Moths in a Storm

Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

~Robin Wall Kimmerer

As the rains continue to pour down from what was the hurricane that mercifully just glanced by us here in the woods, we are both reading and pursuing some indoor activities. I decided to look back at some recent photos of moths and try to learn a few more names using our Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Southeastern North America and a few of my favorite online resources (I mentioned some of these in a recent post on moths). This thing with moths has grabbed me for some reason in recent months. Certainly, the availability of a great field guide has helped (I am known, and sometimes mocked, for my tendency to browse field guides as my reading entertainment). But it is as if I have also just discovered this amazing variety of life that is so readily available just outside (literally sometimes) our door. For me, naming things is a way to feel connected to them. And naming moths is a challenge! For one thing, there are so many – over 2200 species in North Carolina, according to one of my go-to sites, Moths of NC (compare that to 177 species of butterflies recorded in the state). Plus, their differences are often quite subtle and variable. But, it is a great way to learn to appreciate them. As usual, there are many amazing and bizarre life histories. There is also the relationship to their larvae, which, for someone that is as fascinated by caterpillars as me, is reason enough to learn moths so I can make those life cycle connections. So, on a weekend when I normally would be surrounded by caterpillar cages for BugFest, I present a few of the adults of my larval friends that I have recently learned. As usual, if anyone finds an error in my ID, please drop me a note.

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca packardaria

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca packardaria. This little beauty fluttered up from some grass the day before Florence appeared.

Packard's wave, Cyclophora packardi

Packard’s Wave, Cyclophora packardi. Many of the Waves have a flattened appearance, often with a straight-edge line to the fore-wings.

Yellow-fringed hypsopygia, Hypsopygia olinalis

Yellow-fringed Hypsopygia, Hypsopygia olinalis

Little white lichen moth, Clemensia albata

Little white lichen moth, Clemensia albata, one of a group of moths whose larvae feed on lichens.

Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis

Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis

Richard's Fungus Moth (lower left), Metalectra richardsi

Richard’s Fungus Moth (lower left), Metalectra richardsi– perhaps a Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis, above

Robinson's underwing, Catocala robinsonii, wings spread

Robinson’s underwing, Catocala robinsonii, wings spread

Root collar borer, Euzophera ostricolorella, dorsal view

Root collar borer, Euzophera ostricolorella

Next are a few species seen on the buildings at work before the storm…

Variable oakleaf caterpilar moth, Lochmaeus manteo?

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo – this faded individual was a tough call, but this is one of the most common species of caterpillars I find in this area

Delicate Cycnia, Cycnia tenera

Delicate Cycnia, Cycnia tenera

Crocus geometer, Xanthotype sp. (adults cannot be separated  to

Crocus geometer, Xanthotype sp. (adults apparently cannot easily be separated to species without dissection) – note the distinctive spread-wing resting posture

Below is a series of species from a couple of years ago that I never got around to naming (this was before the publication of the new field guide)…

Dimorphic Tosale, Tosale oviplagalis

Dimorphic Tosale, Tosale oviplagalis

Light-ribboned Wave, Leptostales ferruminaria

Light-ribboned Wave, Leptostales ferruminaria – another straight-edge fore-wing

Pale-winged Gray, Iridopsis ephyraria

Pale-winged Gray, Iridopsis ephyraria, a tree bark mimic

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola – the slug caterpillars are one of my favorite groups, so it is nice to learn what the adults look like

This last one was, by far, the most difficult to try to identify (not that we got all of the other ones correct). Still not sure if this is right, but it is the closest thing I could find (which is odd since it seems to be such a distinctive pattern)…

_-18

George’s Midget, Elaphria georgei

Florence Cats

If you spend your whole life waiting for the storm, you’ll never enjoy the sunshine.

~Morris West

Florence has already had a huge impact on things here in the Piedmont, far away from her predicted point of landfall. While this is minor compared to what people in the more direct path of the storm will have to deal with over the next several days, many schedules in this area have been rearranged and many things canceled or postponed with the storm’s approach. One such cancellation was one of my favorite events of the year, BugFest, at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. As predictions of the stormy weather grew, it seemed less likely we would need to scour the fields and forests for caterpillars for our annual show of the diversity and beauty of the larvae of butterflies and moths of our region.

But some things are hard to give up. What does a caterpillar-lover do when all the preparations have been made for any wind and water headed our way? Why, you stroll through the yard looking for caterpillars, of course. So, below are a few species discovered this afternoon (and a couple from earlier in the week) while we wait for any impacts from Hurricane Florence.

Monarch larva, last instar

Monarch caterpillar (click photos to enlarge)

Black swalowtail larvae on rue

Two instars of Black Swallowtail larvae – notice how different this species looks in different stages. The larger instar is often mistaken for a monarch due to similar colors and patterns, but note the yellow dots inside the black stripes and the lack of black tentacles on either end compared to a monarch.

Florida fernth larva mo

Florida Fern Moth larva on, what else, a fern

White furcula side view

We love finding “Furkys”. Here is a White Furcula caterpillar on wild cherry

White furcula ventral view

White Furcula, ventral view

Double-lined prominent larva dorsal view

Double-lined Prominent on elm

_-2

A mystery Geometrid moth larva on spicebush…anyone know this one?

Fall webworm

The most common caterpillar in the yard right now, the Fall Webworm, found now on almost any plant

White flannel moth dorsal view

A treat to find a White Flannel Moth larva on redbud, as it has been a few years since I have seen one of these odd beauties..

White flannel moth side view

This clownish looking caterpillar is one of the so-called “stinging caterpillars”, with tufts of urticating spines that can cause a bee-sting-like pain should you touch it.

And a couple from earlier this week at work…

Datana sp. getting ready to molt

Datana sp. larvae just prior to a synchronous molt

Drab prominent larva

A Drab Prominent caterpillar looking anything but…

Stay safe if you are in the path of the storm, but remember to take a moment to enjoy the beauty and wonder that surrounds you.

 

 

An Unexpected Love Song

“If you would win my heart, sing me a love song.”

~Jane Griner in the song “Sing Me to Heaven” by Daniel E. Gawthrop

Given the title of this blog, you might think it’s going to be about all the riotous birdsong that is happening out in our woods right now as temperatures warm and spring seems to be slinking up the south-facing slope across the road and into our north-facing yard. But that’s not the love song Mike and I heard last weekend when we took our hammocks out to the ravine behind our house (another south-facing slope).

IMG_5860

A perfect day for hammock-lounging

As I was laying in my hammock soaking up the sun like a lizard, I noticed a repetitive sound like two very short, quiet snare drum rolls followed by four to six slower beats that almost sounded like an extra-rapid secondhand on a clock. At first I thought it was just the straps of my hammock rubbing on the tree. But as I paid attention to the rhythm of the hammock’s movement, I realized the timing wasn’t right. I started looking around to try to pinpoint the source, and I noticed a wolf spider moving through the dry leaves on the forest floor. Amazingly, the sounds corresponded exactly to its movements – the snare drum rolls when it was paused, the tick-tock of the clock while it was moving. Whenever the breeze was still, I could hear it… first in one place, then another, and another. At one point, there were three wolf spiders moving around me, all making the same sound sequence. I’d heard that you’re never further than 4 feet from a spider – even while indoors – but it seemed more real as I realized just how many spiders there were surrounding my hammock!

wolf spider.jpg

Wolf spider paused on leaves – click to enlarge

I watched the spiders for a long time trying to figure out just what was going on. Finally, two of them, one after the other, walked right below the edge of my hammock and I got a good view. Whenever they stopped and made the snare drum sound, they were moving their pedipalps (two front appendages, shorter than legs) up and down, vibrating on the dry leaves. It was incredibly fast, but when one of the spiders was close, I could actually see the movement. I was amazed! And as it walked through the leaves, I noticed it tapping its abdomen, which seemed to be producing the tick-tock sound. After that, I was hooked and probably spent more than an hour stalking these spiders with my iPhone, trying to capture their behavior.

I enhanced the volume on this video so that you can clearly hear the sounds the spider is making. I promise it’s the spider and not me shifting around in the leaf litter! But I still wasn’t satisfied that I understood what was going on… so I switched my phone over to slo-mo mode and tried to catch the movement of the spider again…

It’s subtle, and the sound is different because it’s slowed down, but you can definitely see the pedipalps moving as the faster rhythm is played. And you can hear the louder, more separated beats as it taps its abdomen.

Here’s another slow motion video. In this one, you can see how the presence of dry leaves amplifies the sound – when the spider is on the log, there isn’t much sound produced at all. But if you watch closely, you can still see its body vibrating as it makes the sound.

Knowing a little bit about spider mating rituals, I figured that the sounds I was hearing had something to do with that. In fact, just a week ago, on Valentine’s Day, I attended a talk on “spider love” put on the NC Office of Environmental Education. Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice, author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Spiders, came to talk about the fascinating stories of spider mating. She was quite funny – her categories for male spiders interested in mating with a (almost always larger) female were: “how not to get eaten” and “well, let’s just make the most of it.” This is because it’s not uncommon for a male spider to be attacked and eaten by a female when he comes seeking something entirely different. For many orb-weaving spider species, the male will pluck the strands of the female’s web in a particular way to indicate that he is a potential mate and not just a fly that’s stuck in the web (aka, dinner). Other species like the green magnolia jumping spider will wave their legs around in something like a dance to show off for a female. A few species know it’s a lost cause and just go for it… and some even die in the act of copulation so as to leave their carcass attached to the female, effectively blocking access for other suitors. The world of spider courtship is dangerous!

Spider sex is fairly complicated as well. The female’s epigynum is located on the bottom of her abdomen, so rather than try to arrange himself upside-down underneath her, males go through a bit of preparation for mating. They produce sperm in their abdomen (from a gonopore about midway down on the bottom side, as you might expect), but they have to transfer it to the specialized “boxing glove” (cymbium) at the end of their pedipalps (via what’s called a sperm web) in order to mate. At least that way he has a chance to keep his many eyes on her chelicerae (jaws) while in the act.

So, back to my drum-playing spiders in the woods… a quick Google search turned up a bunch of articles about the so-called “purring wolf spider” or Gladiclosa gulosa. Apparently, wolf spiders are known for producing vibrations to attract a mate, and most early naturalists thought the sounds were caused by exactly the same thing I did – the spider tapping its pedipalps on a surface like a leaf. But in 1975 a researcher used high speed video to check this out in detail – and it turns out that spiders actually have what’s called a “stridulatory organ” on their pedipalps. Basically, this means that they are able to rub one part of their body against another to create a sound. Other insects are known to do this: the sounds made by grasshoppers and crickets are stridulations, and Mike included information about stridulation in horned passalus beetles in a previous post. But spiders don’t have ears… so it’s long been assumed that the vibrations are what is really important in communicating with a potential mate. However, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have been studying vibration- and sound-making in spiders, and for Gladicosa gulosa they discovered that not only does a female spider respond to the vibration produced by the male, she also responds to the sound (but males only respond to the vibrations).

Most of the studies that I could find describe spider behaviors when males are in the presence of females. And most of those on the sounds of wolf spiders focus on the snare drum rattle of the pedipalps and not the abdomen tapping. No one described the behavior we saw in the woods – namely, that a bunch of spiders were wandering around making sounds without another spider nearby.  I’m not sure what was going on, but my assumption is that they were literally trying to drum up a mate!

I’m also not sure what species Mike and I spent time observing in our woods, though I’m fairly certain it is a species of wolf spider (family Lycosidae). I’m not even entirely sure that they were males, because it’s hard to tell in my iPhone pics if the pedipalps have those distinctive “boxing gloves,” though their behavior makes me think they are males. After an exhaustive search of Bugguide.net and the 4 spider field guides in our house (yes, we have 4 spider field guides), I’m still not sure, though it’s possible these are Gladicosa gulosa – please let me know if you can identify them!

wolf spider-2

Wolf spider – can you help ID? – click to enlarge

 

Whatever species they are, they exhibit an incredibly fascinating behavior, so if you’re a super nature nerd, it’s time to head out into the woods with a hammock on a warm, still spring day and listen for some spiders!

 

 

Winter in the Woods

There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.

~William Sharp

Road out front

Our road during the snow on Wednesday (click photos to enlarge)

The quiet beauty of a winter snow storm…this is one of the true blessings of living in the woods (and of loving cold weather, since you don’t mind getting out in it…in fact, you can’t wait!).

Under the branches close view

The view from beneath a snow-covered branch

I love the winter quiet of a snow storm…and the simple beauty it imparts on everything it touches. The patterns of branches, the trails of woodland creatures, the shapes of trees covered in white…all mesmerizing, magical. This snow lasted all day. Toward the end of the storm we went for a walk in the gray stillness of our woods, and felt lucky to live in such surroundings.

The house in snow

The house the morning after the storm

A brilliant blue sky greeted us the next morning, with a chilly 14 degrees on the thermometer. A walk in the woods seemed the thing to do (after filling the bird feeders, of course).

Road with diamond dust

The road out front with the air glistening with falling ice crystals

What had been a gray sky and a black and white landscape of patterns and shapes was now a glistening white, with the air full of tiny diamonds every time a breeze shook the snow-covered branches.

View through the woods to house

A view of the house through our woods

We walked the property boundary, taking in the scenes of a forest transformed by a sculptor working with powdery white clay.

Wind dust

Snow falling from limbs

Sunburst

Snow burst

The wind started blowing and the tree branches began to shake their white blankets, releasing a snow burst of crystals that sparkled as they fell.

Beech strains

A beech hunched over with its burden of snow

Our woods

Melissa walking through the winter wonderland

We ended the day with a perhaps too late attempt at sledding the big hill just down the road. The sun was already melting the lone tire track down to gravel, making for a few scrapes down the hill. Not as fast as previous snows, but still not bad.

Snow bear

Snow bear

This morning we went out and decided to make some wildlife in the yard. If only we had the time and could get to Pungo and see some real snow bears!

Crow pattern in snow

Snow crow in black and white

The real wildlife, especially the birds, have been very active since the storm. A group of American crows stopped by this morning, no doubt looking for some of the scattered seed. They are wary, so when I walked by the window they all took off, including the one that was brave enough to land in the yard. We checked out the track trail and tried to decipher what had happened. Look at it and decide for yourself before reading further to see if you agree with our conclusion.

I think the crow landed on the left side of the image, leaving a deep imprint of its body when it hit the snow (and a wing tip print on the far left). It then hopped up and turned to the right, leaving some wing tips seen at the top of the image. It took off from a position facing the right edge of the image, leaving two deep footprints and a sweep of its wings on both sides as it leapt off the snow. Let me know if you conclude something else.

 

 

 

Big Jaws

The naturalist suffers a pleasant nuisance – not being able to walk 100 yards without being tied to the spot by some new and wondrous creature.

~Charles Darwin

I’m afraid this applies to me and is often why it takes so long to hike (saunter is probably a better term for what I usually do) along a trail or get some task done here in the yard. And so it was last week when I was out doing some weeding and mowing. As I walked by a mulberry tree near the shed, I caught a glimpse of a green object hovering near the tree trunk. I tried to prop up this particular tree years ago using a stake and attached rope that ran through some plastic tubing. The tree had leaned over in a storm and I was hoping to help straighten it, while still protecting the bark. The rope rotted away, but the tube remained, captured by the tree bark. The green object hovered for an instant near one end of that tubing, and then disappeared inside.

green blob going into tube

Mystery green blob disappearing into tube (click photos to enlarge)

I caught just enough of a glimpse to have an idea of what was happening, and I was thrilled. It looked like the work of a leafcutter bee, a native bee whose handiwork (or should I say, jawiwork) I see every spring.

Leafcutter bee cuts on redbud leaves

Tell-tale sign of the presence of leafcutter bees

You may have seen this where you live, small round holes in the edges of leaves. In my yard, the leafcutter bees are particularly fond of redbud leaves. It appears they favor thin leaves that lack a lot of thick venation. The result of the all this activity looks like an overly-ambitious person with a hole-punch has a grudge against your redbud trees. These bees cut circles of leaf material to use in making a nest chamber in some sort of hollow tube or in the ground (more on that in a minute).

I ran in and got my camera and was disappointed to see the bee leaving just as I got back. I had no idea how long it might be before she returned, so I squatted next to the tree and waited. Turns out, the entry into the nest chamber is quick, so I missed my photo opportunity on her next visit as I just could not focus fast enough. Her exit was equally quick, so I knew I had to come up with a plan B (or is it Plan Bee?). I set the camera up on a tripod and grabbed a twig and laid it gently into the tube entrance. I then pre-focused the lens on the twig just outside the tube, removed the twig, and waited again.

leafcutter bee bringing in leaf fragment

Leafcutter bee bringing in a leaf fragment to her nest chamber

It worked. I heard her buzzing toward me, and pressed the shutter just as she approached the entrance. The camera caught her carrying a folded piece of redbud leaf as she approached the entrance to the tubing. She quickly went inside (I could see her movement inside the translucent tube) and took the leaf fragment to a mass of other greenery that was visible a couple of inches inside the tube entrance. She stayed a little over a minute and quickly departed. Within two minutes, she was back with another, smaller piece of leaf and repeated the sequence. But on her next visit, she was not carrying anything green.

leafcutter bee bringing in pollen

Leafcutter bee carrying pollen into nest chamber

This time, it was a load of pollen. This group of bees has an unusual feature compared to most bees – they carry their pollen on specialized hairs on their abdomen.

Bumblebee and pollen basket

A bumblebee with a full pollen basket on the hind leg

Bumblebees and honeybees have special structures on their legs, called pollen baskets, where they carry the pollen they gather.

leafcutter bee bringing in pollen 2

Pollen can be seen on underside of abdomen of this leafcutter bee

Some speculate that by carrying pollen on the hairs of their abdomen, leafcutter bees may be more effective pollinators than many other types of bees. As they crawl around on flowers, it may be easier to transfer pollen to receptive flower parts if it is carried underneath their body instead of being packed into specialized structures on their legs.

leafcutter bee leaving after bringing in pollen

Female bee as she leaves the nest chamber, minus the pollen

I started timing the comings and goings of this industrious female and it turns out she was very efficient at gathering and depositing pollen into the nest. It generally took about 1 to 2 minutes to gather the pollen, and then another 1 to 3 minutes to deposit it inside the tube. I could see the green nest chamber through the walls of the tubing. When I worked at the museum, I photographed a nest chamber that had been exposed in a block of wood so you could see the details of their handiwork.

Leafcutter bee nest in hollow

Nest chamber of leafcutter bee exposed by cutting open a block of wood

They construct cigar-like nests made of wrapped together leaf fragments. Each nest contains several cells. The female stocks each cell with a ball or loaf of stored pollen and then lays a single egg in each (each cell will produce a single bee). Nests are constructed in soil, in holes (usually made by other insects) in wood, and in hollow plant stems. They will also use a variety of human-made structures and readily take to artificial bee homes containing hollow tubes.

Leafcutter bee nest chamber

Individual cell cut open to view pupa and bee bread

The museum’s collection also had one cell that was cut open to show the pupa and the “loaf” of bee bread (a mixture of pollen and nectar) that the female stocks as provisions for the developing young. Most leafcutter bees overwinter in the nest chamber as newly formed adults and then chew their way out next spring. One source stated that the last egg laid (that one closest to the entrance of the entrance hole) is the first to hatch, and so on, down the line.

Leafcutter bee

Be thankful to the “big jaws” in your yard

The activity at the nest was complete by the next day. I will now keep an eye on this tubing to see if produces some new leafcutter adults next spring. The genus name, Megachile, literally means big lip, or big jaws, in Greek. Here’s wishing these big jaws a successful birth and hatching. Now that I know more about the cause, I’m starting to like those hole-punched redbud leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

Cope-ing with the Rains

If we can discover the meaning in the trilling of a frog, perhaps we may understand why it is for us not merely noise but a song of poetry and emotion.

~Adrian Forsyth

My apologies for once again using this corny phrase in a post about Cope’s Gray Treefrogs (see previous post about their life cycle). The recent downpours brought us over 4 inches of rain in two days last week. It was a boost for the plants and for our local frogs. A few nights ago I arrived home to the deafening trills of Cope’s Gray Treefrogs. I went out to investigate, and was amazed at how many were calling. It also reminded me of just how loud they can be when you get close to them.

Gray Treefrog on limb

Cope’s gray treefrog on limb near water garden (click photos to enlarge)

The calls were so loud and frequent that it was a little tough to tell where they were coming from, so I scanned the area near the pond with a flashlight and started seeing frogs everywhere. As is often the case, they all stopped calling when I first got close. But, it only takes one, somewhere in the yard, to start up again and they just can’t help themselves, even with a flashlight shining in their face. A spicebush a few feet from the edge of the pool had four calling frogs in it, so I took some time trying to get a decent photo.

Gray Treefrog on limb 1

They have long toes and bright yellow flash colors under the hind legs

It turned out to be quite challenging to photograph then in a shrub. Just when I would get close, the frogs would decide to move a couple of inches behind a nearby leaf or twig before resuming their amorous trills

Gray treefrog calling on limb 1

Looking up at a calling treefrog

It didn’t help my case that my glasses were fogging up and I occasionally bumped a twig with my camera or tripod, silencing all the frogs for a minute or two.

Gray treefrog calling

A cooperative frog on the rock wall of the pool

I finally spotted one out in the open on one of the rocks that form the edge of the pool. I slowly moved the tripod over and clicked a photo, then another, and then just sat and watched this little guy doing his best to attract a female. I shot a short video clip, but later realized that the flashlight I used to illuminate the calling frog created a flickering effect on the video. Oh well, next time I’ll do it right and go ahead and get the video light. But I still wanted to share the sounds with you…it really is incredibly loud.

As I looked around, I started to see paired frogs slowly moving toward the water. Studies have shown that female choice determines mating, and they tend to approach males with longer and more frequent calls (must be an indication of fitness).

Gray treefrogs in amplexus 1

Pair of treefrogs in amplexus

A successful approach results in amplexus, where the male clings firmly to the female as she deposits eggs in the water. The egg mass is externally fertilized by the male. Eggs hatch within a few days and it usually takes 6-8 weeks for the tadpoles to transform and leave the water. The chorus was still going strong as we turned out the lights and headed to bed. I hope the night is successful for them. If so, it will be fun seeing tiny frogs all around the yard in a few weeks.

Barking Up the Right Tree – Part 2

Here are the answers to yesterday’s tree trunk quiz. How did you do?

sycamore bark

American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis

One of the largest trees in Eastern North America. The white, mottled upper trunks and branches make it one of the most recognizable of our trees, especially in winter.

Ironwood trunk

American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana

I have always called this distinctive tree, ironwood, due to its dense, hard wood. The fluted trunk does look muscular, hence the name musclewood. Blue beech is another name I have heard for this generally small understory tree.

hackberry-1

Hackberry, Celtis species

This one caused some of you some trouble. And, truth be told, I am not sure which of the two common species of this tree I photographed. The two found along this trail are C. laevigata and C. occidentalis, now known as Southern and Northern Hackberry, or Sugaberry. I think they are best told apart buy their leaves (and, those aren’t available right now). Both are characterized by warty knobs on the trunk, which can be sparse or dense (like this one). This one was in the floodplain, so I think it might be C. laevigata.

Flowering dogwood trunk

Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida

Our state flower (and the state tree of Virginia and Missouri), the flowering dogwood is a favorite, especially in spring. The red berries are a very important food source for many species of wildlife from bluebirds and turkeys to squirrels. As one person commented, she had learned that the bark looks like alligator skin. A co-worker said she learned the pattern looks like Kibbles ‘n Bits dog food.

Sourwood trunk

Sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum

The bark is deeply furrowed, and the tree trunk almost always leans, supposedly toward a former light gap in the tree canopy. The white spikes of flowers at the tips of the branches and the sour taste of the leaves are distinctive.

American beech trunk

American beech, Fagus grandifolia

One of my favorite trees, the American beech has smooth, gray bark, usually dotted with lichen patches. It often has a root parasite, beech drops, growing on the ground around it. This time of year, the dried leaves clinging to the branches and the elongate terminal buds are also distinctive.

Loblolly pine

Loblolly pine, Pinus taeda

Our most common local pine, the loblolly can grow to be quite large. It’s longish needles and cones are characteristic. The clouds of yellow pollen from this, and other pines, will soon be covering our woods (and cars, and…).

Shortleaf pine

Shortleaf pine, Pinus echinata

The other common pine in our local woods, the shortleaf can be distinguished from loblolly by its shorter needles, smaller cones, curved or contorted branches (when looking up, compared to the straighter branches of loblolly), and the flat, scaly bark. The bark also has tiny resin dots.

Now, practice identifying trees just by looking at eye level on your next stroll in the woods. An advanced tree trunk quiz will be coming soon.

Barking up the Right Tree

Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience.

~Hal Borland

Melissa and I try to test each other as we walk any trail this time of year with a tree trunk quiz – we try to identify trees by just looking at the trunk at eye level…no fair looking up, unless we are stumped.  I thought I would give that a try as an interpretive challenge for one of the nature trails at work. For now, I just have a few images of trees along the trail with answers on the back. Think you can identify trees just by their bark? Give it a try. I gave a hint for each with the photo caption. Answers will be provided in the next post.

sycamore bark

Upper trunk and branches have peeling, mottled bark (looks like camouflage)

Ironwood trunk

Small to medium tree with hard wood; trunk looks muscular

hackberry-1

Bark with warty knobs; fruit is an important food source for birds and squirrels

Flowering dogwood trunk

Small tree with dense, hard wood; berries are an important food for wildlife

Sourwood trunk

Small to medium tree; trunks often lean instead of growing straight up

American beech trunk

Large tree with smooth gray bark; dried leaves remain on branches through winter

Loblolly pine

Large pine with needles about 7 inches long

Shortleaf pine

Large pine; needles about 3.5 inches long; small resin pits in bark

Green in the Winter Woods

“And Adam named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”

Genesis 3:20

With Mike back at work, I’m going to try to contribute to the blog occasionally. I came upon the perfect topic while out on a “field day” with a coworker, Megan, last week. One of the things I never fail to notice in winter has always been the few small, ground-hugging plants that provide a flash of green in winter. One of the my favorites is cranefly orchid, Tipularia discolor.

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The cranefly orchid has a noticeable, single green leaf in winter. This one is dug up – more on that in a moment.

Just the other day Megan and I were at a school for a workshop. I was off by the creek, and she had the group of teachers in tow. All of a sudden, I heard a “wow” echo through the woods. Megan had just pointed out the somewhat-innocuous, green leaf of the cranefly orchid – and then flipped it over to show them the startling purple color of the backside of the leaf.

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I’m not in good practice taking pictures with a blog in mind, so this is the best shot I have of the back of the cranefly leaf – hopefully, you can notice the brilliant purple color, even if the details are a little fuzzy…!

I’ve heard a couple different theories to explain the purple color of the leaf’s underside. One idea is that it may help reflect light back into the leaf. This makes sense given that it is photosynthesizing in winter when sunlight hits the earth at a shallower angle, and therefore with less energy per unit area than in the summer.

Another theory is that the purple color acts kind of like sunscreen to protect the chloroplasts from too much sun – which also makes sense because with no leaves on trees in winter, there is certainly more sunlight! I’ve heard of something similar in Yellowstone in the microorganisms that thrive in the hot springs – in summer many are orange in color due to “sunscreen” carotenoids; in winter, the same microorganisms have a much more greenish cast (you can also see this in summer by carefully peering underneath the boardwalk where the shaded bacterial mats are much less orange-colored).

A final idea about the purple coloration in cranefly orchid is that perhaps the underside of the leaf is darker-colored to help it absorb more of the heat radiating from the ground to keep it just a little bit warmer in winter. I’m not sure why the leaves are purple underneath, maybe it’s a combination of factors, but it is certainly a beautiful color and a wonderful surprise in the winter woods.

Cranefly orchid has an interesting habit of producing a leaf in the fall that persists through winter, and producing a flower in the summer. The flower is not particularly showy (unless you take a very close look), and can even be hard to spot – especially because the bright green leaf is absent while the flower is in bloom. In fall, after the flower is done blooming, a single leaf grows. Typically in winter you will see only the leaves, but occasionally you may spot a plant that still has the flower stalk with seed capsules attached like a few we found on our walk. The seeds are beautiful small pods and worth a look with a magnifier.

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Close-up of cranefly orchid seed capsules

I remembered learning something interesting from Doug Elliot, a renowned naturalist in the mountains of NC, about the roots of this plant, so Megan and I decided to dig up one of the plants that still had its flower stalk and take a closer look (hence the earlier pictures of an unearthed plant).

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Two corms on root of cranefly orchid; the stalk on the right is last summer’s flower stalk

After some careful digging, we gently pulled the plant from the soil and cleaned off the roots and corms. As I suspected, we found two corms. Out of one sprouted the flower stalk; out of the other sprouted the leaf. Here’s how I think it goes: the leaf photosynthesizes through the winter and stores energy in the corm (the one it’s attached to in this picture). Come spring, the leaf will die and that same corm will sprout a flower stalk, using the energy stored from the winter sun. Sometime during or after blooming in summer/fall (guess I’ll need to dig up another plant at that time to figure out exactly when!), the plant produces a new corm from which another leaf will grow. Seems like a pretty smart strategy to take advantage of the open canopy in winter, when sunlight will hit its home on the forest floor much more so than in summer!

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Cranefly orchid is related to another plant called putty-root, Aplectrum hyemale. It has a larger leaf with thin white stripes running longitudinally down it. It’s another hint of green in winter, though much rarer than cranefly orchid, at least around here. The underside of putty-root can be purplish, but sometimes it is green; if purple, it is typically not as vibrant in color as cranefly orchid. Putty-root is known to be found in woods with sugar maple and American beech, and indeed, this plant was located in a beautiful beech grove.

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Puttyroot leaf

Another common name for putty-root is Adam-and-Eve root, in reference to the fact that it has paired corms like the cranefly orchid, though I’m not entirely sure which one is Adam and which one is Eve! A quick internet search on this turns up a wide variety of results – apparently, this plant is known for its ability to bring love your way, keep your lover true (the man carries the Adam root and woman the Eve root), and even encourage a marriage proposal. With a little wading through some interesting websites, I now suspect that the corm from which the leaf is growing is the Eve root: she will “give birth” to the new flower stalk in spring. That means the older corm with last year’s flower stalk is for Adam, poor guy.

Whether or not putty-root or cranefly orchid bring you love, they can at least bring you a moment of joy on your winter woods walk and remind you that the green of spring is never far away!

New Beginnings

Native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours.

~Lady Bird Johnson

You may have noticed a slight reduction in the number of posts the last few weeks. A major reason is that I have been busy with a new chapter in my life, a new adventure. It is a long story, but I am returning to full-time employment as an educator at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) in Chapel Hill. NCBG is part of the University of North Carolina, and is a 1,000+ acre assemblage of display gardens and natural areas. It is nationally known as a conservation garden with strong programs in research, education, native plant propagation, and habitat conservation.

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The entrance to the North Carolina Botanical Garden last year (click photos to enlarge)

I have had a long history with the Garden, having purchased thousands of native plants there that were propagated by their excellent horticulture staff. Those plants ended up in school grounds across North Carolina as butterfly gardens, bird observation areas, and water gardens, as part of the hundreds of workshops I did during my career at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. When I think of native plants in our state, I think of this place. So, it is a natural fit for me to be an educator here, a place I know, with many people that I know and admire, and a mission I can relate to –  to inspire understanding, appreciation, and conservation of plants and to advance a sustainable relationship between people and nature.

The first three weeks have been busy, with a lot of time spent inside working on the computer  (in the nicest office I have ever had it turns out – great view and a window that actually opens!). But, I have had a chance to see a few things in a more natural setting right outside my office door…

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A feather mystery on my first day

One of the staff found me on my first day and relayed a feather mystery they had discovered while pulling ivy outside one the display gardens. It was a large pile of red-shouldered hawk feathers. We discussed the possibilities and figured the most likely scenario was that a great horned owl had taken a roosting hawk as prey during the night.

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Prescribed burns in the Coastal Plain Habitat Garden

The staff has been busy the past couple of weeks doing prescribed burns both here at the main garden site and at some of the other properties managed by NCBG. It was a flashback to my state park days when I helped with many burns at various parks in the east.

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Spotted salamander egg mass

After a heavy rain one night, I was anxious to check the pools in the habitat gardens, which usually produce good numbers of salamander egg masses. Sure enough, there were a lot of spermatophores covering the bottom of the pools. A couple of days later we went over and saw the first egg masses of the season, always a magical moment, and one that I reported on in a blog post a couple of years ago.

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Gray fox greeting one morning

I suppose my favorite experience thus far happened last week as I was walking into the building from my car. A gray fox, nose to the ground, came out of nowhere and crossed in front of me. A quick glance my way was all the notice I received, then it was back to trotting and sniffing. The fox disappeared, but I could hear some other people across the grounds exclaiming they had just seen it. Suddenly, it crossed my path even closer as I approached the building, and once again vanished.

Gray fox in the Children's Wonder Garden

Gray fox

I went upstairs and grabbed my camera and came back down on the side deck, hoping to see it again. Just when I was about to go back inside, it suddenly appeared on the path in front of me, sniffing the ground as if intent on finding something. I later heard people saw at least two foxes out there, so maybe this one was looking for the other one. I think we re approaching their breeding season, so this may explain this intense searching behavior.

Not a bad way to start a day. If this is any indication of what’s to come, I look forward to being at this beautiful place, and learning and sharing about the natural world in a new setting. Stay tuned…