The eagle is easily seen with binoculars and must be sitting on eggs still as she didn’t move much on either day we paddled.

The nest tree
Bald Eagle on nest (heavy crop of telephoto image)

On my last trip by the nest tree, the male eagle flew in and perched nearby, giving me the side eye from behind a tree trunk. I paddled on not wanting to disturb them.

The male flew in and perched nearby as I was paddling back out of the millpond
Turtles were basking on almost every log on Thursday (note the very long front claws on the male turtle on the left – used during courtship to stroke the necks of females)

Thursday was even warmer and turtles were everywhere on the millpond. Pickerel Frogs and the occasional Southern Leopard Frog were calling as I paddled solo up the pond to spend the day in the swamp (Melissa was with her co-workers planning the workshop). There is something magical about being in a swamp by yourself. The quiet, the sense of isolation, and yet a feeling of being wrapped in the arms of a living forest. You tend to become a part of the swamp and more in tune to your surroundings.

A large Beaver lodge in Lassiter Swamp

I passed the Raccoon tree and found it empty, but there were plenty of birds and signs of animals (otter scat, beaver lodges and cut trees, raccoon tracks in the mud) as I paddled. Finally, I saw a swirl in the water along one side of the creek and then some movement – otter! I stopped paddling and slowly drifted with camera in hand as the four River Otter realized there was something in their creek and swam out to get a better view. They bobbed up and down, snuffing and snorting as they tried to figure me out. I never got all four in the same field of view at once, but it was great spending a few minutes with these aquatic acrobats. They finally had enough of me and headed upstream.

Two River Otter swimming across the creek
Three of the four otter pause to check me out

Two gorgeous male Wood Ducks graced me with their presence as I sat on a beech slope adjacent to the creek eating my lunch. Of course, the camera was in the kayak and as soon as I slowly tried to reach for it, one of the ducks spotted me and the game was over, off they went. On the way out, I paddled along the edge of Lassiter Swamp seeing plenty of Beaver sign and scaring up flocks of Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, along with a bunch of noisy pairs of Canada Geese.

A Spatterdock root jam swept by the wind into a cove in the upper end of the millpond

My last wildlife highlight of the day was an Anhinga, a symbol of swamps and black waters in the south. I now see them much more frequently than when I first started paddling the swamps of the Coastal Plain some 40 years ago, but it is always a treat.

An Anhinga flies overhead displaying its distinctive silhouette

Merchants Millpond remains one of my favorites places to spend time on the water. It has a rich history, amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery, great facilities and staff, and can provide you with a sense of being one with a wild place like few other places so close to home. And seeing our friends and knowing all they know and do for the park, it reminds me how much I truly appreciate people like Floyd and Signa that have given (and continue to give) so much to help conserve and make one special wild place available to plants, wildlife, and people. That is one of the things that makes North Carolina State Parks so special, the dedicated people that love and protect them.

The sunset on our first day’s paddle

Refuges as refuge

For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.

~Richard Louv

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you know that we are lucky to live in a beautiful wooded setting with abundant wildlife from insects to birds. But one of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic has been spending time with other wildlife, things we typically don’t see here at home. Yesterday, Melissa had to work (in one of her first in-person workshops in quite some time) so I decided to hit the road and visit some of my favorite spots – the wildlife refuges of Eastern North Carolina.

First stop, Pocosin Lakes (aka Pungo). I was surprised to see a few Snow Geese still around along with the usual late Tundra Swans. Several ducks (mainly Northern Shovelers) and four Bald Eagles were a good way to start. All were a bit too far off for photos, so I just watched though binoculars. Some roads are still closed due to the very wet weather and there were already 3 carloads of people at “Bear Road”, so I headed over to Lake Mattamuskeet to try my luck there.

I saw a post last week on Facebook about a Great Horned Owl nest out on the lake, and from the photo, I knew exactly which tree it was in – a small Bald Cypress out on the lake that had an old Osprey nest in it. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nest, but often use broken snags or nests of other large birds. I had to look from the top of the car in order to get a clear view over the tall Phragmites that lines the lake, but you can clearly see the owls in the nest with binoculars or a spotting scope. My 500mm telephoto (plus 1.4x teleconverter) brings it all in a bit closer, but due to the great distance over water, there is a bit of atmospheric interference, which makes a sharp photo difficult. I saw two young plus an adult at one point but have heard there may be three young in the nest.

Great Horned Owls have taken over an old Osprey nest on Lake Mattamuseet (click photos to enlarge)
An adult owl plus two (I think) young can be seen in this photo

Since many of the waterfowl have headed north, I was hoping to see some other critters as I started down Wildlife Drive. A small, dark rabbit greeted me near the entrance and seemed unconcerned as I slowly pulled over across the road. My first thought was this was a Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris. One of three species of rabbits found in NC (Eastern Cottontail and Appalachian Cottontail being the others), Marsh Rabbits are usually found in coastal regions near marshes and swamps. They tend to be slightly darker brown in color, have shorter ears, smaller eyes, and, most distinctly, lack the fluffy white underside to the tail that gives the more common and widespread cottontail its name (their tails are brownish underneath). Unfortunately, this little guy never showed me that part of its anatomy, but I’m still pretty sure its a Marsh Rabbit.

A rabbit out in the open along Wildlife Drive
The rabbit with a mouthful

I enjoyed watching it for several minutes and managed a quick video clip of its constant munching.

This is me with a plate of cookies or chips

I always enjoy the short hike along the New Holland Trail with its beautiful cypress swamp setting. The water levels are very high everywhere in our state right now and, for the first time I can remember, the walk to get to the boardwalk was slightly underwater. But that made for beautiful reflections in the swamp.

The boardwalk on the New Holland Trail at Mattamuskeet NWR
Red Maple flowers signaling the arrival of spring
Playing with post=processing settings on a phone photo of the cypress reflections along the boardwalk

The far end of Wildlife Drive was closed due to high water and the back side of the loop around the impoundment had the most water I have ever seen. That meant fewer wading birds although I did spy a couple of egrets squabbling over feeding territory.

A Great Egret flies to chase off another in its territory

It was still fairly early when I finished my lunch, so I decided to head over to the last refuge for the day, Alligator River NWR. As soon as I drove in off Hwy 264, I spotted an otter in a roadside canal. I stopped to watch and it disappeared into the high water in the trees off the canal. It was the first of five River Otter I spotted in my couple of hours on the refuge. I ended up spending some time with one otter as it swam down a long canal. I would drive ahead and park on the opposite side of the road, then get out and use the vehicle as a blind and a support for my camera and snap a few photos as the otter swam by. Once it was down the canal a bit, I got back in and drove another hundred yards or so beyond the otter to watch it pass again. At one spot, there was an opportunity to get closer due to some trees and brush on my side of the canal. I sat and waited for quite some time and suddenly the otter was alongside me. I managed a couple of quick shots as it passed and then it slowed and turned to look back at me. I imagine the otter might not have been thinking the peaceful thoughts I was having, but it quickly continued on its way.

I spent some time with this River Otter traveling a canal at Alligator River NWR
My favorite photo of a day filled with much needed wildlife encounters

The opening quote above is from a wonderful book (Our Wild Calling) by Richard Louv on the value of human – wildlife interactions. It is the last line in part of a closing paragraph on something he says we should try to adopt in our relations with animal life – what he calls the reciprocity principle. Th other parts of that principle are equally worthy of our attention:

For every moment of healing that humans receive from another creature, humans will provide an equal moment of healing for that animal and its kin. For every acre of wild habitat we take, we will preserve or create at least another acre for wildness. For every dollar we spend on classroom technology, we will spend at least another dollar creating chances for children to connect deeply with another animal plant, or person.

Our wildlife refuges go a long way toward meeting the goals of that principle. And I have been lucky to have a small chunk of woodlands to care-take and to have spent a career trying to provide outdoor experiences for a wide range of people. Now I guess I need to figure out how to repay that otter…

Changes

Science has never drummed up quite as effective a tranquilizing agent as a sunny spring day. 

~W. Earl Hall

It’s coming. We can see it and hear it in our woods. The big change is near – the approach of spring in the Piedmont! The first warm days last weekend ushered in a host of other firsts – our first butterfly of the season (a Question Mark), the first Spring Peepers calling, the first sightings of the numerous Green Frogs in our disheveled water gardens, and so much more. This morning I see the long-range forecast calls for a string of sunny days ahead, something that seems like another first for this year, so I anticipate a lot of other noticeable changes in the coming days. Here are a few of the highlights of our woods wanderings last weekend. As in many of our recent walks, all photos were taken with my phone. At the bottom is a list of bird species we saw or heard on Sunday, a very good day for bird activity, especially raptors and woodpeckers.

Melissa spotted this (we think it is a Mud Salamander, Pseudotriton montanus) in our little creek over the weekend, a first sighting for this species on our property. Unfortunately, this is our only pic, as one misstep (mine) caused a flood of muddy water to cascade over it and by the time it cleared, this beauty had vanished. (click photos to enlarge)
The first spider webs of the season magically appeared on Sunday morning as the fog made their presence known throughout our woods – this one a tiny orb web
A Bowl and Doily Spider web in the fog
A sheet web on the forest floor
American Beech leaves continue to hang on and provide a canvas for the fog droplets
A view of our south slope woodlands across the creek and up the hill from the house (this area is much more open than the woods near our house, which is on the hill you see in the background)
Our latest bench on the south slope (one of 4 currently in our patch of woods)
One of the first plants to begin leaf out – Painted Buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica)
Our first snake of the year, a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi). These small, harmless snakes are common in the leaf litter in our woods and feed primarily on earthworms, slugs, and other small invertebrates.

Birds from our Sunday explorations in our woods:

Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, and the still usual suspects at our feeders – Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco

Living in the Wet Woods

Nana always said the rain was nature’s way of adding sparkle to the outdoors.

~Mehmet Murat Ildan

Surely the woods are sparkling now after what seems like weeks of rain. We actually have had some occasional nice weather, but the past few days have been soakers. Our clay soils have added some slickness to our woods walking and the usually intermittent stream below the house has been running at full capacity for several weeks now. Yesterday, there were two small waterfalls providing a wonderful soundscape for a walk in the woods. I have left the “real” camera at home this week and used my iPhone for recording what I see (plus a couple of trail camera images at the end of the post).

The unnamed creek below our house (maybe we will call it Buckeye Bottoms for all the Painted Buckeye that thrive in the creek bottom?) (click photos to enlarge)

Perhaps the raindrops do provide a certain sparkle to the woods when you stop and look closely.

Raindrops on a skeletonized leaf

Rainy days definitely hep me walk more slowly and take notice of (and appreciate) details of our woods.

American Beech leaf still hanging on. This is a characteristic of this wonderful tree (especially the younger ones) – it hangs onto its leaves longer than any other species in our woods and provides a golden brown patchwork to the forest in winter
Beech trees also provide a beautiful canvas for crustose lichens
A single Heartleaf Ginger leaf in a mossy embrace at the base of a tree trunk
A fallen branch reveals the patterned underside of a fungus

I have a dilemma with the trail cameras out now. I love checking them to see what surprises they unveil, but I hesitate to walk our woods too much for fear of disturbing the wildlife I am trying to record. But, the woods provide such a peaceful and fulfilling setting that I’m sure we will find a balance. I set one camera on still photos mode for the first time this week just to see how those images compare to the video. I put it on a small tree facing uphill on our south-facing slope where the deer have obviously been digging through the leaves for acorns (and maybe hickory nuts). Below is one of a series of images the camera provided. There were six deer in this herd and four of them were bucks with 6 or more points!

The trail camera on our south-facing slope captured a herd of deer foraging for acorns

This week I started placing one trail camera on a specific spot of interest in the woods rather than along a main game trail or the creek. I’m hoping to learn how some various small woodland features are utilized. On one walk, we discovered a stump hole that had a smaller well worn hole in it. The camera shows a mouse running in and out after dark. This mouse seems to have a longer tail than most of the other mice I have seen, so I am not sure what species this is. If anyone has ideas, please drop me a note.

A mystery mouse caught by a trail camera as it runs in and out of a stump hole near the house

While we enjoy walking in our rainy woods, I am looking forward to that thing called sunshine returning this weekend. I believe the woods will start to explode with signs of spring over the next week. Stay tuned…

A Week in Winter

If one could take the cover off the ground in the fields and woods in winter, or have some magic ointment put upon his eyes that would enable him to see through opaque substances, how many curious and interesting forms of life he would behold in the ground beneath his feet as he took his winter walk.

~John Burroughs

I spent a lot of time outside this past week enjoying our woods. The trail cameras definitely help me spend more time exploring, walking slowly, or simply sitting and watching as I try to find new places for them or go every couple of days to open the surprise gift that is the record caught on the memory card. The week started sunny and mild (you remember that thing called sunshine, right?) and ended wet and cold. On those bright cloudless days, I spent some time observing the grosbeak frenzy at the feeders and tried to capture some more moments of birds in flight. I came close to getting the shot I had hoped for, the dueling grosbeaks in mid-air, but focus was a tad off. Here is a sampling…

A pair of male Evening Grosbeaks discussing who should or should not be on the feeder (click photos to enlarge)
A male Evening Grosbeak approaching the feeder in great light.

Melissa participated in a museum live event yesterday with cameras on the bird feeders to make observations for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I spent some time watching the behaviors and tried to estimate the time it takes for a grosbeak to eat one seed. After many trials, it averaged between 4 and 5 seconds for an Evening Grosbeak to pick up, open, swallow the kernel, and discard the shell of a single sunflower seed. No wonder our bird seed budget has tripled since they showed up.

Waiting for an opening, this male Purple Finch bides his time on a nearby branch
A Pine Siskin heading for the seed while the grosbeaks are gone

Throughout the week, we have spent time walking the winter woods, appreciating their quiet and beauty.

We have been spending more time on our sunny south-facing slope after creating another sit spot next to a huge oak tree
Dried stalks of Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) at the base of one of our large American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees. This parasitic plant obtains its nutrients from the roots of the beech tree. It flowers in late summer, but the dried stalks usually remain throughout the winter.
The outdoor dining area for a Gray Squirrel that was feasting on hickory nuts
This avian crime scene was on a bent over tree trunk parallel to the ground. It looks like the work of an Accipiter (Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk) that had caught a Downy Woodpecker. A Cooper’s Hawk has been frequenting the yard the past few weeks, hunting the many birds that have been crowding the feeders.
Another Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone hepatica) about to bloom along the creek
A beautiful fungus (I believe it is a False Turkey Tail) on a fallen tree branch
A textured land snail creeping along a rock
There are four Raccoons living in this huge Tulip Poplar just outside our deer fence. Three seem to use the dinner-plate-sized hole just below the fork, while one squeezes into the top of a long narrow slit in the trunk below. This is from one of our trail cameras pointed skyward.

With the apparent onset of the monsoon season these past few days, it seems a perfect time to go out and search for lovelorn amphibians. Our friend, Alvin, called us Thursday night to remind us it was an ideal situation for the salamander run. Spotted salamanders breed on cold, rainy nights from January through early March. They migrate from their upland underground hideouts to vernal pools (that are fish-less) to breed. See a previous post for more on this fascinating behavior. We bundled up and headed out, and immediately found a group of swirling salamanders in one of our small pools out front. They are hard to see in the vegetation in this pool so we wanted to check some other likely places. We drove a couple of miles to a spot where they traditionally cross the road (or at east try to) to reach a nice vernal pool. We found some egg masses and one salamander near the pool but no large gathering. We did manage to help several across the road and saw a few that did not get any relief from oncoming traffic. I texted a neighbor to see if we could check his pool and when he welcomed us over, we stopped and walked up toward this created wetland. As we got close, we started seeing salamanders marching with us toward the water.

A large Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) crawling toward a breeding site

There were dozens of writhing salamanders in the water in what is known as a breeding congress. We were mesmerized by all the action. I was able to count 37 at one point but I’m sure there were many more out of sight in the fallen leaves and aquatic vegetation. Wow!

I’ll leave you with this short clip of action in the pool as an amphibian reminder that, in spite of it all, life goes on and we should enjoy what time we have on this magical planet. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wildlife Neighbors

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.

~Linda Hogan

I recently bought another trail camera and have been putting them out in our woods the past few weeks trying to document who shares our 14 acres. I look for game trails and natural junctures (like our creek bed), placing the cameras on trees for a couple of days, and then retrieving the images. It is always a thrill to see what triggered the cameras and when. I’m also starting to look for places where there has been obvious recent activity, like the pileated log from my last post. Of course, the photographer in me wishes the images were a higher quality, but the naturalist in me is delighted with what the cameras are recording when the woods are on their own.

By far, the greatest number of captures have been of Eastern Gray Squirrels. Our woods seem extra full of them this year, perhaps due to the extraordinary mast year we have had that produced an abundance of acorns and hickory nuts. There have been many trips that did not record any animal as there is a delay between when teh camera senses movement and when it starts recording. The mouse on the pileated log from the last post is a prime example. During the day, a quick moving squirrel or a bird flying in front of the camera can leave me with nothing but guesses as to what set it off.

Below are some of my favorite captures from the last four weeks of trail cameras (best if viewed full screen) with notes on each…

One of the mystery visitors (what do you think it is?)
I think one of these guys is the culprit from that first clip (I have recorded 4 raccoons at one time on the trail cam, possibly siblings?), Notice the interaction of the two in the background
The second most recorded animal has been White-tailed Deer, with as many as 5 in the field of view at once
I have seen this buck on a couple of cameras, both day and night
This buck is an 8-pointer, but has 5 points on one side and 3 on the other. I have seen this one and the one above bedded down near our fence during daylight recently
This was the first time a coyote was caught on camera. He looks up toward the house before running, so I assume I made some noise like splitting wood or chainsawing a log. The cameras have caught one coyote on several other occasions this past week at night and once have recorded two. We hear them on occasion but I have only seen one on our property with my own eyes..
This is the wildlife neighbor I have enjoyed seeing the most. It has been caught 3 times now on camera. Before this, we had only ever seen tracks in the snow. The black legs (especially front legs) and lack of a black tail tip is characteristic of a Red Fox (Gray Foxes have black tail tips). This one seems to lack the usual white tail tip of Red Foxes (or it is very faint).

I usually take my camera with me when I go check the trail cameras, but earlier this week I was in a hurry and just wanted to make a quick trip. As I headed down slope, I noticed something through the gray tree trunks. I pulled up my binoculars…it was the Red Fox staring at me. It looked at me for a few seconds and then trotted off down toward the creek. Suddenly, three deer, apparently startled by the fox, came running up toward me. It was a doe and two beautiful bucks (the 6 and 8-pointers shown above). They stopped, looked at me, and may have realized I was without camera, so they gave me a nice pose. I decided to wait another day to retrieve the trail cam footage. I hope the other wildlife neighbors will reveal themselves “in person” some day. In the meantime, I’ll let the trail cams tell me who is out there.

Here is a complete list of species recorded this month:

Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, mouse (species unknown), Dark-eyed Junco; American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, Red Fox, Coyote, unidentified moths

Wood-hen in the hood

The bird already possessed a common name; and it is a pity that Latham did not know it. In its native land it was, and still is, commonly called, the log-cock…and because of its cackling cry, “wood-hen,” “laughing woodpecker,”…

~in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1939

My father called them wood hens and taught me to pay attention to their distinctive call when we were out deer hunting. When they called, it usually meant something was moving in the woods nearby, maybe a deer. Their most accepted common name is Pileated Woodpecker, and I have enjoyed seeing and hearing them ever since those days as a kid prowling the woods. We are lucky to have several that make our slice of forest heaven their home and we see them frequently, often very close to the house. The scientific name, Dryocopus pileatus, means tree cleaver with a crest, a great summary of its distinctive looks and habits. They are creatures of the forest, and prefer tracts of large trees, for both nesting cavities and foraging.

A male Pileated Woodpecker perched on a snag (click photos to enlarge)

They are our largest woodpecker, from 16-19 inches in length (about the size of a crow). The Birds of the World Online compendium describes them as a keystone species as they play a crucial role in many forest ecosystems in North America by excavating large nesting, roosting and foraging cavities that are subsequently used by a diverse array of birds and mammals—for shelter and nesting. They typically excavate nest holes near the tops of large standing dead trees which are later used by a variety of other woodland creatures like Wood Ducks, Southern Flying Squirrels, and Eastern Screech Owls. Their large size and stout, chisel-like bills enable them to break open tree trunks and fallen logs in search of their favorite prey, large ants (like Carpenter Ants) and beetle grubs. This incessant chipping away at forest pillars undoubtedly helps speed the process of decomposition and forest recycling of nutrients and provides access for a variety of other woodland creatures that might feed on invertebrates associated with decaying trees and logs. I have watched deer, robins, and squirrels scratch in the wood chips and poke into holes created by these woodpeckers as they search for a tasty morsel.

The chisel-like bill can blow apart a tree trunk like a shotgun blast

As we walk our woods, we find plenty of evidence of their presence even when we don’t see or hear them. We have many large dead trees and a substantial crop of fallen logs that provide feeding sites for our woodpeckers. I have recently found numerous big branches, stumps, and logs that look like someone took a hatchet to them and splintered them into hundreds of pieces with some of the wood chips measuring 4 and 5 inches in length.

A large branch on the ground splintered by woodpecker activity
A small tree trunk has been chipped away by a Pileated Woodpecker

When I got my second trail camera (we have two Browning Strike Force PRO XD trail cameras), I was eager to set it up on a large log down slope from our house that had recent woodpecker activity. I left the camera up two days, attached to a tree about 6 feet from the log. When I retrieved it, I could tell the woodpecker had been there as there were new chips scattered along the length of the log. The camera captured over two hours of feeding activity by a male Pileated Woodpecker along with day-time visits by a few other species (American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, and Gray Squirrel). I have included two clips that highlight some of the more interesting behaviors (view full screen with sound up)…

Pileated Woodpecker pounding on fallen log and calling
Slow motion clip of woodpecker eating a large beetle grub

At night, the log continued to draw the attention of forest neighbors including a Red Fox, White-tailed deer, Raccoon, and a very energetic mouse.

The nocturnal log is also active

The first few clips after dark showed nothing, but the next in the series revealed a very fast mouse was the culprit. In some clips it was triggering the camera but disappearing before it was recorded. And all this is happening on just one log in the forest. I can’t wait to see what else the cameras reveal.

Winter Walks

Go to the winter woods: listen there, look, watch, and “the dead months” will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest.

~William Sharp

Our two trail cameras have given me a new excuse to walk in our woods every couple of days (to retrieve images) and it has reminded me how lucky we are to live where we do. We have a little over 14 acres of hardwoods on fairly rugged terrain. There is a simple wooden bench (two boards) set on stones down slope from the house and it provides a nice view of the creek bottom and opposing south-facing slope in winter.

View from the bench looking down slope to a large bed of Christmas Ferns (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday, I wandered down to reset the cameras and took some pics with my phone of the winter woods. I like the expanded views in winter, the crisp air, the sounds of mixed flocks of birds moving through the trees, and the subtle signs of life that appear when you stop to look closely.

The creek on our property disappears underground for much of the summer, but flows nicely after winter rains

The creek bottom extends along the back side of a number of large wooded lots in two neighborhoods and offers an oasis for birds and other wildlife. It also provides a reprieve from many of the human noises we can hear from the ridge top (distant sounds of traffic on Hwy 64, neighbors out in their yards, etc.). For that reason, I decided to haul a cedar log from our yard down to the creek and create another sit spot. Again, nothing fancy, but rather something from the land that blends. This tree trunk had once stood along what I assume was a property line on our ridge and had barbed wire nailed to it (you can see the grooves in it from the years of wire being attached). It now sits on some of the countless irregular-shaped rocks scattered about the tract and is placed up against a beech tree facing the creek. I like to imagine we will spend many hours here contemplating the beauty that surrounds us.

Wooden bench along the creek

Sitting there, I started noticing things all around me that spoke of the quiet beauty of winter…

A skeletonized leaf on a bed of moss
Mushrooms on a mossy tree trunk
Vivid orange mushrooms on a fallen branch (perhaps Crowded Parchment, Stereum complicatum?)
Artist patterns turned into mushrooms on a log (perhaps Turkey Tail, Trametes versicolor?)

When I returned to the house, I looked in some mushroom field guides, and reminded myself of the awe I feel for those that can easily identify our varied fungi. I plugged a couple of them into iNaturalist and labeled the photos as it suggested. If anyone has other ideas, please let me know.

Before I left, I noticed a group of tiny dancers, some sort of fly, probably involved in a mating flight, bobbing up and down in a small animated troupe highlighted by the sun. It reminded me that even in winter, life is striving to continue, to take advantage of any opportunity of warmth, of sunlight, of the future. Here’s a quick phone clip…

After spending time with the flies (it’s not often I get to say that), I walked along the creek, noticing the tracks of deer and raccoon, the diggings of squirrels, and then was startled to see a true sign of spring – the first wildflower of the season – a Round-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica americana.

Round-lobed Hepatica blooming along the creek

All the field guides talk about it blooming from February-March in the Piedmont, but here it is showing its striking purple colors in January. I had seen a friend’s social media post recently of one blooming elsewhere nearby…indeed, climate change in my lifetime. But, troubling as it may be, it is amazing what finding a hint of a season to come does to your mind. I think it is universal among observers of nature as this quote from 19th century naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, so eloquently states…

Nothing is fairer, if as fair, as the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough. When at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods. What an individuality it has! No two clusters alike; all shades and sizes. A solitary blue-purple one fully expanded and rising over the brown leaves or the green moss, its cluster of minute anthers showing like a group of pale stars on its little firmament, is enough to arrest and hold the dullest eye.

The hepatica reminded me we had found some other early signs of spring a few days ago – the first Spotted Salamander egg masses of the season in our small pools and an adult salamander waiting her turn for the next rainy night hiding under a rotting log just outside our deer fence. So, in spite of the abundance of winter birds at our feeders (the grosbeaks, siskins, and finches are still abundant), the march of time carries us toward the green and warmth of the next chapter in our wooded landscape’s story. I’m hoping to read many more pages as this year passes.

A chilly Spotted Salamander under a log near one of our gates