Seek, and Ye Shall Find

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.

~Confuscius

This past month, I have tried to find 5 or 10 minutes each day at work to walk around the building breezeways to photograph any moths that were attracted to the lights the previous night. I hope to create a library of images of some of the common species. As I have reported before, I am relatively new to “mothing” and am still struggling to learn some of the more than 2600 reported species in NC. The release of the Peterson Field Guide to the Moths of Southeastern North America last year has made a huge difference in my ability to identify what I find. My copy is already showing signs of wear from the frequent page-flipping. I also refer to the Moths of North Carolina or Bug Guide web sites to confirm an identification.

Now I have another ally in my quest to learn more. It may be a game-changer, in fact. It is the Seek app by iNaturalist. Using the millions of observations on iNaturalist, Seek shows you lists of commonly recorded insects, birds, plants, amphibians, and more in your area. You don’t even need to take a photo, just open the camera and scan whatever you want to know more about. It instantly gives you information, and if it can’t ID it, it may suggest looking at the subject from a different angle. It is usually at least gets you to the family level or beyond even if it doesn’t ID to species. This free app is available for both iOS and Android. I have found it to be particularly useful for moth identification, most likely due to the countless recorded observations of several local moth enthusiasts. In order to get the best possible image, I usually take the photo with my normal camera set-up (100mm macro and twin flash), download the image onto my laptop, and then scan it with my phone and the Seek app for ID help.

I have double-checked many of the early identifications using the other references mentioned and found them to be accurate. A few times, Seek has not been able to provide anything but a family recommendation. But, overall, I have been very impressed with the results thus far.

Here are a few of the highlights from this past month. Note the variety of shapes, colors, and patterns. One thing you can’t tell from these images is the huge range in size – the Common Tan Wave has a wing span of about 20mm while that of the Io moth is about 80mm.

Canadian Melanolophia moth, Melanolophia canadaria 1

Canadian Melanolophia moth, Melanolophia canadaria (click photos to enlarge)

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca confusaria

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca confusaria

Black-dotted ruddy moth, Ilexia intractata

Black-dotted ruddy moth, Ilexia intractata

Common tan wave, Pleuropucha insulsaria

Common tan wave, Pleuropucha insulsaria

Baltimore snout, Hypena baltimoralis 1

Baltimore snout, Hypena baltimoralis – one of the more striking species this month

Delicate Cycnia moth, Cycnia tenera

Delicate Cycnia moth, Cycnia tenera

Dark-spotted Palthis moth, Palthis angulalis

Dark-spotted Palthis moth, Palthis angulalis

Ambiguous moth, Lascoria ambigualis

Ambiguous moth, Lascoria ambigualis

Curved-line angle, Digrammia continuata

Curved-line angle, Digrammia continuata

Ironweed root moth, Polygammodes flavidalis

Ironweed root moth, Polygammodes flavidalis – a delicate beauty with hints of iridescence

One-spotted variant, Hypagyrtis unipunctata

One-spotted variant moth, Hypagyrtis unipunctata  – quite variable indeed

Tulip-tree beauty 1

Tulip-tree beauty, Epimecis hortaria – a common bark mimic

White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma

White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma

Eastern grass tubeworm moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella 3

Eastern grass tubeworm moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella – a very common species right now

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo

Oblique-banded leafroller moth, Choristoneura rosaceana

Oblique-banded leafroller moth, Choristoneura rosaceana

Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis

Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis – this is the adult form of the puss moth caterpillar

Juniper twig geometer, Patalene olyzonaria

Juniper geometer moth, Patalene olyzonaria

Large maple spanworm moth, Prochoerodes lineola

Large maple spanworm moth, Prochoroedes lineata

Io moth, Automeris io

Io moth, Automeris io – a large female

Io moth, Automeris io with wings spread

Io moth, Automeris io, with wings spread to reveal the false eye spots

Savanna Sights

To think that plants ate insects would go against the order of nature…

~Carl Linnaeus

After a crazy busy spring field trip season at work, I am finally getting around to catching up on a couple of posts. Like last year, toward the end of April I collaborated with Melissa and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences to offer an educator workshop on carnivorous plants. We traveled to the Green Swamp and Holly Shelter, two of the hot spots for insect-eating plants in our state. Check out these earlier posts on these habitats, the variety of carnivorous plants they contain, and the marvelous Venus Flytrap. Since I covered a lot of information in those earlier posts, I’ll just share a few of the highlights from this year’s workshop.

carnivorous lants in green swamp

A trio of carnivores in the Green Swamp (click photos to enlarge)

Our first stop was one of the savannas in the Green Swamp. As we took off on the trail, someone found a snake shed and we stopped to admire the beauty of its patterns.

snake shed 1

Snake shed

snake shed

The beautiful patterns of a snake shed

We spent the afternoon in a longleaf pine savanna, enjoying the distinctive sound of wind through the pines and the filtered sunlight on the grasses and other beautiful plants found beneath our feet.

sundew

Pink sundew, Drosera capillaris

We stayed overnight in Wilmington, and, as we usually do on these workshops, offered an optional trip to the beach for sunrise before eating breakfast and heading over to Holly Shelter.

sunrise at beach

Sunrise did not disappoint

Willet feeding at sunrise

A willet feeding along the surf line at sunrise

Sanderling at sunrise 1

A sanderling rushing on the beach between waves at sunrise

Driving into the game lands, we stopped on a dry sand ridge to photograph a lupine alongside the road. But a bright green larva caught the eye of one participant and we were all distracted for a few moments, admiring this stout beauty.

Dark marathyssa or Roland's sallow?

My best guess is a Roalnd’s sallow caterpillar

Sandhills lupine whole plant view

Blue sandhill lupine, Lupinus diffusus

bullfrog

Bullfrog

The canals alongside the road proved to be a distraction as well with lots of turtles, frogs, and an American alligator.

Southern cricket frog

Southern cricket frog

alligator head

American alligator

Finally, we piled out of the vans and found a treasure trove of insect-eating plants, orchids, and other savanna species that have responded spectacularly to the regular prescribed burns.

studying flytraps

Workshop participants observing Venus flytraps

Flytraps and sundews

Venus flytraps and sundews covered the ground in places

Butterwort flowers

Flowers of blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

Grass pink orchid

Bearded grass-pink orchid, Calopogon barbatus

rose pogonia orchid open flower 1

Rose pogonia orchid, Pogonia ophioglossoides

Orange milkwort

Orange milkwort, Polygala lutea

caterpillar in pitcher plant

Caterpillar living inside yellow pitcher plant

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Distinctive bulls-eye in the web of a lined orbweaver

As we left the game lands, we stopped occasionally to look for red-cockaded woodpeckers (we saw plenty of nest cavities, but no birds on this day). One nice discovery was a ditch with another species of carnivorous plant – the bizarre little floating bladderwort.

Utricularia radiata?

Little floating bladderwort, Utricularia radiata

Utricularia radiata

Close up of inflated flotation structures

Our workshop concluded with a group of educators excited about the strange world of our state’s carnivorous plants and the incredibly diverse longleaf pine and pocosin habitats where they are found. Hopefully, their enthusiasm and new knowledge will help their students and colleagues better appreciate these unique features of our coastal plain.

Longleaf pine savanna

Longleaf pine savanna in Holly Shelter Game Lands

Getting Back To It

It’s always good to get back to the places you love…

Life has been way too busy these past many weeks and my blog entries have suffered, but I finally have a break this morning while I wait on some overdue car maintenance. With the busyness has been less time exploring outside, but this weekend saw a return to one of my favorite places, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The occasion was the 5th annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC.

Black Bear Festival

The entryway to the Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences was again assisting with the popular “bear tours” on the Pungo Unit of the refuge and I volunteered to help out. We did six 3-hour tours from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, so it was busy schedule, but a good time nonetheless. It included severe weather before and during Friday’s tour that saw hail, lightning, strong winds, and heavy rains. In spite of all that, we managed two bears on that first tour.

Black Bear tracks

Fresh bear  and deer tracks

The next morning, we headed out at 6 a.m. with a dense layer of fog limiting our viewing across the fields, but we managed a few bears once the fog started to lift. The plus side of the heavy rain was that we knew any tracks we saw were fresh!

Black-bellied whistling duck

Black-bellied whistling duck

A rare find was a black-bellied whistling duck perched along one of the canals in the refuge. I have seen this species a few times in NC and FL, but never on the Pungo Unit. I was told by a friend that this one has been hanging around this area for a couple of weeks. They are a beautiful duck, more typically found in marshes from Texas to Florida, but seem to be slowly expanding their range northward.

Dugoutr canoe in museum

Dugout canoe in the Roanoke River Maritime Museum in Plymouth

Between tours on Saturday, we visited the festival in downtown Plymouth. Lots of local food vendors, exhibits and talks about bears, and the usual crowd of knick-knack vendors and local organization booths that show up at such events. We visited the Roanoke River Maritime Museum to see some displays of wildlife photography and local boating history. Imagine my surprise when I came across something from my past – the section of dugout canoe I found years ago in Lake Phelps when I was working as the East District Naturalist for NC State Parks. I had no idea it was on display and was even more surprised to see what is probably the original exhibit text label made when this section of canoe sat on display in a make-shift exhibit shed at Pettigrew State Park.  When I started working at the NC Botanical Garden and was designing a program on uses of native pants (for example, bald cypress for dugout canoes), I tracked down the NY Times article from my 15 minutes of fame for being the guy that first stumbled upon this treasure trove of ancient canoes. The large canoe mentioned in the text is now on display at the NC Museum of History in Raleigh.

Exhibit sign about dugout canoes

A blast from the past

Each tour yielded some wildlife surprises (king rails running down the road ahead of the bus, turtles being helped across the road, nutria in the canals, etc.), improving muddy roads, and visitors delighted to see their first bears in the wild. In between tours, we had a few moments to take in the sights and sounds of the town –  grab a bite to eat, check out the noisy southern toads and squirrel treefrogs in the retention pond at the hotel, and get ready for the next busload of people. With two buses running each tour, we shared the wonders of Pungo with over 180 visitors from all around NC (and a few other states).

Southern toad calling

Southern toad calling

While every tour had its moments of adventure, one tour stood out for all of us, the Sunday morning 6 a.m. trip. We had just turned onto the refuge road when a bear went across the road, immediately starting us off with a bear encounter. Just down the road was standing bear…a medium-sized back bear with a propensity for standing up in the corn field to check us out.

Black bear standing in field

Black bear – “outstanding” in his field

Once we hit the dirt of D-Canal Road, we spotted another bear feeding in a wheat field on private lands adjacent to the refuge. Bears love wheat and we saw them in this field on several of the tours. The golden color of the wheat provided a beautiful backdrop for the jet black fur of the bears.

Black bear in wheat field

Bear surrounded by delicious wheat, the breakfast of champions

While we were all watching that bear, a young bear came out into another field on the refuge next to us and walked right in front of the bus and group of excited onlookers.

Young black bear crossing road

Young bear walking near our group

Then, another young bear (these are probably last year’s cubs) strolled out behind the buses and disappeared into the woods.

Young black bear crossing road 2

Another young bear on the other side of our group

Most of the people continued to watch the first young bear that was still wandering around in front of the buses, while a few of us were standing at the edge of the canal watching the bear in the wheat. Suddenly, I see a bear head pop up from the bank of the canal just a few feet from us. I whispered to the few people between me and the bear to move back and give it some room. It looked like the young bear that had crossed behind us and gone into the woods just a few minutes before. Apparently, it had gone to the canal and walked down the bank, climbing up in front of us.

Black bear comes up next to group

This one popped up right next to us

The confused bear walked up, moved across in front of us, and passed in front of the buses and the rest of the group. Minutes later, another head popped up and followed the same path. It seemed like bears were everywhere around us. These young bears probably aren’t sure what they should do in these situations so you need to give them space to move freely. The second one started to climb a tree when it saw the large group gathered in front of the bus, but when they stepped back and remained quiet, it came down and hustled across the road.

Black bear entering canal

The wheat field bear entering the canal

Meanwhile, the wheat field bear finished breakfast and angled toward us to cross the steep-banked canal. I positioned myself to get a good view, and as she slowly entered the water, I expected to get a nice shot of her swimming across.

Black bear starts across canal 1

Why swim when you can walk across?

Instead, she surprised me and slowly stood up, holding her front paws above the water, In all my years of watching bears, I have never seen one cross a canal like this.

Black bear walking across canal

Keeping those front paws dry

Just one more reason I love the Pungo Unit and love observing bears. They are a constant source of amazement, curiosity, and wonder.

Grubosaurus

The Eastern Hercules has a wing span up to half a foot, the armor of a knight, and the spots of a leopard.

~Orin McMonigle

I guess I should be honored that the front desk volunteer thought of me first. One day a little over a week ago, I got a call saying a woman was at the front desk with something she thought the Garden might want. She had a tree company take down a large tree in her front yard and the workers had discovered some Eastern Hercules beetle (Dynastes tityus) grubs in the rotten core of the tree. They had taken most of the grubs but she later discovered some still living in the rotten stump. So, she brought them to the place she knew cares for all things natural, and asked if anyone might want to keep them. Somehow, my name came up….go figure.

Eastern hercules beetle grubs

Eastern Hercules beetle grubs (click photos to enlarge)

When I went downstairs, the lady pulled out a flower pot filled with rotting wood from the stump and shook it around to reveal two huge grubs.

Eastern hercules beetle grub

They resemble the large grubs you frequently find under logs, only much larger!

These grubs are as thick as my thumb and as long as my index finger. They resemble the large, curled beetle larvae I often find under logs, but these are much larger. The only other grubs I have seen that were this large were in the Amazon. Years ago, on a museum educator workshop, we were walking in the jungle along the river. One of our participants was a teacher from a local village. The group stopped next to a fallen tree to look at some birds in the canopy above. I noticed the local teacher leaning over the fallen tree trunk, listening. He then became very excited, ran back to his village and returned with a machete. He began to chop into the log, pausing, and listening, then chopping some more. He soon exposed a group of huge beetle grubs. He had heard them chewing inside the log and wanted to get them out as they are a prized food in that region. After explaining what they were, he proudly presented one grub to the three group leaders for us to take the first bites. Being the youngest of the three, I managed to get the back end of the larva. I can’t say I really recommend them raw (or maybe it was just the choice of my cut). On his recommendation, we took the remaining grubs back to the lodge as a side dish for dinner that night. The roasted grubs were much more palatable, with a somewhat nutty flavor.

Eastern hercules beetle grub in hand

And to think, I ate something like this once

But not to worry, I have no intention of chowing down on these grubs. My interest is purely scientific. After bringing these not-so-wee-beasties home, I started searching the web for information on how to keep them. As is often the case these days when I search for what seems like an obscure topic, I found a wealth of information, including a link to purchase a guide to rearing Eastern Hercules beetles. Well, naturally, I had to have it.

Raising Hercules Beetles guide

You never know what you will find on our bookshelf

The booklet arrived a few days later and has everything you need to know about breeding and raising these beautiful insects. Apparently, it has become a thing to raise these behemoths (or their close relatives) as pets, especially in Japan, where they are sold in many pet stores. I learned I may have my pets for awhile, as they remain larvae for 12-18 months! Based on the information in the book, I now have them in a large flower pot with some potting soil and rotten wood. The grubs feed on the decomposing wood and associated microbiota. The substrate needs to stay moist (not wet) and I will need to replenish the rotten wood from time to time and maybe enrich the substrate with some rotting fruit or dry dog food on occasion. After pupating, the adult beetles will emerge and can live for 6-12 months.

Eastern hercules beetles adults specimens

Female (left) and male (right) Eastern Hercules beetle specimens from our collection at work

I have seen the adult beetles come to lights and have found a few dead ones over the years, but had never seen the grubs until now.

Eastern hercules beetles adult male specimen

Male Eastern Hercules beetles are adorned with prominent horns

The adult males are among the largest and heaviest beetles in the United States. The horns are harmless to humans and are used for battling between rival male beetles. The spot pattern is distinctive for individual beetles. Adult beetles feed on rotting fruit and tree sap. The large horn on top has a lining of stiff  “hairs” underneath. I tried to find a purpose for this distinctive trait, but, as yet, have not found any information on it. If anyone reading this knows, please drop me a note.

Here’s hoping I can successfully raise these larvae to adulthood. In the dedication to his book on rearing these beetles, the author thanked his wife for tolerating the beetles flying around the living room. Melissa and I are both looking forward to seeing and hearing that in a few months. Stay tuned…

Wild Places

The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it, the more beautiful does it appear.

~Richard Dawkins

Memories of Yellowstone are still lingering in my head…the scenery, the snow, the quiet, and the incredible wildlife. So, I did what I needed to do for my spirit last weekend, and headed to Pungo for the day. What better way to reinforce that feeling of wildness, the freedom that comes from being outside with countless wild creatures, than to go to my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Yellowstone of the East – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Melissa was out of town, so I did a solo one day trip, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. to get down there close to sunrise. When I pulled in, the morning show had already started…

Snow geese in field in morning light

Snow geese feeding in a cornfield at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

Snow geese, mixed with a flock of tundra swans, filled one of the fields close to the maintenance area. I pulled down on the side of the field where the low angle morning sunlight was hitting the birds, stopped the car, and watched as thousands of white forms moved through the fresh corn stubble in a feeding frenzy. The birds were close to the road so I could hear that mechanical sound made by thousands of snow geese grunting, squabbling, and gleaning kernels of corn from the field.

snow geese blasting off

A blast off close to the road

Suddenly, they all blasted off, circled the field a few times and started to land closer than before. I scanned the skies, and soon saw the cause of all the commotion…

bald eagle flying through snow geese

The cause of the blast-off, a cruising bald eagle

An adult bald eagle was flying across the field, looking over the flock for any possible weaknesses. When it got to the other side I saw two more eagles, perched, waiting, hoping for a chance at a goose breakfast.

snow goose in flight

The light was perfect for photos

A car drove by and spooked the eagles, so the snow geese quickly calmed down and started making short flights to leapfrog ahead of the moving mass of white to get to untouched spilled corn. This allowed me to get several nice views of them flying by and landing in beautiful light.

Snow geese (dark morphs) landing 1

Blue phase snow geese coming in for a landing

Northern shoveler drake

Northern shoveler ducks were abundant in the marsh impoundment

I drove on to the lake and was surprised to see very few swans. The impoundment was also relatively quiet (only a couple of hundred swans), but the shoreline was crowded with ruddy ducks and northern shovelers.

northern shoveler pair feeding

Pairs of northern shovelers were feeding together in tight circles

As I pulled in to a spot and parked, the ducks moved away in short flights, but soon returned as I sat in the car, camera out the window. This is where I see many people make a mistake and get out of their cars for a better view. If you use your vehicle as a blind, the birds will often return faster and you usually get a better image.

Ruddy duck in canal

A ruddy duck in a canal next to the road

Mid-day found me over at Mattamuskeet. Things were very quiet there with high water in the marshes along Wildlife Drive leading to fewer waterfowl than usual. I did notice several swan carcasses in the shrubbery along the entrance road…bobcats perhaps?

Trumpeter swan?

Swan at Mattamuskeet – Trumpeter or Tundra?

On the back loop of Wildlife Drive, I stopped to photograph some swans and in looking at the images a little later, found one that resemble a trumpeter swan – longish bill, no yellow on the bill (not always a guarantee it isn’t a tundra swan). What do you think?

yellow-rumped warbler

What are you staring at?

I cruised slowly along the shrub zone, looking for song birds, and, at one point, found a group of yellow-rumped warblers moving through some wax myrtles and sweetgum saplings. They always seem to have a bit of an attitude when they stop and look at you.

Sandhill cranes in cornfield

Back at Pungo, the wintering sandhill cranes

I returned to Pungo at about 4 pm, a little later than I hoped, but just in time for the start of the evening show. There were vehicles near the refuge entrance observing a few thousand swans out in the winter wheat so I drove on toward D-Canal Road where a local farmer had been cutting the last remaining standing corn in one of the refuge fields earlier. I hoped the birds would find this fresh food supply. I got down there and had several hundred swans in the field all to myself for awhile. A car finally pulled up and the occupants got out and walked into the field a short distance to take selfies with the birds in the background. You can imagine my thoughts…I pulled up to them, admonishing them for walking out toward the flock and spooking the birds. I suggested they should stay in their vehicle for a better look and not disturb the flock. To their credit, they offered an apology and got back in their car as I drove off. As I drove by the adjoining field, I saw the familiar stooped posture of feeding sandhill cranes in the fresh cut cornfield. No doubt the same three birds we had seen on the Christmas Bird Count several weeks ago.

Sandhill cranes, swans, and rwb in cornfield

Cranes sharing the field with swans and red-winged blackbirds

The cranes were soon joined by several hungry swans and hundreds of red-winged blackbirds. As I watched, I heard the sound of approaching snow geese. I looked up and could see thousands of birds coming in from high up in the graying sky. This is why I keep coming back – this spectacle of the birds in winter at Pungo is unlike an other wildlife experience in North Carolina.

snow geese descending into field

Snow geese beginning their descent

I love the sounds and sights of a huge flock of snow geese, swirling above a field, and gradually coming down.

snow geese landing

Landing in a swirl of wings

I am always amazed they seemingly aren’t landing on top of their flock-mates, but maybe that’s what all the noise is about – snow goose warnings.

snow goose blast off

Late day blast-off of snow geese

After feeding for many minutes, something caused the massive flock to explode from the field in a wall of black and white feathers. That sound is one of the most amazing, loud, whumpfs in nature. I may not get back down this winter before they all start their long journey northward, but am thankful for this incredible day in this amazing wild place.

The Place We Love

Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this, and suddenly the air is filled with snow. That is the way the whole world happened – there was nothing, and then…

~William Stafford

We have returned from our special place – Yellowstone. Not all of us is back. We seem to always leave a little of each of us there to soak it in, to be ready to relive it at the slightest opportunity. Winter in Yellowstone is truly magical and we were lucky to spend ten days in our paradise.

Cottonwoods in mist vertical

Winter scene with fog in Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)

The trip had been planned for over a year, with NC friends joining us for a while, and Melissa and I out there on our own a few days, spending some time with some of our Yellowstone friends. This is the first of a few posts on the trip, this one being the first few days before our NC friends joined us. The forecast looked snowy for most of our time, with only occasional breaks for sun. Forecasts can be iffy in Yellowstone, but this one turned out to be pretty accurate. The region needs snow, as it is only about 50% of the normal amount on the ground for this time of year in many places.

Dead snag at Hitching Post

Dead snag near Hitching Post on the edge of Lamar Valley

Our first few days were spent traveling the Northern Range from Gardiner, MT (where our friends live) to Silver Gate and Cooke City (where other friends live). This is the only roadway open to cars in winter due to the isolated communities outside the Northeast entrance that would otherwise be cut off due to deep snows in the mountain passes to the East.

Bull elk

A couple of big boys in a band of bull elk chillin’ in the snow

We saw the usual wildlife in the lower elevations – bison and elk – with larger herds of elk (especially cows, young bulls, and young of the year) than I have seen in a few years. As usual, we ran into a few bands of bulls peacefully hanging out together, even though they had battled fiercely for dominance just a few months ago.

ungulate paths

The snow reveals the well-worn paths of countless mammals that have moved through this valley over the years

Round Prairie

Round Prairie

 

Reports online had indicated this is a good year for moose, especially in the area known as Round Prairie, out past the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley.

Moose and calf lying down

A pair of moose relaxing in Round Prairie

Our first full day confirmed that – a total of five moose seen on out first visit out there. Two (possibly a cow and her calf from this year) were fairly close to the road bedded down. They seemed quite at ease until a young bull sporting only one antler (it is antler shedding time for moose) passed through, seemingly intent on something in the woods beyond the resting pair. They sprang up and stared in the direction he had disappeared.

Moose and calf standing

Something has their attention

We never saw the object of all their attention but they soon calmed down and moved on to browse on vegetation sticking up out of the deepening snow. We were standing along the roadside when a truck pulled up, said something about the moose out in the meadow and then mentioned, “you know you have a moose up on the hill behind you, don’t you?”.

Moose coming down hill

Indeed, there is a moose above us on the ridge

We looked behind us, and there it was, a huge moose standing along the ridge line, looking out toward Round Prairie. It was what one photographer out there called a “silver dollar moose” – a bull that has recently dropped its antlers, leaving two large circles of bone exposed on the head.

Moose coming down hill 2

Coming down the hill in deep snow

The moose quickly came down the hill, moving gracefully through the drifted snow. Large hooves, long legs, and a special gait (due to the ability to swing out their legs over the snow) allow moose to move through deep snow more efficiently than most ungulates (hoofed mammals). This one made its way down the hill, across the road, and into the forest in a matter of seconds.

One of Melissa’s goals on this trip was to cross country ski on our first few days, so we headed up the Tower Road, a groomed ski trail. My sore leg didn’t care for that activity, so she went solo on her next two trips, with me being her shuttle and waiting for wildlife in the interim.

Old bison in winter

An old bull bison that may not make it through this winter

I hung out for a time at Soda Butte, where an old bull bison seemed not long for this world. A visitor told me a coyote had been sitting with it most of the morning, waiting its turn for a possible buffet. When I arrived, the coyote was across the road trying to extract a morsel form an old wolf-killed elk carcass. A pair of magpies kept hopping up on the old bull, wondering when they might have a chance at feeding. When one hopped on its face (they often go for the eyes on a fresh carcass), the bull shook its head to let us all know he wasn’t through quite yet.

Coyote

This coyote came toward the old bison by walking right past a few of us

The coyote then decided to come back to the bison and check in. But, to our surprise, it chose a path that took it right past a small group of us standing at the pullout.

 

Coyote approaching road 1

Coyote made a bee line for the opposite side of the road, but we happened to be nearby

Coyote looking sideways

Something catches its attention away from us

Once across the road, it went over, checked on the bull, and then walked away, stopping to listen for unknown sounds in the snow.

Aspens in Little America

Aspens in Little America

The first few gray days were broken only occasionally by brief bursts of sunlight. The snow fell each day, a light, fluffy snow that accumulated faster than seemed possible.

Little America

Most days had at least a sliver of sunlight to illuminate the landscape for a few minutes

Bighorn ram

Bighorn sheep ram at the confluence (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove back and forth along the Northern Range, watching wildlife (including scope views of wolves in Lamar Valley), with Melissa skiing through some gorgeous scenery, and me taking in the features of the landscape, from huge mountains, to wildlife, to delicate plant stems posing above the increasingly thick white blanket covering the ground. More in the next post…

Cross country skiing

Melissa’s cross country skiing backdrop

Seed heads in snow

Even the small things are beautiful if you stop to look

Winter Bliss

When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go.     

~Alexandra Stoddard

I certainly carry certain places with me. And moments in those places have a way of adhering to my memory, reappearing when my mind wanders to sights and sounds of their wildness, their beauty, their mystery. And I now need these places and these memories even more. The beauty of nature has a way of helping us cope with the confounding issues of our times and gives us hope. One such place for me is what I usually simply call “Pungo”. Its official name is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I managed another trip last weekend, heading down after a program at work on Saturday, and meeting friends from work Sunday morning.

Blackbirds flock

Flock of blackbirds swimming through the sky above a corn field (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived fairly late in the day on Saturday and went straight to North Lake Road. Flocks of blackbirds (mainly red-winged blackbirds and common grackles) were flying back and forth from the corn field to the trees, twittering as they flew in wave-like patterns in response to aerial predators (real or imagined) or some other cues. I ran into some friends and we had a nice flyover of snow geese that couldn’t make up their minds where to go. Melissa was down last weekend also, leading a Museum trip, and I found that group on the way out. We parked and watched swans returning to the refuge for the night along with the swarms of ducks (called ducknados by a young observer a couple of years ago) flying into the corn fields from the adjacent swamp.

sunrise on Marsh A

The quiet beauty of a sunrise at Pungo

The next morning found me sitting in the quiet of a Pungo sunrise with the soft cooing sounds of swans. There is something magical about sunrises, the way they slowly change the landscape – the silence, the peacefulness.

sunrise from Duck Pen

Morning clouds over Pungo Lake from Duck Pen blind

I decided to walk down to the Duck Pen observation blind hoping to see some swans in close. Instead, I was treated to a beautiful sky over the calm waters. A long swooshing sound turned out to be an approaching flock of red-winged blackbirds undulating westward to the corn fields.

Swan preening 1

The elegant moves of a Tundra Swan preening

As the sun rose above the trees, I headed back to the impoundment known as Marsh A to spend some quiet time with the majestic swans. These birds are simply feathered elegance. The low angle of morning light produces sharp lines and highlights the gentle curves of these beautiful birds. They spend a lot of time preening their 25,000 feathers…

Swan with feather on bill

They look good even with a little feather stuck on their bill

…and occasionally get one stuck on their bill (probably the equivalent of that piece of lettuce that your friend tries to tell you is stuck in your teeth). I truly enjoy spending time with the swans. But, my friends were going to arrive soon, so I decided to drive around and get a few pictures of other birds (or whatever I could find) while the light was so nice.

Swamp sparrow 1

A Swamp Sparrow feeding along the edge of a canal

I drove slowly along the canal edges looking for brushy spots that often harbor a variety of small birds. The usually secretive swamp sparrows were feeding out in the open along the edge of the water. If you take the time to look at sparrows, they really are elegant little birds, each species with a distinct personality and a blend of subtle colors and patterns.

Savannah sparrow

Savannah Sparrows along the edge of a field

As I drove along the field edges, groups of Savannah Sparrows flitted up from the corn stubble and grasses into the shrubs and trees lining the canals. I appreciated a chance to view them against the sky rather than camouflaged in the grasses.

Turkey vultures

Bright skies and warm temperatures made for a good day for vultures

The calm winds and clear skies made for a good vulture day. There are a few large turkey vulture roosts along the road edges at Pungo, so it is common to see them perched in snags along the roadsides in the morning, waiting for the warmth of the day to create thermals for their efficient flight. One member of the pair above demonstrated a common vulture behavior – the spread wing posture. This is often seen early in the day as birds try to warm up or dry their feathers after a damp night.

Turkey vulture head

A Turkey Vulture close-up

One vulture allowed me to drive up closer than most, so I was able to get a few portrait shots (maybe not your dream photo, but they are interesting nonetheless). There is a stark beauty in their ugliness, a lot of detail and character in their wrinkled faces. Adult turkey vultures have reddish skin (juveniles have blackish-gray skin) and an ivory bill. You can also see their huge nostrils (nares) which help them have one of the keenest senses of smell in the bird world. They also have a larger olfactory lobe in their brain compared to other species so they are well-equipped to detect dead animals as they soar above the landscape. As I drove along D-canal road, I spotted a few vultures squabbling over a duck or goose carcass in the private fields across the canal. As I watched, they suddenly took flight, along with a great blue heron that had been stalking prey in the nearby drainage ditch.

Great blue heron flying

As I watched the carcass, a Great Blue Heron flew by in a hurry

The heron flew in an arc from one field to another across the road, squawking as it went. I turned and saw the reason for all this commotion…

Bald eagle

The reason the heron took flight

…an adult bald eagle had flown into the trees behind me, no doubt alerted to the possibility of a meal by the gathering vultures. Though I waited patiently for 30 minutes, the cautious eagle maintained its perch, waiting for me to move on, which I finally did. When my friends arrived, we piled into one car and continued searching for wildlife. Our first stop was to view the swans. Warm days seem to make the wildlife lazy, content to hang out longer, making some species a bit tougher to find.

Painted turtle basking

Painted Turtle basking in Marsh A

But lazy winter days also make some species, like turtles, easier to see. As we drove along, there were turtles (mainly a mix of painted turtles and yellow-bellied sliders) basking on almost every log. That made me both wary and excited as we entered the woods, for this is the kind of day you might see a snake, especially “my snake”. I had stumbled upon the large canebrake rattlesnake again last weekend during the Christmas Bird Count at the same hollow tree as 3 years ago. We hiked slowly to the tree, looking carefully around the surroundings in case the rattler was out enjoying the warmth. After looking all around the area without spotting it, I knelt down and shined my flashlight into the hollow – no snake. I moved to the right, and shined the light in the other hollow – nothing. Suddenly, my eye caught a familiar pattern…there it was, a few feet from me, curled up at the entrance, partially hidden behind the grass and vines that now block part of the hollow.

rattlesnake

Even after we knew where it was, the snake was tough to see (photo by Janna Starr)

I seem to have a strange affinity (and partial blindness, apparently) for this snake. The others in my group couldn’t see it at first, and then, one by one, they spotted it.

Canebrake rattlesnake at entrance to den tree

Holding the camera high allowed a better view

We all jockeyed positions to get a better angle to view the snake which was partially obscured by the vegetation in front of the hole. This rattler (it probably is the same one from previous encounters at this tree) has not lived up to its name, having never rattled in any of my encounters with it over the past few years. I must admit, I wouldn’t mind a little noise the next time we meet.

Canebrake rattlesnake head shot

The telephoto view from the side

Even with all the commotion from its admiring crowd, the rattlesnake remained still, no doubt confident of its ability to defend itself from this group of interlopers. We wandered on, wishing it well until we meet again.

Snow geese at sunset

The last scene of the day – the magic of snow geese overhead

We headed back out to the road, hoping for a flyover of birds from the lake. The evening before, the snow geese had flown out and around a few times, but not landed. As we walked back to the car, we heard them coming. We paused as they flew over toward the far corner of the corn field. At first, a few hundred. That flock went back to the lake and returned with a few thousand. More joined the flock as they began to circle the fields. Some would spin off toward the lake, but more kept coming in, until perhaps they felt they had enough critical mass to make a decision – to land in the field. They finally started to drop down into the corn and thousands more birds came in from the lake to join the circling mass. Finally, several thousand birds were feeding in the corn. After what seemed like a very brief meal (considering all the energy they burned flying around beforehand), they all lifted off and headed back to the refuge of the lake. There is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina (or anywhere else in the East for that matter)…thousands of birds filling the sky, golden light tinging their undersides as they noisily fly over you. The true meaning of spectacle, and the reason I keep returning to Pungo.

Pausing

Something precious is lost if we rush headlong into the details of life without pausing for a moment to pay homage to the mystery of life and the gift of another day.

~ Kent Nerburn

As usual, it has been another busy week – catching up on rescheduled programs (due to our incredibly rainy fall), getting up wood from trees that came down in recent storms, and just living life. But, working where I do, there is always something that can make me pause and relish the moment, help me appreciate the beauty and mystery of my surroundings, and remind me of why I do what I do. Here are a few of those things from this past week…

Cope's gray treefrog juvenile, slightly larger individual

Cope’s Gray Treefrog, juvenile (click photos to enlarge)

We had a late season breeding of Cope’s Gray Treefrogs in our vernal pool and it seems the juveniles are everywhere in the garden right now. This one was hanging out in our daily plant sale area clinging to some flower pots.

Green lynx spider female with egg sac in green vegetation (hoode

Green Lynx Spider

This female Green Lynx Spider has lost one leg while guarding her egg sac (even though it hatched in early October). Unlike most of the late season lynx spiders I have seen, this one is still bright green (most turn a maroon-ish brown). But her egg sac was nestled in a group of hooded pitcher plants, which are still very green. I wonder if this species can alter their color late in the year to better match the egg sac surroundings?

Green treefrog

Green Treefrog

A co-worker alerted me to this chillin’ Green Treefrog, who stayed calm throughout its brief photo shoot, in spite of me manipulating its leaf bed for a better angle.

Green treefrog head view

Don’t bother me

Carolina anole juvenile

Carolina Anole

Most of the anoles I am seeing now are brown in color (color change is dependent on temperatures and hormones of the lizard), but this little guy was out in full sun and still bright green.

Variegated fritillary chrysalis

Variegated Fritillary chrysalis

Next to a passionflower tangle are a couple of chrysalids of two species of fritillary that use that vine as their caterpillar host plant. It is a bit ironic that the plainer of the two species (as an adult), the Variegated Fritillary, has a chrysalis that is much more striking than that of the beautiful Gulf Fritillary.

gulf fritillary chrysalis side view

Gulf Fritillary chrysalis

I am not sure whether Gulf Fritillaries overwinter as a chrysalis this far inland as they are a partial migratory species from further south and along our southeastern Coastal Plain. So, I was curious what this chrysalis would do. I watched it for a several days and was surprised how it changed position by twisting and turning, and then holding that new position for hours. It finally emerged on Friday.

Gulf fritillary after emergence 1

Freshly emerged Gulf Fritillary

Black swallowtail first instar - late!

Black swallowtail larva, early instar

One of the biggest surprises for me has been the presence of several Black Swallowtail caterpillars this late in the season. I have found a few last instar larva on the abundant Golden Alexander at work, but was amazed to see this first or second instar caterpillar on Friday. It is good to be reminded to take a moment to appreciate your surroundings, even when you have so many tasks at hand. Beauty and miracles surround us, wherever we may be. We just have to pause and enjoy.

Awesome Arachnids

She asks me to kill the spider.
Instead, I get the most
peaceful weapons I can find.

I take a cup and a napkin.
I catch the spider, put it outside
and allow it to walk away.

If I am ever caught in the wrong place
at the wrong time, just being alive
and not bothering anyone,

I hope I am greeted
with the same kind
of mercy.

~Rudy Francisco

I led a full moon walk this past week at Mason Farm Biological Reserve, a wild and wonderful tract managed by the NC Botanical Garden, only a mile or so from my office. I love being outside at night, hearing the night sounds, and trying to catch a glimpse of the creatures that make darkness their time of choice. The night before the hike, I walked alone along the trail at Mason Farm, looking for things to highlight and reacquainting myself with the brilliance of an almost full moon. A variety of night sounds greeted me as I walked in silence – the startling snorts of alarmed deer, a solitary hooting of a Barred Owl, a lone tree cricket…but the most magical was when a group of Coyotes initiated their yipping and howling as the moon rose above the tree line. Though it lasted less than a minute, it is a sound that sticks with you (and might even raise the hairs on the back of your neck a bit). Chilly night temperatures, combined with recent floods, seemed to reduce the number of night-time invertebrates that were out and about.

Ther Laugher Moth larva on oak

A fuzzy larva of The Laugher Moth feeding on oak, my only glow-in-the-dark caterpillar this past week (click photos to enlarge)

I searched with my ultraviolet flashlight for caterpillars, hoping to find some of my favorite slug larvae species, but came up with only two fuzzy larvae of The Laugher Moth. But there was one group well represented and quite noticeable, if you know how to look…

Carolina wolf spider 1

Carolina Wolf Spider, Hogna carolinensis, out and about along the edge of a field

Yes, that’s right, and somehow theme-appropriate at this time of year, spiders! On my pre-trip, they were everywhere, especially concentrated along the habitat edges (boundary between forest and field) and along the stream banks and swamp edge. If you don’t know, you can “sniff” spiders by holding a flashlight near your eyes or nose (or wear a headlamp) and scanning your surroundings. On almost any night from March through October, you are likely to see what look like dewdrops scattered across the ground. These are most likely spider eyes reflecting your light back to you (some may be dew drops if it is damp). If you are just holding a light down by your side, their reflection comes back at that level and you probably can’t see it. That’s where the sniffing part comes in. You tell your group you smell a spider. Since most people don’t usually walk around with their flashlight up near their eyes, they can’t see the eyeshine. On my program walk, I was able to run about 25 feet over to a tiny spider on a tree trunk by keeping my light on it to see its eyeshine. Of course, you always share that trick with your participants so they can see for themselves the incredible abundance of these spiders.

Hunting spiders, like wolf spiders, have a reflective layer in their eyes that bounces the light around so that there is a better chance to have it absorbed by the rod cells that help them see in low light. This is similar to what happens in the eyes of nocturnal vertebrates like deer and cats. One of the larger species out this time of year is the Carolina Wolf Spider which generally hides in underground burrows during the day, and then emerges to hunt prey at night. Females carry their egg sac off the tip of their abdomen. The baby spiders hatch and ride on the mother’s back for a week or so until they molt and then disperse.

Rabid wolf spider

A large, female Rabid Wolf Spider, Rapidosa rapida

Another large, and quite common, ground hunting spider is the oddly-named Rabid Wolf Spider. Its common and scientific names come from its rapid movements, not any ability to carry a mammalian disease. The bold stripes on the cephalothorax (the front body part that is sort of a head and thorax combined) are diagnostic of this species (along with some more subtle features). Males are distinguished by their smaller size and by the first pair of legs being black.

marbled orb weaver

A Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneus marmoreus, in her web

There are relatively few web builders left out in the fields and woods this late in the season, but there is one notable exception, the Marbled Orb Weaver. This distinctively colored (yellow or orange abdomen) spider can be found in woods and along field edges into November. During the day, the large female hides in a folded leaf retreat along the edge of her circular web. She holds a line of silk attached to the web to detect and struggling prey. At night, they are more typically found perched in the center of the web. Their color scheme and occurrence through late October has given them another common name, the Halloween Spider. Web-builders typically have no eyeshine since they rely less on vision and more on vibrations of struggling prey in their web to obtain their meals.

Dolomedes spider

A huge Dark Fishing Spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus, on a tree trunk at the edge of the swamp

The best spider find on our tour was made by one of the participants as we stood near the closed portion of the trail through the swamp. Hurricane Florence took out the boardwalk through this section so you can no longer walk the circular route. But, perhaps because of that pause, we got to see one of our most spectacular spiders, a very large Dark Fishing Spider. This large female would almost fill my palm. They are frequently found head-down on tree trunks (like this one) near water, but can occur quite some distance away. I have them in my workshop and frequently find their sheds scattered among my scrap wood or tools. There are other members of this genus that are more frequently found on and/or in water (e.g. the Six-spotted Fishing Spider) where they actively hunt for creatures that fall on the surface, or those that live just beneath (like aquatic invertebrates, tadpoles and even small fish). Female fishing spiders carry their egg sac beneath them, hanging onto the silken bag with their chelicera. When the young hatch, she creates a nursery web for them where they stay for a short while before dispersing.

bread

Even the bread, Greatbreadus multigrainiia, at the Farmer’s Market is arachnid appreciative

I had a chance to write up some of this on Saturday, but not before I made my weekly trip to the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. There, I spied one more thing to add to this post – a loaf of beautiful bread from Chicken Bridge Bakery. So, whether its a graphic on tasty bread or an eight-legged critter on the trail, take the time to learn more about these awesome arachnids. If you want to learn more and see some incredible photos, check out some of the scientists I follow on Twitter – TurnFear2Fascination, Catherine Scott, and Thomas Shahan…you, too, will learn to appreciate these amazing creatures even more. Happy Arachtober!

See No Weevil…Well, Just One

A big nose never spoiled a handsome face.

~French proverb

I set out the moth light the other night and had a few species come in, but had many non-moth visitors – katydids, a praying mantis, lots of caddisflies, and one very interesting little guy, a weevil.

weevil at moth light

Weevil on sheet at moth light (click photos to enlarge)

Weevils are the largest family of beetles with over 3000 species in North America. They are distinguished by often having a distinctive snout (rostrum) with chewing mouth parts at the end, and antennae part way down its length. They are plant feeders of one sort and many are considered agricultural pests, but, they sure are interesting and crazy-looking creatures. The Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America states that hardly any plant is not affected by at least one species of Curculionidae.

weevil close up

Close-up view of that amazing rostrum

My visitor the other night looks like one of the acorn weevils, Curculio sp. They are tan to brown with a long rostrum and spurs on the femurs of their legs. Weevil antennae are elbowed and can fit into a special groove in the snout.

weevil on rail 1

Acorn weevil

I am guessing this may be a female since they tend to have longer snouts, at least as long as their body. So, she has probably been using the mandibles at the tip of that “nose” to chew holes in some of the many acorns out back. She then turns around and lays an egg into that hole. Her baby will feed on the meat of the nut and then chew its way out and pupate in the soil once the acorn falls. I reported on the fascinating grubs of acorn weevils in an earlier post. No matter your opinion on the dietary costs of weevils, you gotta admit, they are one odd-looking, and some may even say, cute, critters.