Pungo Summer

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.

~Russell Baker

It’s been too long since I have visited my other favorite place, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. So, with Melissa in Yellowstone leading a museum youth group, I decided to make a day-trip this past weekend to look for bears and whatever else summer on the Pungo might bring. It was about 9 a.m. by the time I pulled onto the refuge dirt roads. Things started surprisingly slow…no bears at all (n fact, not much of anything) for my first complete circuit through the refuge. That is pretty unusual for a Pungo summer – no bears! The greenhead flies and deer flies were pecking on my windows whenever I stopped the car, but I decided to get out anyway and spend some time along the edges of a wetland to see what I could see.

cattail flower

Cattail flower spike – female part below, male part is the brown spike above (click photos to enlarge)

Lizard's tail flower

Lizard’s tail, Saururus cernuus

The vegetation seemed even thicker than normal as I scanned the marsh, but darting movements quickly caught my eye…dragonflies, and lots of them.

Halloween pennant

Halloween pennant balancing on a stem

Blue dasher

Blue dasher in obelesk position – a handstand-like posture used frequently by males of this species when guarding territory. It may also reduce their temperature on sunny days by minimizing their surface area exposed to direct sun rays.

Golden-winged skimmer, male

Golden-winged skimmer, male

This male golden-winged skimmer was close to the edge of the canal and patrolling frequently, returning to the same stem each time.  Suddenly, he made a quick move into a thicket of stems and stopped. I leaned in and could see he had found a mate and had assumed the position – the so-called wheel position.

Golden-winged skimmers in wheel position

Golden-winged skimmer in wheel position

Males transfer sperm to a specialized pouch in their second abdominal segment. They then grab a female by the head (or “neck”) and she curls the tip of her abdomen up to where he has stored his sperm. It lasted several seconds and then they briefly flew in tandem before she broke off and started laying eggs. She does a quick splash into the water with the tip of her abdomen, laying an egg with each dip. He stayed nearby guarding her from any other males that might be in the vicinity.

indigo bunting male singing

Indigo bunting singing

While sitting there in a cloud of dragonflies, I began to see and hear a lot of songbird activity. I didn’t make much effort to photograph them until this male indigo bunting perched nearby singing his heart out. Some other species of note included a blue grosbeak, great blue herons, wood ducks, yellow-billed cuckoos, prothonotary warblers, great-crested flycatchers, several northern bobwhite, some wild turkey, killdeer, and lots of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles. But, as hoped, this day turned out to be about something else…

black bear sow with two cubs

Bear sow with two cubs of the year (so-called COYs)

Though skunked by bears for the first hour, I quickly made up for it. Driving along Pat’s Road I found a field with six bears, (including a sow with 3 tiny cubs) scattered out in the open feeding on the sparse vegetation and maybe some leftover corn on the ground from last winter. I went around to the back edge of the field and watched. Soon, another sow with 2 cubs of the year came out closer to me. The heat of the day made for less than ideal atmospheric conditions for photos (especially with my bigger lenses) with many soft images the result. But it was great being able to watch these bears do their thing, the youngsters sticking close to mom, and her having to often lift a leg over one of them as it would get underfoot. I thought back a few weeks ago to seeing black bears with cubs in Yellowstone, along with 75 or more people along the road each time. It made me really appreciate the quiet and solitude of Pungo.

Bl;ack bear sow with cubs standing

She caught my scent and stood up. So did the first little one.

The mother bear finally headed off to the woods and, as she traveled, the young ones struggled a bit to keep up. At one point, she passed downwind of me and must have picked up my scent. She stopped, raised up, looking around to see where that human smell was coming from. One cub joined her and seemed to mirror every move she made as she looked this way and that.

Bl;ack bear sow with cubs standing 1

Looking where mom is looking

She finally dropped down and quickly got her youngsters to the safety of the woods. In the next thirty minutes my bear count went up to 14, all in the two fields on either side of where i stood.

female black bear with missing foot

Female bear , with company…

I decided to drive around a bit more as more of these bears starting heading for the shade of the forest. Less than a half-mile away I encountered my first really big bear of the day – a big boar courting a much smaller female. June and early July are the prime mating season for black bears at Pungo, so you tend to see more of the big males this time of year as they search for females that are receptive to mating. This female was limping as she walked and I finally realized she either had a deformity or was missing her entire left hind foot (look closely at the photo above).

large black bear boar

This huge boar was courting her all day, and he has the scars to prove he is worthy

The male following her was a bruiser – a big boy with plenty of battle scars.

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Wherever she went, he followed

They crossed a canal into a field and munched away at things I could not see from my vantage point. Both bruins just ambled along, nibbling as they walked, with the male keeping close to the limping female. I was shooting a lot of images and suddenly remembered I had loaned all of my compact flash memory cards to Melissa for her Yellowstone trip. My camera has two card slots, one for each type of memory card. That is a great feature because you can just keep shooting if you run through one of your cards. And, if you are like me (with my old camera), I always ran out of memory right when something amazing was happening. But, today, I only had the one card in the camera. The male was getting closer and closer to the female and I thought they might mate at any time, so I decided to run back the 50 yards or so to the car and get another card. The bears were far enough away (and headed in the opposite direction), so I left my camera and telephoto lens there on the tripod as I ran back. I had my camera bag open at the car and was trying to find one of my other cards when I glanced back toward the bears and saw another huge bear come out of the woods not far from my camera. I think I actually yelled, Noooooo, and took off back toward my camera gear. The last thing I wanted was for a curious bear to knock it over into the canal or decide to test the toughness of my lens. By the way, I should remind everyone that I am taking these photos with a telephoto lens and I am attentive to what the bears are doing and how they are behaving. I don’t want to stress them (or myself) by getting too close.

Large male black bear close up

A handsome admirer soon showed up, trailing the female and her suitor

The new bear walked over to the edge of the canal, looked out at the other bears, and slowly turned and went back into the woods. But not before glancing at the panting human who was now standing next to his camera gear. This was another large male, but one that was much more handsome, lacking the many scars of the bigger fella out in the field. I am pretty sure he was trailing the female (he came out on the same pathway as they did), saw the bigger male, and thought better of it.

I drove through the refuge one more time and returned to the same spot where I had earlier seen so many bears. The fields did not disappoint and i soon had another 7 bears in view. Another large male cruised across the field and headed toward a small pond I had found while walking around earlier. I walked back to where I could cross a small canal and slowly headed that way, hoping to catch the bear cooling off in the water. When I got near, I could not see him or any ripple in the water, so I thought he had gone on by.  I started to walk past the pond when he suddenly rose up out of the water from behind some tall vegetation and climbed out.

Huge black bear boar after a dip

You looking at me?

He shook off, walked a few steps and then realized I was standing there watching. He gave me a glance that reassured me that I didn’t want to get any closer, and then ambled away.

huge male black bear

This big guy had a fresh battle scar on his rear

He looked like another warrior and had a big scar on his rump from a fairly recent fight. The other thing I noticed when I looked at most of the bear images back home was that almost every bear had an escort of several biting flies of one sort or another (you can see a big horsefly near the scar in the photo above). Life can be tough for bears (and humans) out here.

black bear family of 4

My last bears of the day, a family of four

My last bears of the day was a family of four, including 3 large cubs from a previous year (cubs are usually “kicked out” in their second year). The mother is the one facing the camera in the photo above. The group strolled back and forth across the field, munching on sprouting soybeans, and causing a few of the solo young bears nearby to abandon their feeding and head back into the woods. I ended the day with 21 different bears, including 5 cubs of the year (with two different sows) and 4 large boars. It was a hot, sweaty day, but one well worth it. Ah, summer at Pungo…can’t wait to go back!

 

 

Our Yellowstone

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

To celebrate our wedding, Melissa and I did something we have never done – went to our favorite place, without a group. While we have had a day or two to ourselves here and there over the years, we were always prepping for a group’s arrival. This time, it was just us, and we were going to do another first – camp and backpack in Yellowstone. Even though I have been there over 40 times, I had never camped in the park or backpacked. So, this was going to be something special…except the weather decided maybe we needed a reminder of our inability to control things in this amazing landscape. It decided to rain, and rain, and rain a bit more. An entire day of rain on our first full day in the park and that was something I had never experienced in all my trips. But, it turned out to be just fine as we had a chance to spend time with friends and relax a bit, which has always been tough when leading a group.

Here are a few of the highlights of our time in our shared paradise (oh, and I just returned from dropping Melissa off at 4 a.m. at the airport so she can lead a trip to Yellowstone with a youth group from the museum, lucky her)…

eagle nest cliff

The Slough Creek cliffs held a special treat again this year (click photos to enlarge)

Golden eagle in nest

Golden eagle nest on cliff face

It was a great trip for birds…

Swainson's hawk with snake

Swainson’s hawk carrying a snake

White-faced ibis

White-faced ibis

Yellow warbler

Yellow warbler at the beaver pond

Cliff swallows in rain

The cliff swallows had just returned and did not seem to appreciate the rain either

Tree swallow

Tree swallow eyeing the camera

Mountain bluebird male

A male mountain bluebird looking fine

Peregrine on nest close view

Peregrine falcon on her precarious nest on the edge of a cliff

peregrine nest

Peregrine nest location from overlook near Calcite Springs

immature bald eagle

Immature bald eagle

elk carcass and birds

Bald eagles and ravens on elk carcass in Soda Butte Creek

Other wildlife made an appearance as well…

red fox on snow 1

Red fox on snow field at Dunraven Pass

Pronghorn buck

Pronghorn buck surveying his domain

Pronghorn eyes from behind close up

Pronghorns can even survey the scene behind them due to the placement of their large eyes

coyote

Coyote on the prowl

bison and person

Sometimes signs are not enough

bison cown and calf

Newborn bison calf gets cleaned by mom

Black bear and cub in tree

This mom finally had to climb the tree to retrieve her baby

Black bear and cub

A discussion on tree-climbing behavior once they were back on the ground

And, as usual, the scenery was fantastic…

snow from Dunraven

Late season snow at Dunraven Pass

Daisy geyser and rainbow

Daisy geyser erupts creating a rainbow in the mist

bison and reflection

Reflections near Junction Butte

Rainbow at soda butte

Double rainbow along Soda Butte Creek

sunset along Lamar River

Sunset along the Lamar River

Full moon seting in Lamar Valleygg

Full moon setting in Lamar Valley

Plants That Bite Back – Part 2

It commonly chances that I make my most interesting botanical discoveries when I am in a thrilled and expectant mood…some rare plant which for some reason has occupied a strangely prominent place in my thoughts for some time will present itself. My expectation ripens to discovery. I am prepared for strange things.

~Henry David Thoreau, 1856

The strange and miraculous Venus flytrap was the subject of the last post. But, North Carolina is home to a variety of other carnivorous plants, and we saw many of them on our recent trips to the Green Swamp and Holly Shelter. Here is a quick summary of some of these amazing insect-eating flora…

Butterwort flower and leaves

Butterwort flower and leaves (click photos to enlarge)

Butterworts – Pinguicula sp.- Latin, pinguis, means fat. Common name refers to glistening leaves. Three species of this plant equivalent of flypaper are found in NC.

Purple butterwort  flower and base

Blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

Pinguicula lutea flower

Yellow butterwort, P. lutea

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Small butterwort, P. pumila

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Basal rosette of butterwort leaves act like flypaper

The leaves of butterwort use two specialized glands, scattered across the leaf surface, for prey capture and digestion:

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Close-up of butterwort leaves

1) a peduncular gland, consisting of a few secretory cells on top of a single stalk that produce a mucilaginous secretion that traps insects; 2) sessile glands, which lie flat on the leaf surface and release enzymes that digest soft parts of the insect body. These fluids are then absorbed back into the leaf surface through holes. Butterworts produce a strong bactericide which prevents insects from rotting while they lay exposed on the leaves and are being digested. This property has long been known by northern Europeans, who applied butterwort leaves to the sores of cattle to promote healing.

Bladderwort mass

An aquatic species of bladderwort

Bladderworts – Utricularia sp. – Latin, utriculus, meaning wine flask, leather bottle, bladder, small womb, or bagpipe; refers to the shape of the trapping mechanism.

Bladderwort traps

Bladderwort traps are small pouches attached to stolons

Bladderworts are the largest genus of carnivorous plants with over 200 species worldwide. About 16 species are found in NC with most found in the Coastal Plain. Most are aquatic or occur in wet soils. They lack roots, but they do have underground or underwater stolons (creeping plant stems) that behave as roots.

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The most common bladderwort we saw was the tiny terrestrial species, U. subulata, that grows in wet sand

Bladders are scattered along the length of the plant under water (or wet soil) suspended from small stalks. Each is concave, under pressure, and sealed by a trapdoor kept watertight by a mucilaginous sealant. One touch of the tiny trapdoor trigger hairs, and the door swings open sucking prey and surrounding water into the low-pressure trap. Their traps suck in prey in less than one one-hundredth of a second, making this one of the speediest movements in the plant world. Once the prey is inside, a swirl of water pushes the door back again and the prey is trapped. Glands on the the inside of the bladder secrete enzymes that dissolve soft-bodied prey within hours. Other cells transport water back out of the trap, and it is reset.

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Sundews in a roadside ditch

Sundews – Drosera sp. – Greek for dewy. One of the most abundant groups of carnivorous plants with over 160 species worldwide. There are five species in NC.

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Close-up of a leaf of D. intermedia

Leaves lure, capture, and digest insects using stalked mucilaginous glands covering their leaf surfaces. These hairs trap insects in the sticky “goo”, and then proceed to digest them.

sundew with prey

Leaves often curl to help pool the released enzymes and nutrients

Sundews move their tentacles toward their prey, causing them to get even more stuck.

sundew flower stalk with insects 1

Even the flower stalks and buds of D. brevifolia seem to trap small flying insects

Enzymes dissolve the prey and released nutrients are then absorbed through the leaf surface.

Holly Shelter oitcher plants

Yellow pitcher plants at Holly Shelter Game Lands

Pitcher plants – Sarracenia sp. – After Michel Sarrazin (1659–1735), the first naturalist to send pitcher plants to Europe for study. Pitcher plants are passive pitfall traps (they don’t move). Pitchers are modified leaves and many species have lids or hoods which keep out rainwater.

unopened S flava leaf

Yellow pitcher plant leaf before the trap tube opens

Prey are lured by nectar and colors/patterns on the pitcher that mimic a flower. At least one species, S. flava, has a toxic alkaloid in the nectar that may intoxicate prey.

cut pitcher plant

Dissected pitcher showing downward pointing hairs and prey

Prey fall into the trap due to the slippery inner wall of the upper section. Narrowing diameter of the tube and downward pointing hairs in lower portions further inhibit escape. Digestive enzymes are secreted and nutrients are absorbed by the plant tissues.

Sarracenia purpure

Purple pitcher plants lack a lid and collects rainwater

Prey are believed to drown in the open pitcher of purple pitcher plants, S. purpurea. Microorganisms living inside the pitchers contribute to decomposition and nutrient uptake by the plant. If you look inside one of these pitchers, you may see things swimming in what you would think would be a deadly soup. We pulled a turkey baster full of liquid out of one pitcher and found both prey remains and living organisms that use it as a home.

Picture

The material siphoned out of a purple pitcher plant pitcher…yellow lines indicate a live mosquito larva and pupa; the blue line is a live midge larva

The larvae of a small, non-biting mosquito (Wyeomyia smithii) and a midge (Metriocnemus knabi) live in the liquid in the pitcher, somehow withstanding the digestive enzymes that kill other insects.

This has been a quick glimpse into the lives of these strange and wonderful plants. I have so much more to learn about these amazing plants and their specialized adaptations for surviving in nutrient poor soils in these intriguing habitats.

Plants That Bite Back

The great wonder of the vegetable kingdom is a very curious unknown species of Sensitive. It is a dwarf plant. The leaves are like a narrow segment of a sphere, consisting of two parts, like the cap of a spring purse, the concave part outwards, each of which falls back with indented edges (like an iron spring fox-trap); upon anything touching the leaves, or falling between them, they instantly close like a spring trap, and confine any insect or anything that falls between them. It bears a white flower. To this surprising plant I have given the name of Fly trap Sensitive.

~Arthur Dobbs, colonial governor of North Carolina, 1760

looking at flytraps

Educators taking a closer look at Venus flytraps (click photos to enlarge)

A couple of weeks ago I posted this image from an Educator Trek to Holly Shelter Game Lands and asked you to consider what these people were studying. It was one of the highlights of our session – examining the amazing carnivorous plant, the Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula.

Venus flytrap cluster

Large Venus flytraps at Holly Shelter Game Lands

Earlier posts on this plant (The Most Wonderful Plant in the World and Where Insects Fear to Tread) gave some of the details of how it traps its prey, but here is another quick pictorial overview:

Venus flytrap plus developing flower stalk

The traps are highly modified leaves (note flower stalk emerging from center). These plants grow in moist, nutrient-poor soils, only within about a 75-mile radius around Wilmington, NC. The carnivorous habits are an adaptation to secure needed nitrogen from their invertebrate prey.

single flytrap trapo

Each trap consists of two hinged lobes with a fringe of fleshy “teeth”.

vft triggers

On the inner surfaces of the lobes are trigger hair projections, called trichomes, that cause the lobes to snap shut when prey comes in contact with them.

Venus flytrap partially closed

Two trigger hairs must be touched by prey within 20 seconds (or one hair twice). The trap shuts rapidly (in less than a second).

When a non-prey object, like raindrops or a human with a pine needle, causes the trap to shut, it typically is loosely closed as in the photo above. If no other disturbance occurs to the trigger hairs, the trap will reopen within several hours. If, however, a prey item is caught, and is struggling and continues to hit the trigger hairs 4 or 5 more times, the trap shuts tightly and begins to release digestive enzymes. The enzymes gradually digest the soft parts of the prey. The nitrogen (and other nutrients) released are then absorbed by the lobes and the trap will reopen after several days. Each trap can open and close 4 or 5 times before that trap dies. New leaves with traps are then produced from underground stems.

Venus flytrap

A trap ready for a snack.

A recent publication on flytraps provides results of a collaboration between researchers at the NC Botanical Garden, NC State University, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They examined the diet of flytraps in the field to investigate if there is any overlap between their prey and their pollinators (which seems like a bad idea from the plants’ perspective).  We decided to look for ourselves and see what we could find in a few of the traps.

Flytrap prey

We gently opened a few traps to see what they had eaten.

Spider as flytrap prey

A spider (probably some sort of wolf spider) as prey in one trap.

Our limited results were in line with what the scientists found – 40% of the prey they found in traps were spiders. The second largest group of prey were ants. In other words, Venus flytraps seem to specialize in eating crawling invertebrates, whereas the pollinators they found were primarily flying insects (bees and beetles). This makes sense when you look at the architecture of this plant. Traps are low to the ground, rarely rising more than an inch or two off the substrate. In contrast, the small white flowers are borne on stalks rising about 12 inches above the traps, helping to ensure that the plant minimizes the risk to its flying pollinators. Perhaps a more appropriate name for this wonder would be “Venus spidertrap”.

VFT sign

Poaching Venus flytraps is now a felony in North Carolina.

After observing these botanical marvels, we can appreciate why Charles Darwin called them “the most wonderful plant in the world”. In recognition of its limited global range (primarily in NC) and concern over its conservation, North Carolina designated the Venus flytrap as the official state carnivorous plant in 2005. And, as of 2014, Venus flytraps are protected from poaching by a law that makes it a felony to dig them up in the wild. If you would like to learn more, and see some flytraps (and other insect-eating plants) up close, you can visit the carnivorous plant collection at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. They should be blooming soon!

 

 

Bears and Butterflies

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do…  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.

~Mark Twain

I think that sentiment is one of Melissa’s primary views of how to live a life. But, even she was a bit reluctant to head out early Saturday morning for a day trip to Pungo. We have both had full schedules at work these past few months with no let up in sight. We had planned this trip as a weekend get-away to meet our friend, Petra, and a couple from the Netherlands that had been clients a few years ago. Plans changed, and we decided not to camp and just do a day trip. We left about 7 a.m., arriving a little after 10 a.m., and found our friends alongside the road after having seen one large bear out in a field. But, they anticipated more now that the ‘bear whisperers” were here (no pressure there). So, off we went, and, luckily, there they were – a family of four bears just down the road.

bears in field

Family of black bears in one of the fields at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

It turned out to be a rather slow day at Pungo, but we had a great time in absolutely beautiful weather – walking, talking, laughing with friends, discussing the state of the world from another country’s perspective, and getting glimpses of nature. Butterflies were very active, especially the palamedes swallowtails and zebra swallowtails.

palamedes swallowtail on thistle

Palamedes swallowtail feeding on a roadside thistle

palamedes swallowtail mating dance

Palamedes swallowtail mating dance

monarch on vetch

Monarch foraging on vetch

We even had two monarchs nectaring on small wildflowers along Bear Road. Birds were abundant as well – a pair of adult bald eagles, wild turkeys, a green heron, and lots of warblers (prairie, black-throated blue, black and white, prothonotary).

bear in thicket

Our last bear of the day

But the day belonged to the bears, 14 in all. The last one was the closest, just across a roadside canal, low in the brush, nibbling on various leaves. It was a glorious day that ended with a wonderful dinner in Belhaven, and a late night return for us. But it was all worth it – seeing our Dutch friends, being outside on a beautiful day, watching those bears – and I’m glad we did it. Next….

Green Shelters

The distinctive roar of the longleaf was the sound the evening breeze made, and the odor of pine resin was the smell of the countryside…It was so much a part of their lives, so wound up with everything it meant to be southern, that it was as impossible to discern its influence as it was to imagine a world without it. Only when it was reduced, almost entirely, to a sea of stumps could we begin to get our arms around it.

~~Bill Finch in Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See

These past few weeks have flown by with so much happening both at work and home. Highlights have included a couple of trips to a region of North Carolina that is quickly becoming a favorite, and is home to extensive longleaf pine savannas and their associated diversity of plants. The place is southeastern North Carolina, and the destinations are the Green Swamp Preserve and Holly Shelter Game Lands. One trip was with some of our trained volunteers from the NC Botanical Garden. The other was an educator trek highlighting the carnivorous plants of the region. Both were in collaboration with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Compared to our home here in the Piedmont, this land of longleaf really is a different world in the way it looks, feels, and sounds.Here are a few highlights from those trips (spoiler alert…more to come in future posts)…

Longleaf pine savanna

Longleaf pine and wiregrass along a road in Holly Shelter Game Lands (click photos to enlarge)

The classic longleaf savanna has a dense understory of wiregrass and a host of other herbaceous species under a canopy of tall longleaf pines. Variations of this conifer-dominated community once covered 90 million acres along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Logging, the naval stores industry, land conversion, and fire suppression have reduced this once dominant plant community by 97%. Land managers are working to restore this treasure by using a tool that helped shape this diverse landscape – fire.

Grass stage of longleaf pine

Grass stage of longleaf pine following a prescribed burn

Scientists estimate natural lightning-caused fires once occurred on average every 3 to 7 years in much of the Coastal Plain. Years of fire suppression shifted the balance in plant communities to favor more deciduous species like turkey oaks at the expense of longleaf pines and the associated savanna species. Regular burns are helping turn this around, allowing the fire-adapted species to once again thrive. At both sites, we saw evidence of the adaptability of the many growth stages of longleaf to the effects of fire (see Melissa’s post from last year on longleaf). Plenty of singed needles, but the majority of growth tips survived, helping create a patchwork of green in the charred landscape.

Bottlebrush stage of longleaf after fire

Bottlebrsush stage after a fire

Looking down on growing tip of bottlebrush stage of longleaf aft

Growth tip of a longleaf pine in the bottlebrush stage

Bring the plants back and you start to bring back the animals as well.

Red-cockaded woodpecker nest cavity

Red-cockaded woodpecker nest cavity surrounded by sap flow

The federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker depends on mature longleaf pine forests for its nesting cavities. They are the only woodpecker that regularly excavates cavities in living trees. As such, they are considered a ‘keystone’ species, because use of their cavities (either for roosting or nesting) by at least 27 other species of vertebrates contributes to the species richness of the pine forest. We saw numerous cavity trees scattered about the savannas. Most are marked in two ways – one human, one avian. Researchers monitoring the birds’ population regularly mark nest trees with two bands of white paint around the trunk of the tree. The birds drill numerous holes above and below the nest entrance, creating a sap flow that dries a whitish color and is visible at considerable distances. The sap is believed to help reduce the threat to eggs and nestlings from predators such as rat snakes.

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Dwarf azalea in pine savanna

Flower buds of dwarf azalea

Dwarf azalea flower buds

Dwarf azalea

Dwarf azalea blossom

At our last stop in Holly Shelter, we enjoyed the beauty and fragrance of dwarf azaleas, Rhododendron atlanticum. This low-growing shrub makes an eye-popping display in the sea of wiregrass. A closer look revealed some other striking flowers under the pines.

Iris verna

Dwarf iris, Iris verna, in the Green Swamp

grass pink orchid flower

Grass pink orchid

The pine savannas are known for their unusual plants, including a host of native orchids. Early in the season, the grass pink orchids, Calopogon sp., dominate. The genus name is Greek for “beautiful beard”, referring to the cluster of yellowish hairs on the upper lip of the flower. This flower produces no nectar, but the bushy hairs resemble the pollen-bearing anthers of other flowers, thus fooling insects to land for a snack.

grass pink orchid flower showing hinged upper lip

What happens when a bee lands on the fake anthers of a grass pink orchid flower

The upper lip of the orchid is hinged at the base. When an insect lands on it, the lip drops, flopping the insect onto the reproductive parts of the flower (called a column) hopefully leading to pollination. In the photo above, the twig pushing down on the lip shows what happens when an insect, such as a bumblebee, lands on the yellow hairs – it is dropped down onto the column.

Fly on meadow beauty seed vessels

Fly resting on old seed pod of meadow beauty

We also saw a lot of other insects in the savanna including many Palamedes swallowtail butterflies. And where there are insects, there will be spiders, waiting…

Crab spider on flower

Crab spider awaiting its next meal

wolf spider with babies

Wolf spider with babies and egg sac

This mother wolf spider is carrying her egg sac on the tip of her abdomen while the spiderlings hatch and crawl onto her back. They will cling to her for a few days until their first molt.

wolf spider with babies close up

Hitching a ride with mom

Our savanna time was well spent and we all came away with a new appreciation of the magic of this habitat. The gentle roar of the wind in the pines is definitely a soothing sound.

Longleaf pines and sunlight

Longleaf pine canopy in the Green Swamp Preserve

And, if you take the time to stoop down and look closely, there are many marvels to see…

looking at flytraps

What are they looking at?

Stay tuned…

 

 

Crispy Cocoon

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

~Friedrich Nietzche

Last weekend we once again camped at Jones Lake State Park as part of an exploratory trip to the Green Swamp and surroundings. As we drove in, the campground looked quite different from last year at this time – it had been burned. The park staff do periodic prescribed burns to mimic the natural occurrence of lightning-caused fire in these habitats. After setting up camp we walked over to the canoe access area to check out the lake. On our way back, I noticed a speck of bright green in the brown and black landscape resulting from a January prescribed burn.

Luna moth in burned area at Jones Lake

Luna moth, Actias luna, that has just emerged (click photos to enlarge)

A freshly emerged luna moth! Our first sighting of this beautiful moth of this season. It was hanging still, no doubt getting ready for its first flight.

Luna moth freshly emerged  side view

Side view of the luna moth

I ran to get our cameras and we spent the next 30 minutes observing and photographing this beautiful creature. The long tails are a gorgeous and diagnostic feature of this species. And, according to recent research, they serve a potentially life-saving function for these giant silk moths. When flying, the fluttering tails appear to create an acoustic signal that causes hungry bats to zero in on the moths’ tails, missing the vital body parts, and allowing many moths to escape.

luna moth head close up

Close-up of the front of a luna moth

When you only live a week or so as an adult, every miss from a predator seems to have added importance for your reproductive success. Female luna moths scatter their couple of hundred eggs on host plants such as sweetgum (the dominant in our area), persimmon, and hickories over the few nights of their active flight. There are generally at least two generations per year in our area with the Fall generation overwintering as a cocoon. The Fall caterpillars wrap themselves in leaves and silk and are usually hidden in the leaf litter until they emerge in spring. And that is what piqued our curiosity with this particular moth. How had it survived the ground fire just a couple of months ago?

luna moth cocoon in burned area

The moth’s cocoon

I started searching the area around the moth, figuring it had climbed the first vertical object it encountered after emergence. They climb in order to fully expand their wings by pumping fluid from their abdomen through the veins of their wings. Moths that don’t hang from something (like those placed in a glass container as cocoons) may develop deformed wings and cannot fly. After just a minute of looking, I found the cocoon laying on the now almost bare ground about 3 feet from the sapling the adult had climbed.

luna moth cocoon half in hand

Half of the cocoon was missing

When I picked up the cocoon, I was stunned to find that half of it was missing, presumably consumed by the fire (note the seared edge). We can only guess that the pupa inside the cocoon somehow managed to escape the fire that consumed half of its covering. It then lay there for a couple of months, lucky to escape foraging insects, mice, and other pupa predators. Truly amazing. An equally amazing thing is how an adult luna moth normally escapes its silken cocoon. You usually find a spent cocoon with a single hole in one end. The adult moth wriggles out using a secreted enzyme (called cocoonase) that helps dissolve the glue (called sericin) binding the silk in the cocoon. The moths also have shortened spurs along the base of the fore-wing that are used to help tear through the cocoon covering.

Luna moth freshly emerged front view

Top view of adult luna moth 

As we moved around it taking pictures, I accidentally touched the sapling, causing the moth to raise its wings, exposing the stunning eye spots on the hind wings. It also started to quiver slightly.

Luno moth with wings spread

Luna moth with outstretched wings

These shivering motions are generally a precursor to flight, but it quickly settled back to a resting position and we moved on.  When we checked the next morning, the moth was gone, hopefully to live long enough to ensure a new generation of these magnificent insects.

Feeling Alive

Go where you feel most alive.

~Author unknown

I have been missing my usual winter routine of several trips down east. Schedules have been busy, and this thing called work has a way of occupying a lot of your time! So, last week we decided to make a day-trip to my favorite spots in North Carolina – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I wrote about one of the highlights in a previous blog – the epic battle between heron and fish. This post covers the rest of that amazing day, starting with a rendezvous with our friend in Raleigh at 6:45 a.m. (admittedly, a rather leisurely hour for such a trip).

Swans on ice

Tundra swans on ice (click photos to enlarge)

We arrived at the Pungo Unit a little after 9. The skies were gray, the wind whipping, temperatures below freezing – a Pungo kind of day. This is the reason I often tell people to dress as if “you will be the coldest you have ever been”. To our surprise, the only birds in the fields behind the maintenance compound were a ton of American robins. Friends had reported that large flock of snow geese had been feeding there in recent days, and it was the time of day when they are usually in the fields for breakfast. We drove on, spotting a couple of uncooperative river otter in a canal. Try as we might, we only managed quick glimpses before they totally disappeared. A quick stop at the blustery observation platform confirmed that the waterfowl know not to be out in the open on such a windy day. All we could see were some thin white lines of swans on the far shore where the forested shoreline provides them with some protection from the north wind.

sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes on the refuge!

On to Marsh A, one of the managed wetland areas for waterfowl, and a favorite place of both swans and swan-watchers. Indeed, there were a few thousand tundra swans milling about, some, on the fringes of the flock, walking on ice. A quick glass of the area revealed a bonus – three sandhill cranes! They were reported earlier in the season, but we had missed them on the Christmas Bird Count. I have seen this species here sporadically over the years, usually just as a fly-over. but these three were hunkered down in the marsh, no doubt wondering why they had not opted for a warmer habitat. We then saw a giant flock of snow geese flying into the lake from the north. Had they been feeding in the fields along “Bear Road”? We drove over, hoping to see some stragglers and were greeted by a few hundred snow geese out in the corn. We encountered some other friends from Raleigh, shared a few stories, and then headed over to Mattamuskeet for the middle part of the day. We spent a lot of the time with the aforementioned heron, but also saw thousands of ducks (especially northern pintails), another disappearing otter, and a dancing night heron.

Black-crowned night heron shimmy

Night heron shimmy

Black-crowned night heron shimmy 1

Shaking it

An adult black-crowned night heron was on one of the usual pilings in the pool near the entrance to Mattamuskeet, so we stopped and walked over to admire. It was striking their usual stoic pose, when, all of a sudden, it went through a series of gyrations that would make any dance contestant proud. When it settled back down, it did a quick poop (lighten the load) and flew off.

After spending a couple of hours at Mattamuskeet, we headed back to Pungo for what we hoped would be a grand evening show. The walk down Bear Road quickly showed why I dubbed it thus years ago, before real road name signs went up – five bears came out across the field to feed. After watching them mill about and horse around (a couple of young ones were wrestling), we headed into the woods. Melissa and I both commented that there isn’t as much fresh bear sign in these woods this winter – there is some, but not the totally worn down “bear living rooms” we have seen in the past. Suddenly, our friend said, “Look, a tiny owl”!

Eastern screech owl out on branch

Eastern screech owl out on a limb

I had been checking out every snag as we walked, so I naturally looked at the dead top of the tree where she was pointing. I couldn’t see it. “Right there”, she exclaimed. I followed her outstretched hand, and, to my surprise, there is a screech owl sitting out in the open on a branch several feet away from the trunk. The little guy barely moved its head to watch us as we slowly maneuvered, trying not to scare it. The fading sunlight would move on and off the owl, highlighting its beautiful rufous plumage.

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

Gray morph Eastern screech owl from 2016

In a post from a very “owly” day a couple of years ago, I shared photos of another Eastern screech owl from the Pungo Unit. That one was a gray morph using a wood duck box as a nest site. Eastern screech owls come in two primary color morphs in our state – red (or rufous) and gray (there is a third, a brown morph, in the far south). That doesn’t mean they can change color (they remain whichever color they are their entire life), it simply means there are two primary colors seen in this species. It turns out that the red color morph is more common in southern parts of the range, while the gray is predominant in colder regions. Plumage color appears to be correlated with thermal adaptation. One ornithologist writing about the color morphs summarized findings that showed that gray birds survive colder temperatures better than red birds, which may account for their differential distribution.

Eastern Screech owl

That look that only a screech owl can give

After observing the owl (and it, half open-eyed, observing us) for several minutes, we walked on, hoping it would not fall prey to any of the numerous winged predators that hunt these woods (great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, etc.). About that time, flocks of snow geese started to fly overhead and began circling the fields along Bear Road. We  headed out into the open, hoping they would land. As we watched (and wondered about the energy budget of snow goose behavior), something else caught my eye down the road.

Black bear standing

This town isn’t big enough for the two of us

A medium-sized black bear came out into the road and started ambling our way. When I alerted the others, we undoubtedly moved a bit, and the bear stopped in its tracks. He looked our way, then stood up to check us out. A standing bear always reminds me of how much we have in common with bruins. This one also looked as if he was trying out for a role in Gunfight at the Pungo Corral. He dropped and cautiously went back into the woods.

Snow geese swirling above the field at sunset

Snow geese swirling over the corn at sunset

Our attention shifted back to the birds, which were now circling near us in dense, squawking clouds. I never tire of this visual spectacle and the incredible sounds that accompany it.

Buddy Bear

I just want to cross at my usual spot

For the next several minutes, we stood in awe of the scene before us – countless birds swirling nearby, swans flying over our heads back to the lake, and our bear friend tentatively trying to reach his canal crossover spot. The bear may be one I have seen over the past couple of years that we dubbed “buddy bear” (for his tolerance of humans). He kept coming out to the road, looking our way, then retreating back into the woods. He would then ease closer to us, come back out into the road, and repeat the sequence. All the while, thousands of birds circled out in front of us…which way to look? The bear ended up catching our attention again when he came out on the crossover path and headed down the canal bank. We all watched as he swam across, shook off, and scurried into the standing corn. What a privilege to be able to witness all this.

More snow geese arriving

Huge flock of snow geese flying into the field

We started to head back to the car and then saw wave after wave of snow geese flying in from the northeast to join the thousands already landing in the corn. This was like the scenes of a few years ago – thousands of snow geese in the fields along Bear Road at sunset, hundreds of ducks swooping in to join them, bears coming out from several directions, swans calling as they fly in from the north, deer coming out of the woods, and woodcock streaking out into the fields to feed. Then we heard the final actor in this grand play – the haunting call of a great horned owl.

Great horned owl at sunset

A great horned owl at sunset

Melissa soon spotted it in a tree not far from us. It flew to a branch out over Bear Road, silhouetted against the fading orange sky. What a great ending to an amazing day! This place is truly magical. It really is somewhere you go to feel alive, to recharge your spirit, and to rediscover a sense of awe and wonder about our world,  Thank you, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for making this possible. We all need to support these public lands, especially now, so they remain available for us and these amazing natural spectacles.

Species observed at Pocosin Lakes (Pungo Unit) and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges 1/15/18:

Birds (61 species):

Double-crested Cormorant; Canada Goose; Snow Goose; Ross’s Goose; Tundra Swan; Mallard; Black Duck; Northern Shoveler; Northern Pintail; Ring-necked Duck; Wood Duck; Gadwall; Bufflehead; Ruddy Duck; Hooded Merganser; American Coot; Pied-billed Grebe; Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; Sandhill Crane; Black-crowned Night Heron; Turkey Vulture; Red-tailed Hawk; Bald Eagle; Northern Harrier; American Kestrel; Eastern Screech Owl; Great Horned Owl; Ring-billed Gull; Mourning Dove; Belted Kingfisher; Northern Flicker; Pileated Woodpecker; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; American Woodcock; Killdeer; American Crow; Eastern Phoebe; American Robin; Eastern Bluebird; Northern Mockingbird; Carolina Wren; Winter Wren; White-throated Sparrow; Swamp Sparrow; Savannah Sparrow; Song Sparrow; Tree Swallow; Red-winged Blackbird; Common Grackle; Brown-headed Cowbird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; European Starling; Orange-crowned Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Golden-crowned Kinglet

Mammals (7 species):

River Otter; Black Bear; Gray Squirrel; White-tailed Deer; Hispid Cotton Rat; Raccoon; Nutria

Heron Dreams

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

~Henry David Thoreau

We all have dreams, some bigger than others. I dream of experiences, being in wild places, and seeing the spectacles that nature has to offer. I have often wondered if other species dream. Having had dogs much of my life, and watching them as they seem to chase something in their sleep with paws twitching and soft barks, I think they do dream. I’m not sure about other species – whether, for instance, herons dream, but we met one earlier this week that seemed to dream big…really big.

Great blue heron

A stately great blue heron at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (click photos to enlarge)

We did a quick day trip on Monday down to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I just haven’t been able to get away as much as my soul needs, so a day-trip would have to do. A friend from work (who had never been) was able to travel with us so I was hoping for a good show for her sake. After a bitterly cold morning at Pungo (more on the Pungo portion of the trip in the next post), we headed over to Mattamuskeet mid-day to see what we could find. As is often the case, there was a stately great blue heron at the pool near the entrance along Wildlife Drive. But I noticed something different this time…

Great blue heron strikes

The heron strikes

There was something else on the island of grass…

The prize

The prize revealed

A huge fish! A mullet! Even though Mattamuskeet is a freshwater lake, this bird was on a canal outside the lake proper, one that connects via a long (~7 mile) system of canals out to Pamlico Sound, where striped mullet are very common. My apologies for posting so many images of this epic struggle, but I have always wanted to see a heron swallow a huge fish, and here it was, out in the open, a “dream” come true.

A beakfull

A lot to get your beak around

We watched as the bird tried to grab the still-flopping fish. It was a lot to get your beak around.

Getting a drink

The heron took frequent sips of water

The heron would work at grabbing the fish, then drop it, and almost every time dip the tip of its bill in the water. Was it taking a drink, removing slime, washing out a bad taste…who knows?

Stabbing the fish

A few sharp jabs with the beak eventually subdued the mullet

The heron used its stiletto beak in a series of quick jabs to try to subdue the mullet.

How do I get this thing off

Now…how do I get this thing off my beak?

It sometimes took a few shakes to get the fish off. After several bouts of spearing the fish, the mullet stopped moving.

Displacement behavior?

Displacement behavior?

Curiously, in between efforts to swallow the fish, the heron would every now and then grab some roots, sticks, and shoots of vegetation on the island. Is this some sort of displacement behavior? Taking out its frustrations on plants?

Almost there

A lot to lift

Not only was this fish a challenge in terms of its girth, it was a heavy lift for the heron. A typical adult great blue heron weighs about 5 pounds. Their upper bill is about 5+ inches in length. Looking at this photo, I estimate this fish to be about 14 inches in length (compare bill length to fish length). I found an online length-weight conversion estimator for fishes in Texas and used that to estimate the weight of this fish at about 1 pound – 1/5 the weight of the bird. So, that’s like me trying to gulp down a 40 pound hamburger!

eye to eye

Eye to eye

This photo “caught my eye”…the juxtaposition of the eye of the predator and the prey, now resigned to its fate. Our friend, Janna, suggested this caption…””that feeling you have when you realize who you have been trying to kiss”.

maybe if I wet it

Maybe if I get it wet…

We watched the struggle for about 20 minutes and reluctantly decided to head off to see some other areas of the refuge, wondering if the heron would ever be successful. We came back about an hour and a half later, and the heron was still at it. Another couple of photographers had stopped, but the heron was paying us no mind. It had eyes only for the mullet. While we were gone, the heron seemed to have figured out a better strategy for lifting the fish, and came oh-so-close to swallowing it a couple of times.

almost lost it

Almost lost it

But it almost lost it into the water at one point, managing a quick grab to pull it back onshore.

stand off

Pondering your dreams

The heron was starting to tire. It took longer breaks between feeding attempts. We watched another 20 minutes. The proud bird twice turned its back (maybe hoping we woudn’t see?) and caught tiny fish and gulped them down.

a quick snack

Settling for less, or just grabbing a quick snack?

It was getting late. The heron had been at this for at least two hours. We had spent almost 45 minutes watching the struggle, camera shutters firing away (I’m almost embarrassed to admit I took 892 photos of this battle), and there was no end in sight. It was time to leave and head for Pungo for what we hoped would be a great sunset show.

Really really big

Dream big

I hated to leave without knowing whether the heron realized its dream. But I guess I had achieved mine, even though I didn’t witness a successful end to the story. Perhaps the important thing, for both heron and human, is to dream in the first place.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.

~Walt Disney

 

Haw-inspiring Hike

One of the reasons there are so many terms for conditions of ice is that the mariners observing it were often trapped in it, and had nothing to do except look at it.

― Alec Wilkinson

I must give credit to our friend, Bill, for the title of this post (hope he doesn’t mind). He is a poet and a wordsmith and used this phrase in an email about a hike along the Haw River we took this past Sunday with his godsons, Turner and Charlie. We hiked along the Lower Haw State Natural Area from the Hwy 64 bridge over the Haw up to our neighborhood, a distance of a little over 2 miles. Temperatures were in the 20’s when we started, but mostly sunny, and the air was still. The river, always special, was especially beautiful, with a fringe of ice along her shores that often extended far across her rocky breadth.  From the outset, the river provided visual delights and mysteries.

Mystery trails on ice

Unusual “trail” on the river ice (click photos to enlarge)

Just a short way upriver from the bridge, we started seeing some winding “trails” on the ice, looking as if someone had pulled a tiny sled in an erratic route across semi-frozen ice.

Beaver trail through ice

An open channel helped solve the mystery

Just beyond those first mysterious ice trails, we saw a partially open channel that had a similar irregular path. This one led over to an island in the river where we could see evidence of beaver chewed sticks piled along the bank. Mystery solved! The initial trails were frozen over beaver channels.

beaver chew marks

Beaver teeth marks on a sycamore log

beaver chew

There is abundant beaver sign all along the trail

From that point on, we encountered many active beaver chewed trees, some quite large. Years ago, when I was doing programs for state parks, I remember reading some facts about beavers – the largest one ever trapped weighed about 105 pounds (although my current reference on mammals says the largest on record was 86 pounds – still a huge rodent).  Average weight for an adult beaver is around 50-60 pounds. I once saw a photo of the purported record tree felled by a beaver – a tulip polar a little over 5 feet in diameter! None of the trees along the trail approached that, although the busy beavers have been gnawing on some pretty large specimens. Beavers are somewhat generalist vegetative feeders in warm months, but this time of year they feed almost exclusively on the inner bark of tree trunks and branches. Other wildlife we saw included a variety of birds – great blue herons looking for open water along the river, and a variety of songbirds trying to find something to eat along the trail. American holly berries seemed a favorite and we saw several hermit thrushes and American robins feeding in some of the large trees. Mixed feeding flocks of other species including Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy, and pileated and a yellow-bellied sapsucker), some feisty yellow-rumped warblers, and a few ruby-crowned kinglets. A beautiful red-shouldered hawk, a blue jay, and some of its cousin American crows, rounded out our bird sightings.

river rock surrounded by ice

An exposed rock in a sea of ice

As I have said before, ice fascinates me. Life as we know it depends on the unusual characteristics of water and one of these is that, unlike most other chemical compounds, when it gets cold enough to turn into a solid, the solid floats (the solids sink in most cases).

 

crystals in ice

Needles of ice in a patch along the shoreline

I remember a discussion I had about ice with a museum co-worker back in 2006.  I was lucky enough to get chosen as part of an international science and education team to spend a month in the Arctic aboard a Russian ice-breaker (no collusion, I swear). She asked me if I thought I would get bored spending a whole month out on the ice, with nothing but an expanse of white to view. I had said no, and was justified when I realized the incredible variety of forms that ice can take – all beautiful. The ice along the Haw was no different, and showed us its many faces as we gazed upon it from the bank – all magical.

beech leaf on ice

Beech leaf frozen in the surface of thick ice

ice shelf

A small ice shelf next to a riffle area

ice shelf 1

Ice lace edging along the rocky shore next to flowing water

ice waves

Intricate patterns of ice on the surface of an eddy in the river

Frozen haw

The mix of ice and open water along the river

The weather is warming, and ice is melting, but memories of a cold hike along the Haw, with good companions, will stay with us for quite some time. I spoke to our group of my appreciation for those that fought to set this corridor aside, and to the dedicated folks, like those of the Haw River Assembly, that continue to work toward its preservation. Haw-inspiring indeed.