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.

Another Count, Another Great Day at Pungo

Conservation is a cause that has no end. There is no point at which we say, “Our work is finished…”

~Rachel Carson

Saturday was our chance to participate in the 119th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. We did it, as we have for many years, at the Pettigrew Christmas Count centered on Lake Phelps in Pettigrew State Park. I helped start this count back in 1985 with the park superintendent and one of my favorite naturalists, Paris Trail. For those that may not know, the idea of a Christmas Bird Count was created in 1900 as an alternative to the then common practice of Christmas bird shoot contests, where people would go out and shoot as many birds as possible. Conservationists worried that this trend was harming bird populations, so they came up with the idea of going out and seeing how many birds you could see in one day as a way to foster appreciation of our incredible bird neighbors. To learn more about the history of the Count and how the data is being used, check out Audubon Christmas Bird Count. For this count, we were joined by our good friend, Scott, and his cousin’s family. As always, we cover the section of the count circle that includes my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The heavy rains squashed our plans to camp at Pettigrew for a few days around the count, so we left our home at 4 a.m. Saturday for the trip down to try to beat the sunrise.

Black bear at dawn

Huge black bear ambling away from the corn field before sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

We were greeted, as often happens at Pungo, with a huge bear leaving his dinner table in the corn fields at the entrance to the refuge. He was one of the big boys, probably weighing in at over 500 pounds. We met the rest of the group at the observation platform where thousands of swans were scattered across the lake in the pre-dawn gray. Our next stop was the impoundment known as Marsh A, where the tundra swans luckily like to congregate within range of most telephoto lenses.

Tundra swan reflections

Tundra swans in early morning light

Tundra swan wing flap 1

Almost every move a tundra swan makes is made with grace, especially the wing flap

Tundra swan flyover

By mid-morning, swans were leaving the lake in droves, headed for their feeding fields

After spending some time with the swans, we headed on and soon found a beautiful bufflehead and her reflection swimming along in a roadside canal.

Bufflehead reflection

A female bufflehead swimming in one of the roadside canals

The warm temperatures made for a slow birding day so we stepped up our efforts to find a diversity of songbirds by walking and driving slowly near brushy spots along the miles of dirt roads in the Pungo Unit.

Field sparrow

This beautiful field sparrow paused for a portrait

Eastern phoebe

Clutching a treetop twig, this Eastern phoebe bobbed in the wind while checking out our group

Baby nutria

Our guests spotted this furry pile of nutria babies at a den entrance across the canal

We succeeded in a few locations and got good looks at several species. We moved on to scan some of the crop fields for shorebirds and other species that like these huge open spaces. We were also hoping to see a trumpeter swan or the sandhill cranes that had been reported in the area.

Sandhill cranes

Three sandhill cranes feeding with a group of tundra swans

At one area in a harvested soybean field, a group of 50 or so tundra swans were resting and feeding. As we scanned, we all simultaneously noticed the grayish bodies of three sandhill cranes mixed in with swans. Success!

Norther bobwhite female

Female northern bobwhite trying to sneak away to cover

As we left that area, we spotted some quail moving along the edge of the canal bank. When we stopped, they dashed under the overhanging grasses, climbed the hill under their vegetative cover, and finally popped out on the top edge of the canal and scurried to safety in the corn stubble.

Cloudless sulphr

One of two butterfly species observed on pour Christmas Bird Count

The warm temperatures (about 70 degrees) made for a pleasant day for us humans, but I think it may have curtailed some of the usual winter activity we see in the birds and other animals. On the plus side, we saw a lot of turtles out basking, had two species of butterflies (a sleepy orange and a cloudless sulphur), a green darner dragonfly, an anole, and an even bigger warm-weather surprise later in the day.

Immature tundra swan

Immature tundra swan seen from Duck Pen blind

The hike down to the Duck Pen observation blind yielded a few new songbird species, several river otter scat piles, and great views of tundra swans from the blind.

Eastern screech owl gray phase in duck box

A sleepy gray phase Eastern screech owl at the entrance to a wood duck box

At each stop we added a new species or two to our list. As we drove along one stretch, Melissa spotted an owl peering out of one of the wood duck boxes. We all got out and enjoyed a close-up look through the spotting scope. The little fellow didn’t seem to mind the paparazzi oohing and aahing every time it even slightly opened one eye. It seemed to quickly drift back asleep to enjoy its owl dreams.

Our afternoon ended with a walk down North Lake Road. There were the usual couple of photographers set up near the gate in hopes of catching a bear crossing over into the corn. We walked beyond them and down into the woods to try for some of the many songbirds we were still missing. It is also a great place to see a raccoon sleeping in a tree or a bear walking down one of the many well-worn paths, so we quietly walked through the understory of pawpaw with high hopes for something exciting…and we found more than we could have imagined.

Black bear in tree base - Dowland pic

A surprise waiting inside the base of a large tulip poplar (photo by Melissa Dowland)

As we walked, one of our guests let out a sharp whistle. When I looked over, I saw him pointing to what I assumed was a bear out in the woods. As I walked over to him, I could see he was pointing at a tree close by, and not at some distant object. He whispered, there’s bear in that tree. I think I said something profound like, that tree right there?, pointing to one just a few feet away. Indeed, as he had walked up to look into the hollow base of this large tree, a bear had lifted its head and looked back at him. He backed off (perhaps with a sense of urgency and surprise) and the bear laid back down. I maneuvered around to face the hollow and at first could just barely make out the dark shape inside as the bear had its head tucked, so all you saw was black fur inside a black tree hollow. But at one point, the bear raised its head just a bit and you could make out the brown color of its nose. I have looked inside this type of hollow for years and, other than having one bear bolt out of a tree well before we got too close, have found only bear sign and the occasional sleeping raccoon or opossum. This experience will certainly be on the highlight reel of my brain for years. We walked away leaving our bear to his cozy bed. But, the surprises were not over yet…

_

A look inside the hollow base reveals a partial view of the rattlesnake (photo by Scott Hartley)

Not far from from the bear tree, we eased up to another tree where I had a special encounter three years ago. I was telling one of our guests about that incident as I slowly approached another tree with a hollow base, when, suddenly, a huge canebrake rattlesnake flung itself toward the tree and disappeared into the hollow. I had been scrutinizing this particular hollow as this was the same tree where I had encountered a rattlesnake on a day in January, 2016. But this time, the snake was several feet outside the hole, and, I must admit, it startled me with its quick retreat back into the safety of the tree. I had left my phone back in the car, so Scott was kind enough to get a photo where you could at least see part of the snake inside the hollow. This is pretty remarkable if this is the same snake from 3 years ago (and I think there is a good chance it is, since research has shown snakes are often quite faithful to their overwintering sites). This place never ceases to amaze me.

Great horned owl at sunset in cherry tree broken by bears

Great horned owl calling from a perch at sunset

The walk back to our cars was classic Pungo – we could hear swans calling on the lake, a few scattered flocks flying in from the north, a bald eagle flying out over the fields, and bears starting to move from the protective cover of the forest edges to their evening meal in the corn. Closer to the cars, we heard, and then saw, a great horned owl, silhouetted against the sky. A perfect ending to a great walk. One thing of interest about the owl photo – the tree top has a lot of broken branches in it. This is a wild cherry tree, and, though it looks like storm damage, it is actually where black bears have broken the branches to get to the cherry fruit. Every cherry tree along this road edge has broken branches like this where foraging bears have climbed the tree and pulled down the smaller twig tips to gorge on the ripe cherries.

As we drove out of the refuge, we pulled over and got out for one more experience that only Pungo offers, the return of thousand of swans from their feeding fields to the safety of the refuge waters. The video quality is poor because of the low light, but, trust me, the sights and sounds of Pungo will leave a lasting impression on you. Experiences like this help create an understanding of and appreciation for the importance of public lands like this for both the wildlife they support, and for our own well-being and peace of mind. I urge everyone to support these special places and the people that work so hard to protect them for our future.

One last surprise came with the seemingly endless waves of swans flying overhead. As one group passed, I heard the unmistakable honking sound of a trumpeter swan mixed in with the chorus of tundra swans (unfortunately, I was not recording at the time). I photographed a couple of trumpeters on our visit back in November, and, though we had tried hard to find them earlier in the day with no success, the final bird of the day was a special one. Below is the list of species we saw in our part of the count circle from about 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. I saw on social media that elsewhere in the count area. friends got a very special bird, a Western tanager. I can’t wait to see our totals for the entire circle.  Indeed, another count, another good day out in the field.

Species Number Observed
Snow Goose 30000
Ross’s Goose 1
Canada Goose 40
Trumpeter Swan 1 (heard)
Tundra Swan 25000
Wood Duck 28
Northern Shoveler 35
Gadwall 17
American Wigeon 7
Mallard 30
Black Duck 7
Northern Pintail 7
Green-winged Teal 20
Ring-necked Duck 30
Bufflehead 4
Hooded Merganser 1
Ruddy Duck 27
Northern Bobwhite 11
Wild Turkey 28
Mourning Dove 43
Sandhill Crane 3
Killdeer 142
American Woodcock 3
Ring-billed Gull 73
Great Blue Heron 5
Turkey Vulture 64
Northern Harrier 12
Sharp-shinned Hawk 2
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Bald Eagle 6
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 4
Eastern Screech-Owl 3
Great Horned Owl 2
Belted Kingfisher 2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 5
Red-bellied Woodpecker 7
Downy Woodpecker 11
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Pileated Woodpecker 4
Northern Flicker 3
American Kestrel 3
Merlin 1
Eastern Phoebe 9
Blue-headed Vireo 4
Blue Jay 1
American Crow 37
Tree Swallow 6
Carolina Chickadee 14
Tufted Titmouse 5
Brown Creeper 2
House Wren 2
Carolina Wren 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 6
Eastern Bluebird 13
American Robin 220
Gray Catbird 3
Brown Thrasher 1
Northern Mockingbird 1
European Starling 97
American Pipit 4
American Goldfinch 4
Chipping Sparrow 12
Field Sparrow 1
Fox Sparrow 4
White-throated Sparrow 84
Savannah Sparrow 20
Song Sparrow 12
Swamp Sparrow 6
Eastern Towhee 4
Red-winged Blackbird 3000
Common Grackle 37
Pine Warbler 7
Yellow-rumped Warbler 21
Northern Cardinal 6

 

They’re Baaaaack

The homing instinct in birds and animals is one of their most remarkable traits: their strong local attachments and their skill in finding their way back…It seems at times as if they possessed some extra sense—the home sense—which operates unerringly. 

~John Burroughs, 1905

Last weekend we managed to escape for a couple of days and head down to our favorite spot, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. My friend, Michael, had been sharing images of the many bears he was seeing feeding in the cornfields on the refuge, and it finally got to me, I had to get down there! We were met at the refuge by some new friends that understand the power and beauty of wild places and the creatures that call them home. Though seeing bears was the goal, we were all open to whatever the refuge cared to share, so we were delighted to find the first swans of the season already on the lake.

Swans in Marsh A

Tundra swans have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter in NC (click photos to enlarge)

When we drove up to the impoundment known as Marsh A, there they were, hundreds of graceful white forms, filling the crisp air with their mellow sounds. We stopped, watched them for several minutes, quietly taking it all in and appreciating the fact that these birds had just completed an amazing journey of 3000 miles or more to spend the winter here. It is reassuring that these natural rhythms continue, that the natural world has some order to it, even when much of what we hear on the news does not.

Black bear tracks

Large bear tracks (plus another creature…do you see it?)

On to “Bear Road” where we saw several people parked at the gate and sitting along the road waiting for an appearance by one of the area’s many resident bruins. The tracks in the hardened mud tell the story…frequent comings and goings from the dense woods to the local feed store, the cornfield across the road and canal.

Bear Rd tracks

A busy bear crossing

With a small crowd of photographers hanging out near one of the main bear crossings, we decided to walk on down the road, away from the chatter, and experience a little quieter part of the scene. Quiet, except for the sounds of swans and Canada geese coming from the lake a short distance through the woods. We soon saw our first of many bears across the open field at the edge of a patch of woods.

black bear

Most of our views were distant

This would be our fate for this day of woods-walking and refuge road exploration – a total of 19 bears, all seen at a considerable distance. We did find three in a large tree, two resting and one playfully climbing up and down. But most were headed to or from a cornfield, stocking up before the bitter cold of winter might cause them to go into hibernation (perhaps an abbreviated one that is more typical of bears in the Coastal Plain). We also witnessed some bad human behavior of people trying to get just the right photo and causing a bear to alter its choice of pathways (it is always best for the human to give way and let the bear go where it wants). The day ended with a great horned owl calling against a flame orange sunset through the black branches of tree silhouettes…another beautiful Pungo day coming to a close.

sunrise Pungo

One of my favorite things in the flat lands of Eastern NC – a large-scale sunrise

Our friends departed for home and we drove to our campsite at “nearby” Pettigrew State Park. We could hear swans flying over us to the lake all night indicating they are just arriving from their long journey. We spoke with people that had seen almost no swans two days before so it seems we were lucky enough to be there with the first wave of winter arrivals. We were awakened by some noisy campers at a ridiculously early hour, so we were out at sunrise, headed back to Pungo. The big sky of these flat lands is always a highlight at sunrise and sunset, especially in the crisp air of cold weather.

injured wood duck

Injured wood duck along a canal bank

A few flocks of ducks were mixed in with the swans, whose numbers grew to a few thousand by Monday morning. It is not unusual to see wood ducks in the canals along refuge roads as they flush in front of your car and zip through the trees. It is unusual to see one stay put after you spot it. I caught a glimpse of a stunning drake as I drove past it, so I stopped and backed up, fully expecting it to dart away (it seems no creature will tolerate a car that is backing up). One glance at its awkward posture and you could tell something was wrong. It shuffled up the bank a little when I stopped for a photo, so we drove on, sorry to see this beautiful bird in such a state, but knowing that some predator will probably get a meal.

Eastern phoebe on sign

Eastern phoebe on sign

Driving over to Bear Road, we encountered another group of photographers hanging out, waiting for bears. There was also a phoebe debating the true meaning of a road sign…surely this doesn’t apply to me (I have seen many human visitors debating that same thing, unfortunately). So, we drove back over to Marsh A to fix our breakfast and to spend time watching the swans greet the day.

Trumpeteer swan

Trumpeter swan honking as it comes in for a landing

It wasn’t long until we heard a sound very different from the coos, whistles, and hoots of the tundra swans – the distinctive horn sound of a trumpeter swan. This is the swan species we see in Yellowstone (although less frequently in recent years) and are seeing now more regularly each winter here in NC. The past few years have brought a few of the larger trumpeters to Pungo and Mattamuskeet. The characteristic calls are by far the easiest way to locate a trumpeter in a sea of look-alike tundra swans. If they are standing next to each other, you can tell a trumpeter is larger, and, in this case, the call was coming from a flying bird, and we soon spotted it flying with a group of tundras. In flight, it is possible to see a size difference, but I don’t think I would really notice it unless I heard the call and was looking for it. Another clue to separate them is the head – look closely at the two photos of swans in flight. Trumpeter swans have a long, straight bill. The inner edge of the bill forms a rather straight line up to the eye, encompassing the eye so that it is difficult to separate from the black bill. The eye of tundra swans is more distinct as a circle separated from the bill. Plus, the inner bill line comes off the eye, and then drops downward. Most tundras also have a yellow spot on the bill below the eye, trumpeters do not. And a trumpeter has “red lipstick” along the inner edge of its black bill. After looking at the birds circling us and then comparing images, I think there were at least three trumpeter swans in the group, two immatures and the adult shown here. I hope we can spot them on the Christmas Bird Count next month! To learn more, check out this link for some of the ways to distinguish these species.

Tundra swans flying out of Pungo Lake

Pair of tundra swans – compare the outline of their bills to photo above

We ended our trip just after lunch, with only 3 bear sightings for Monday, but plenty of memories to last until we get back in a few weeks. I really do love this time of year!

Hiking the High Country

Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance toward the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point.

~Harold B Melchart

Seems like just a little over a week ago that I was struggling to climb a mountain with a heavy load on my back…wait, it was just a little over a week ago! And this past weekend, we did it again. This time, in one of our favorite areas, the Mt. Rogers-Grayson Highlands region of southwest Virginia. My back was a bit sore from chainsawing fallen trees after the remnants of Hurricane Michael passed through, but we had planned this trip for some time. Melissa’s sister and boyfriend were going to meet us at Grayson Highlands State Park for a two-night adventure in the high country of Virginia. The weather forecast was a bit iffy, but off we went, ever hoping for the best. Our first day was a short one and after a hike of only a couple of miles, we found a great campsite along a beautiful mountain stream (Wilson Creek, I believe).

campsite first night

Campsite for our first night along a rushing stream (click photos to enlarge)

The overcast skies soon turned to rain after dark, but we were comfortable under a stretched tarp and the fire continued until a break in the rain let us get into our tents.

sunrise day 2

Sunrise in the high country

The next morning dawned clear and cool, with a mist drifting through the trees. It finally felt a little like Fall.

sunrise mist

Early morning mist in the boggy meadow near camp

spider web

Invertebrate designs – a dewy spider web

I love early mornings – the quiet, the morning coffee, the first stirrings of the wildlife around you, and the softness of the light that gently touches everything, especially if there has been condensation overnight. I spotted a couple of shimmering orb weaver spider webs at the edge of the trees and we walked over. One was a particularly odd design. At first, we thought the spider was still busy weaving, but a closer look showed it was sitting in the center and the interior spirals of silk were there, just not glistening with dew like the rest of the web.

morning scene

A scene near camp in the early morning light

moss and fern

The greens of mosses, club mosses, lichens, and ferns added a rich backdrop to every scene

I suppose backpacking on wet, rocky trails does have one advantage – I tend to not look around too much in order to keep my feet under me and the rest of me upright. Though I may miss some beautiful scenery or treetop wildlife, I do see a lot of interesting things on the ground. The lushness of moss hummocks and beds of club mosses were particularly noticeable on this trip. And there are still caterpillars out there to be found!

Hickory tussock moth caterpillar

Hickory tussock moth larva

Fall webworm?

A Fall webworm (I think) covered in dew

Our day 2 hike was about 7 miles, with a steady climb through the forest to the more open high country for which this region is so well known. In addition to the expansive mountain views, the other major tourist attraction in this area are the herds of wild ponies. I saw an article stating this region is “the only place on the Appalachian Trail where you can see wild ponies”. Depending on which reference you use, the ponies are believed to have been introduced in the early 1940’s by locals wanting to keep the area open, or by the Forest Service decades later for the same land management purpose. There are believed to be about 100 ponies spread out over thousands of acres of high grassy balds and forests. They live up here year-round, but are watched over and rounded up once a year by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. The Fall round-up serves to check the health of the herd and to auction off some of the ponies (mostly males) to keep the population under control. Park rules ask visitors to observe the ponies from a distance and to not feed them. We had to step aside a couple of times as ponies walked by on the trail.

nursing pony

A foal nursing along the trail

Grazing of cattle in the highlands has long been a part of the local way of life, and in 2012, the Forest Service allowed herds of longhorn cattle to graze alongside the wild ponies during the growing season. The cattle are removed every winter, but the ponies stay through the bitter cold months.

grass competition

This grass patch isn’t big enough for the two of us

As we approached the rocky outcrops of Wilburn Ridge, the strong winds caused us to rethink our plans for camping on the crest. So, we searched for something a little more protected in the open landscape. We ended up picking a spot of the leeward side of the ridge, partially protected by a large rock outcrop and a small grove of trees.

Wilburn Ridge

Our home for the night – not a bad view

There were a couple of campfire rings and a few relatively flat spots without too much pony poo, so we were able to set up camp, gather firewood, and relax and enjoy the spectacular views.

campsite 2

Sitting by our protected campfire looking out toward our tents

Shortly after dark, it started to rain, so we had an early end to the evening, climbing into our tents and hoping the gusty winds would subside before a tent wall collapsed under the strain. At one point during the night, I woke up to a sky full of stars. But by sunrise (well, when it got light anyway), it was a different story.

cloud camp

Inside a cloud on Wilburn Ridge

We were socked in and the view was a bit different from the sunset the night before. The wind was gently blowing as the clouds blew around us. A couple of ponies were barely visible100 feet away, and there was an eerie silence, save for the whap, whap, whap of a tent flap. It was only a couple of miles to the cars, so we grabbed a quick breakfast, packed up our wet gear, and headed out.

below the couds

Below the clouds on our way out

The trail down the ridge is rocky but we were soon below the cloud deck and could see rolling ridges of highlands stretching to the gray horizon. Though the skies had been leaden for much of the trip, we appreciated the solitude and serenity of our time in the high country and are looking forward to a return trip. In case you go, our hike took us from the Overnight Backpackers Parking Area near Massie Gap (you must register and pay at the entrance station to Grayson Highlands State Park), up the AT to the Scales Trail, then to the Pine Mountain Trail, and finally rejoining the AT back to the parking area.

Shining Rock

Backpacking: An extended form of hiking in which people carry double the amount of gear they need for half the distance they planned to go in twice the time it should take.

~Author unknown

Melissa loves to backpack. That is an understatement. And I love to be in the places that backpacking takes us. It is the getting there that sometimes gets me. So, Melissa, the quote above is just a joke (sort of). This trip was planned between our birthdays (a several year tradition for us) to be an outing to one of our favorite spots, Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia (see previous post). But the weather forecast looked rainy in WV, and we are not fans of long hikes in the rain, so we changed plans at the last minute and headed to an area Melissa had visited on a recent Museum workshop – the Shining Rock Wilderness. This is the largest wilderness area in North Carolina at about 18,000 acres. It is well-known as being one of the most scenic hiking areas in our state, with excellent views from several mountaintops over 6000 feet. There is easy access from areas near the Blue Ridge Parkway, making this a very popular destination on weekends. We decided to start from a lower elevation at the Big East Fork Trailhead and had planned to hike the Old Butt Trail (no comments, please) up to Shining Rock. But, as is apparently common in this area, we missed that trail juncture and ended up on its loop counterpart, the Shining Creek Trail. Both of these sections are described as difficult. I agree with that judgement as they climb about 2600 feet in a few miles over very rocky terrain. But Shining Creek is absolutely beautiful and, being on a weekday, we had no company on the way up.

Tributary to Shining Creek

A tributary to Shining Creek (click photos to enlarge)

Crown of thorns slug caterpillar

Crowned Slug, the first of many caterpillars we found along the trail

Pipevine swallowtail larva

Pipevine Swallowtail larvae were a common sight in the woods feeding on their host, Pipevine

Hickory tussock moth larva

A Hickory Tussock Moth larva

With the late start, we didn’t make it far up the trail before deciding to camp at a relatively flat spot above the creek. While sitting at camp, Melissa found a Blue  Ridge Two-lined Salamander crawling up her leg. That evening, we went down to the creek to wash up, and I got distracted by other salamanders crawling about in search of their evening meal. It really is amazing how many salamanders must live in these mountains!

Gray-cheeked salamander

Gray-cheeked Salamander

Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander dorsal view

One of three Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamanders we saw down by the creek. This species often climbs up on vegetation at night (or a hiker’s legs) looking for invertebrate prey.

Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander male with cirri

This is a male with swollen cirri (those snout appendages) which occurs during the breeding season

Black-bellied salamander

We spotted a couple of large Black-bellied Salamanders in the creek during our hike

The next day’s hike was a difficult one for me (somehow, our birthdays seem to have taken some umpf out of my legs, and added zip to hers) but we made it up to Shining Rock Gap with plenty of time to set up camp in a sheltered spruce grove. We took our stove and fixed dinner atop an outcrop of brilliantly white quartz that gives this mountaintop its name.

Quartz outcrop at Shining Rock

Outcrops of white quartz shine in the late day sun at the summit of Shining Rock (elevation – 6000 ft.)

View from Shining Rock

The mood changed dramatically as mist drifted through the valley with the approach of sunset

Sunset from Shining Rock as mist rolls in

A beautiful sunset view from Shining Rock

The next morning we hit a section of the famed Art Loeb Trail in search of views from a grassy bald. It turns out, there aren’t that many places through this stretch with that type of scenery. You are mainly hiking through rhododendron thickets and vast expanses of waist-high blueberries and blackberries. We broke out into the open at Flower Gap, but another couple had claimed that spot for the night. We weren’t keen on that spot anyway as we had heard from two guys at the trailhead that a bear had raided their supplies in this gap two nights ago, a fact we shared with the couple. It turns out, those guys had not brought a bear canister, a requirement when camping in the Shining Rock Wilderness. We went on a bit further and climbed a side trail up to the summit of Grassy Cove Top (elevation – 6049 ft.). There were a couple of tent-sized grassy patches, so we claimed one for the evening and had time to relax and enjoy the stunning views. We were hoping to see some raptors migrating, but it seems we missed the peak migration by a week or so. We did manage an American Kestrel, a Northern Harrier, an unidentified Buteo, and two Broad-winged Hawks, along with dozens of Cloudless Sulphur butterflies, and some mystery critters at sunset (they looked like large insects, but we couldn’t tell for sure in the low light).

Our tent nesteled among the blueberry shrubs

Our tent nestled in a small grassy area surrounded by blueberry shrubs atop Grassy Cove Top

bumblebee on gentian

Bumblebees were quite common in the balds, and here is one on a Gentian along the woodland trail

We strung our hammocks in a nearby stand of spruce to have some time in the shade, and then went back out to a rock outcrop for dinner and an amazing sunset.

sunset iphone

A spectacular sunset from Grassy Cove Top

sunset behind campsite

Looking north from our camp after sunset

That night, we sat and looked at stars, got great views of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, and were thankful to be here rather than in the distant lights of towns and cities on the horizon.

sunrise

The incredible view at sunrise from our campsite on Grassy Cove Top

Melissa mentioned the beauty of simple things like the scent of spruce and fir, an unobstructed view of the night sky, and the quiet of a mountaintop. She is right, this is why we do this. A more appropriate quote for backpacking these rugged hills might be this one by the muse of the mountains, John Muir…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.

Looking forward to our next birthday adventure (but we don’t have to wait that long, honest).

 

Hot Holiday

It’s summer and time for wandering…

~Kellie Elmore

After I retired (you remember back when I was retired) I loved the fact that I could go to some of my favorite places on a week day when fewer people would be out and about in the wild places I love. I certainly didn’t want to go on a holiday weekend when even more people created crowded campgrounds and busy highways en route to my favorite destinations. Well, that was then and this is now, so off we went last weekend on a camping excursion. It was prompted, in part, by a visit from Melissa’s cousin, Kevin, from New York. He had not traveled much in these parts so she had given him tips on where to camp and hike in the mountains on the first part of his visit and now we were going to share a couple of our favorite things with him down east – paddling in a swamp and looking for bears.

The first day we drove to Pettigrew State Park where we had reserved a site, set up camp, and then headed to the nearby boat launch on the Scuppernong River just outside Creswell. We had debated whether to try the entire 12 miles to Columbia (something we both have always wanted to do) but we decided to go ahead, despite the threat of thunderstorms.

IMG_5917

Upper reaches of the Scuppernong River (click photos to enlarge)

We put in about 1:30 p.m. and headed toward Columbia (we shuttled one car down there at the take out point). Melissa and I have paddled portions of this river several times and have seen a bear each time, so we had high hopes. No sightings this trip, but we think we heard a couple splashing through the swamp as we paddled. We also saw many pileated woodpeckers, wood ducks, a barred owl, a bald eagle, and had a constant escort of dragonflies.

Paddling the Scuppernong

Paddling the tranquil Scuppernong. We saw lots of pileated woodpeckers and heard a couple of bears splashing in the swamp.

Scuppernong lower reaches

We were alone along the entire 12 miles of river until we got to Columbia

Scuppernong near Columbia at sunset

A tranquil ending to a beautiful day on the river

We managed to dodge the thunderstorms and ended the day with a slick-as-glass water surface at sunset.  After a delicious dinner in Columbia we headed back to camp where another storm stopped just short of the campground. The next morning we headed over to the Pungo Unit hoping to show Kevin a few bears and other critters in our favorite area of the state.

Young Eastern box turtle in road

Our first wildlife of the day – a young Eastern box turtle

We started kind of slow but did see 5 bears by mid-day. My favorite was one sacked out in a tree right next to the road.

Young black bear in tree

Melissa spotted this sleepy bear lounging head down in a tree right next to the road

Young black bear chillin' in tree alongside road

This is one sleepy bear

We took a break from Pungo and drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. After observing some waders (including a nice little blue heron and a tri-colored heron), a tour of the visitor center, and a short hike along one of the boardwalks, we headed back to Pungo. Kevin was driving to Richmond that evening so we wanted to try to find as many bears as possible and maybe have a few opportunities for photos before he headed out. Pungo did not disappoint…

Black bear and cub

Momma bear and cub on “Bear Road”

We saw a couple more as we drove the refuge roads and then decided to head to one of my favorite places, “Bear Road”. It wasn’t long before we saw the first of 14 bears! The sow above had two cubs of the year hanging out with her (only one is visible in the pic above), and we saw several other individuals and another sow with cubs. But one bear provided the highlight of the day…

Black bear walking toward us

This young bear was hurrying toward dinner in the cornfield near where we sat

Black bear realizing something is not right

The moment when you realize – wait, what are those things?

A young, beautiful bear (probably a 2 or 3-year old) came out of the woods and headed down the road towards its evening meal of corn. We were sitting in the road near the corn field and the bear strolled along until, suddenly, it realized something was amiss. It did what we all have probably done at one time or another…trying to decide which course of action is the best…go back, continue on to where I was headed, but what about…then a hesitation, a look back and forth, and finally, what the heck, I’m going. So, the bear scurried into the canal and over into the corn and disappeared.

Black bear trying to decide what to do

Do I stay or do I go?

Black bear indecision

But the corn is just over there…

We ended the day with 25 bears, including a few with cubs of the year (always fun to observe), a couple of bears standing up to check their surroundings, and a bear in a tree. It turns out, if you pick your destination carefully, you can still go somewhere even on a holiday, and not experience the hassle of crowds (unless you count the bears). A great outing on a hot holiday weekend. Can’t wait for our next visit.

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!