The Bats of Bracken

…one of the most spectacular wildlife events that you can see anywhere…It’s the largest congregation of bats in the world, and they come out of this cave by the millions.

~Mylea Bayless, a senior director at Bat Conservation International

Here is another long overdue post from a wonderful trip to Austin, Texas, a few months ago. Melissa had a presentation at a national conference, and I was lucky enough to tag along on the front end. Our gracious hosts are long-time friends of her family, so we had a great tour of this beautiful city, its food, and nearby natural wonders. I have been lucky to see some incredible wildlife spectacles in my wanderings – the overwintering reserves of monarch butterflies in Mexico; thousands of reef fishes in all colors of the rainbow in the Virgin Islands; bison herds in Yellowstone; huge flocks of sandhill cranes and snow geese at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico; and fields full of black bears and tundra swans back home in North Carolina. On this trip, I added another, the bats of Bracken Cave.

Bracken Cave

The unassuming entrance to Bracken Cave (click photos to enlarge)

We had heard about the bats in Austin and at Bracken (closer to San Antonia) from our hosts’ son, Skip, a professional wildlife filmmaker, when he visited us last year. We joined Bat Conservation International (BCI) before our trip in order to qualify for an overnight camp-out near the cave. This allowed us to witness both the evening departure and early morning return of the millions of Mexican free-tailed bats that call the cave home for several months each year.  I wasn’t that thrilled with the idea of camping in Texas in early September, but we decided it would be worth it for this. And it turned out just fine, with mild temperatures, a wayward wild turkey that hung out with us, and a great group of fellow nature nerds with which to share a campfire.

Shortly after arriving, we walked down to the seating area near the cave for an introduction by one of the volunteers that help manage the site. Here are just a few of the amazing facts he shared about this incredible place:

  • There are an estimated 15-20+ million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) using the cave. Most of these bats spend the winter in Mexico (~1000 miles from this cave), where they mate before returning to Texas. Pregnant females form huge maternity colonies at places like Bracken Cave that have the right temperatures and humidity for raising their young (male bats form smaller colonies elsewhere).
  • Bracken Cave has one of the largest concentrations of mammals anywhere in the world.
  • The cave is a birthing place for millions of bat babies (called pups) every year with concentrations of up to 500 pups per sq. ft. hanging on the cave ceiling. Somehow, using a combination of sight and sound, mothers returning from a night of foraging manage to find and nurse their own pup amid this chaos. Pups are about 1/3 the weight of the mother (the equivalent of a human mother giving birth to a 40 lb. baby).
  • Each female bat gives birth to one pup per year with only about 50% of the pups surviving their first year. Once they reach adulthood, these bats may live up to 15+ years in the wild.
  • Mother bats must leave the cave each night to feed on night-flying insects to sustain themselves and their growing young.  They fly up to 60 miles away from the cave each night, consuming huge quantities of flying beetles, winged ants and moths. Scientists estimate the Bracken bats eat 140 tons of insects every night. The value of this to Central Texas is huge in that one study showed the bats save the just the region’s cotton growers an estimated $741,000 per year in pesticide costs and crop damage.

The viewing at Bracken is controlled by BCI and limited to small groups a few nights per week. They are doing a great job of ensuring the bats keep returning to Bracken Cave. The site and surrounding landscape has been threatened by developments but recent partnerships brokered by the Nature Conservancy between business, politicians, and conservationists, have set aside more land to provide a buffer for the bats.

As we sat and listened, we saw some of the many predators that stalk the bats as they exit – a skunk, two coachwhip snakes, a couple of hawks, all seeking an easy meal provided by a nightly cloud of bats, that now included the inexperienced young. The air was still and had a slight pungent aroma of bat guano, which was once harvested from this cave for fertilizer.

The show begins slowly, a few bats fluttering out of the dark hole. People start pointing and you can hear some excited chatter. In the clip above, the wind was blowing so there is a bit of sound distortion.

Bats blurred coming out of entrance 1

Bats emerging from the cave entrance

The sound of thousands of bat wings flapping is a bit like running water, and it fades and grows depending on where the swarm circles in relation to our viewing area.

Bat silhouettes above entrance 1

A cloud of bats in the sky above Bracken Cave

After circling the cave for a few minutes, the swarm begins to form, circling around higher until it trails off like a stream of smoke on the horizon.

Mexican free-tailed bats flying out of Bracke Cave

The exodus continued for a few hours

It became very quiet, except for the whir of wings, as we all sat there in awe at this spectacle, trying to comprehend the sheer numbers of animals emerging from the ground before us.

Bats in late sunlight

A bat storm

Bats blurred coming out of entrance

The beauty of bats in motion

Bat caught on cactus

The cacti surrounding the cave claimed a few bats

Snake at entrance

As so did a couple of snakes patrolling the entrance (one is in the lower right in photo above)

We began to look at other details in the scene as the seemingly endless stream of beating wings continued – a bat caught on a cactus spine; snakes grabbing bats that hit the ground near the entrance; a peregrine falcon and a Cooper’s hawk that each nabbed a bat mid-flight; missed attacks by a red-tailed hawk. It apparently isn’t easy being in such a dense crowd, especially if you are an inexperienced youngster.

Bats and people at Bracke Cave

People viewing the bats from above the cave entrance

Several people eventually walked the designated path to the other side of the cave entrance to experience that view, providing me with a unique perspective of two groups of mammals.

As darkness settled, the stream of winged creatures continued to emerge and fly off to hunt. I finally walked over to a point in the path where the exiting swarm was flying directly over my head.

Absolutely stunning! Be sure to turn your sound up for the roar of the wings and the clicking noises. And a reminder that this scene continued for a few hours! We finally retreated to our campsite and enjoyed some good conversation before retiring to our tent for the evening.

We were up early the next morning to witness a very different event – the return of the bats to the cave. By the time we arrived (at the first hint of light), the bats had already been returning for a couple of hours. There wasn’t a huge swarm like the mass departure of the night before, but rather a continuous stream of small groups of bats. They zigzagged down into the cave at rapid speed from high in the sky, perhaps to avoid predators. The sound of plummeting bats was like that when you rapidly swing a short section of rope above your head – whup, whup, whup. After a couple of hours, the numbers dwindled, and then finally stopped. We packed up and headed back to Austin to witness another bat spectacle.

Crowd in Austin watching bats

Crowds gather each evening in Austin to watch the bats

It turns out that among the many cool things about Austin (breakfast tacos, live music, art) it also is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. About 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats call downtown’s Congress Avenue bridge home from mid-March to early November. It has become a nightly tourist attraction for hundreds of visitors.

Bats at bridge in Austin

Bats flying out from the Congress Ave. bridge with viewers lining the bridge and the surrounding shoreline

Bats have apparently lived in Austin for many years but did not start using the bridge in large numbers until some renovations in 1980 that created 16-inch deep crevices running the length of the underside of the bridge. Bats use the cracks that are 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches wide where temperature and humidity conditions are just right for raising their young.

Dense cloud of bats

A spectacle definitely worth experiencing

It was quite a contrast from the quiet and solemn feel of Bracken Cave (above), but it was very cool to see so many people congregate for a natural event. In fact, I can’t think of too many other places on the planet where this many people regularly gather to witness such a spectacle of wild creatures. Kudos to the people of Texas that have helped protect these amazing concentrations of mammals that allow us to experience such moments of awe in the natural world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long Distance Traveler

I liked the name, snow goose, and I liked the sight of them.

~Mary Burns, In The Private Eye: Observing Snow Geese

Here is a brief update on my post about this year’s Christmas Bird Count on the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge…as I mentioned yesterday, we spent some time observing a large flock of snow geese when they landed in one of the fields near the refuge entrance. I finally got out of the car, went around back, and stood out of the rain under the open hatch to scope the flock. I was looking for Ross’s geese, and for collared birds. As I scanned the far edge of the flock, I finally spotted a yellow neck collar on one snow goose. As is often the case, the bird was partially obscured by a layer of bobbing necks and heads of other birds, making it difficult to read the collar code. I managed to get T as the first letter, and then 08 as the last two digits. I finally had Melissa get out and take a look and she nailed it…TJ08. We recorded that to report when we got home. Yesterday morning, I submitted our observation online at the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory site for so-called auxiliary markers.

Collared Snow Goose 1

A collared snow goose from a previous winter shows how difficult it can be to read (click photos to enlarge)

Many researchers use markers that allow observers to identify an individual bird at a distance. The most common one for large waterfowl, like geese and swans, is a plastic neck collar. I have helped put this type of marker on tundra swans on many earlier visits to the Pungo Unit when the refuge was participating in migration studies of this species. That study was concluded many years ago, so it is now rare to find a collared swan, but I have observed and reported collared snow geese on several occasions over the past few years. I was surprised to receive an email last night with the certificate for our bird…

Snow goose TJ08 certificate

Certificate from the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory

This bird was banded by the same researcher that banded some of my previous records. The location is above the Arctic Circle in Canada, a distance of about 2600 miles from where TJ08 is spending this winter.

Snow goos TJ08 migration map 1

The migration distance of TJ08

Seeing this record of one bird’s remarkable journey reminds me of how much I have missed the huge flocks of snow geese the past couple of years. Their behavior has been less predictable, their numbers lower, but there are signs that this year may be a good one for observing snow geese at Pungo. There really is something magical about the huge flocks of noisy birds. Mary Burns puts it well in her book about snow geeseI was surprised, then stopped breathless for a moment, by the sudden rising of tens of thousands of snow geese at once, the airy tumult of the madly beating black-tipped wings, the high soprano bark of their calls. I described them to someone as poetic, the way they stretch out across the sky like the broken lines of verse. I thank TJ08 for helping make the winter wonderland of Pungo another memorable line of poetic verse.

Counting Our Blessings

There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.

~Walt Streightiff

We had a wonderful holiday break this past week, spending time with and enjoying both families. The past few days we discussed some of the varied rituals of the holidays – specific foods for the season, making cookies with family, watching certain shows, listening to Christmas music, and Christmas Eve Mass. I guess I have a few rituals myself, although they are quite different from most.

Tundra swans in field

The weather for much of our Christmas Bird Count was cold, gray, and wet (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday was one of my favorites – the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pungo. The count has been going on since I started it with my friend, Paris Trail, back in the mid 1980’s, and I have only missed a few in all those years. The count center is based at Pettigrew State Park and the standard 15-mile diameter circle encompasses all of the park (including 16,000+ acre Lake Phelps), acres of the surrounding farmland, and much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  The weather turned out to be less than ideal with cloudy skies, various forms of precipitation, and temperatures hovering around 37 degrees most of the day. We drove the refuge roads for much of the morning as we were starting to question the sanity of our 4:30 a.m. departure from a warm bed back home. Though we ended up with fewer species than usual, we did share a few special moments with some of the usual suspects.

Tundra swans in field 1

A flock of tundra swans in a field along Pat’s Road at Pungo

Tundra swans in field crop

Apparently, there was a lot to discuss at the swan holiday gathering

On one of our circuits, we noticed several thousand tundra swans had gathered in the front fields to feed on waste corn and a nearby field of winter wheat sprouts. We pulled up, lowered the windows with rain sprinkling in, and took in the scene. Watching and listening to the swans somehow made it all worthwhile and reminded me of how much I love this place.

Snow geese landing on gray day

A large flock of snow geese landing to feed

Soon, scattered flocks of snow geese began to gather and circle the feeding swans. As the flocks coalesced into a huge swirl of black and white, we discussed the seeming inefficiency of snow goose behavior – circling a field for many minutes, using up precious energy, before finally settling down to feed. All the while, I was glassing the passing flock for the smaller cousins of snow geese, the Ross’s geese.

Injured snow goose

Snow goose profile showing longer beak with black “lip” line

It is fairly easy to spot a Ross’s goose on the edge of a flock of snow geese in a field – Ross’s geese are about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of all the other white birds and have a stubby bill that lacks the black “lips” of a snow goose. But I like to try to spot them in flight, which can be a bit more challenging. If the the two species are adjacent to one another, you can see the differences (even though Melissa thinks I am making all this up).

Comparison of Ross' and Snow Goose in flight

Can you spot the Ross’s geese in this photo?

Check out the photo above. There are two Ross’s geese mixed with 4.5 snow geese – remember, look for the smaller size and a short, stubby bill on the Ross’ geese. We ended the day with 7 Ross’s geese and about 30,000 snow geese (I’m sure there are a many more Ross’s geese on the refuge, but it can be tough to pick them out of the large flocks).

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warblers were our constant companions in forested areas of the refuge

A few other species were quite abundant this year – American robins by the hundreds, mallards, killdeer, and yellow-rumped warblers. These winter warblers are tiny balls of energy and they boldly surrounded us every time we pished along the forest edges.

Pipits

Searching for American pipits in corn stubble can test your vision (how many do you see?)

I enjoy the challenge of finding certain species on these bird counts – a Ross’s goose hidden in a flock of thousands of snow geese, an elusive fox sparrow (no luck this year), an owl (we did flush a single great horned owl while walking in the woods), and the dirt-colored American pipits hidden in plain sight out in the plowed or cut fields (we found a nice flock in one field).

Four bald eagles

It was a good day for bald eagles (here are 4 of the 10 seen at this one point on the lake)

And there are always surprises. This year, the bald eagles put on quite a show. We started the morning with four in the fields as we entered the refuge. Later, in our one spot to view Pungo Lake, we had ten eagles in view, often taking turns knocking one another off of perches along the lake shore.

Red wolf track in mud

Fresh red wolf tracks

Our biggest surprise came with a quick sighting of a red wolf as it dashed across a dirt road and into a corn field, quickly disappearing into the dense stand. It turned out to be a very good day for mammals – white-tailed deer, river otter, nutria, a gray squirrel, and six bears rounded out our observations (along with plenty of huge bear scat as well as scat from bobcat and fox).

Resting swans

The sun finally made an appearance lat in the afternoon, warming these resting swans

Late in the day, the cold rains stopped, the dense clouds moved out, and the sun broke through, but the steady wind reminded us that this can be a very cold place. Walking on “Bear Road” at the end of the day reminded me of so many trips from my past – a sense of wildness and wide open spaces in this place that continues to provide natural wonders with each visit. The bad weather had driven most other visitors away, so we had the place to ourselves – again, a reminder of the the early years when, if I saw one other car on the refuge, it was a busy day.

Flying swans

Tundra swan flyover with sunset approaching

The golden glow of an approaching sunset illuminated the woods and caught the feathers of swans returning to the safety of the lake for another night. The only sounds were those of nature – swans calling, the deep drumming of a distant pileated woodpecker, the faint low hoot of a great horned owl.

sunset at Pungo

A fiery end to a chilly day

As we walked back toward our car, the western sky exploded in fire like it so often does here in winter. There are so many reasons I love this place. A big one is that it allows me the time and space to look around and appreciate the many wonders this world has to offer, if only we give it the chance. Help support our public lands – they are medicine for our souls.

half moom

There are many wonders in our world, just waiting for us to pause and enjoy

2017 Christmas Bird Count results (Pungo Unit only)

30,000 Snow Goose
7 Ross’s Goose
198 Canada Goose
22724 Tundra Swan
2 Wood Duck
20 Northern Shoveler
222 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
229 Mallard
40 American Black Duck
10 Northern Pintail
3 Green-winged Teal
23 Ring-necked Duck
1 Bufflehead
12 Hooded Merganser
5 Great Blue Heron
9 Turkey Vulture
8 Northern Harrier
15 Bald Eagle
2 Red-tailed Hawk
1 American Coot
170 Killdeer
3 American Woodcock
26 Wilson’s Snipe
26 Ring-billed Gull
180 Mourning Dove
1 Great Horned Owl
2 Red-bellied Woodpecker
8 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
5 Northern Flicker
3 Pileated Woodpecker
2 American Kestrel
6 Eastern Phoebe
1 Blue Jay
10 American Crow
5 Fish Crow
0 crow sp.
5 Carolina Chickadee
4 Tufted Titmouse
2 White-breasted Nuthatch
8 Carolina Wren
5 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
5 Eastern Bluebird
800 American Robin
1 Brown Thrasher
7 Northern Mockingbird
60 American Pipit
3 Palm Warbler
489 Yellow-rumped Warbler
357 White-throated Sparrow
28 Savannah Sparrow
18 Song Sparrow
9 Swamp Sparrow
6 Eastern Towhee
15 Northern Cardinal
900 Red-winged Blackbird

Cold-hardy Blooms

It is an extremely interesting plant – October and November’s child – and yet reminds me of the earliest spring. Its blossoms smell like spring – and by their color and as well as fragrance they belong to the saffron dawn of the year.

~Henry David Thoreau, 1851

I’ll be catching up with some past due posts over the next couple of weeks. Busy schedules don’t allow much time for thinking about posts, but then I think it is weird to post about something weeks or months after the experience. But, with the chilly and often gray days of winter upon us, it seems okay to show a flower, albeit a strange one, to brighten your day.

Witch hazel in flower

American witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, in flower last month at NCBG (click photos to enlarge)

American witch hazel is an unusual shrub or small tree that stands out for its late bloom time, usually October through early December in these parts.

Witch hazel flower

Each flower has four linear petals

The yellow flowers have four twisted linear petals that spring from the branches looking like one of my bad hair days. The common name may have come from the Middle English wicke for lively – and wych, an old Anglo-Saxon word for bend. This may refer to the use of forked branches of this tree as dowsing or divining rods. According to folklore, one fork is held in each hand with the palms upward. The bottom or butt end of the “Y” is pointed skyward at an angle of about 45 degrees. As you walk back and forth over the area to be tested, the butt end of the stick is supposed to rotate or be attracted downward when you pass over a source of underground water. I need to cut a Y-branch and test this for myself.

Witch hazel seed capsules and spent flowers

Last year’s brown seed capsules with fading blossoms (petals turning reddish) from this year

The genus, Hamamelis, is from two Greek words, meaning “fruit” and “together with” or “at the same time.” This refers to the shrub’s unique feature of producing this year’s flowers as last year’s capsules, still on the twigs, are ripening and dispersing seeds. Seed capsules opened explosively, throwing seeds several feet, and the tossed seeds take two years to germinate. The species name, virginiana, is because it was first described from a specimen in Virginia.

Witch hazel bottle

Witch hazel extract is commercially available for many purposes

Extracts from the leaves, bark, and twigs provide the aromatic salve called witch hazel, used as an astringent and an anti-inflammatory to soothe cuts and burns, as well as a number of other purposes. It is one of the few American medicinal plants approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The unusual plant was also one of the first New World plants to be adopted for ornamental use by European horticulturists.

Pollinator on witch hazel

Many species of small flies and bees visit to pollinate on warm days

The flowers are pollinated by a variety of small gnats, syrphid flies, moths, and other insects on days when weather is warm enough to allow flight. One day the last week of November, with the sun shining on one of the large witch hazels at work, the air was buzzing with the sound of many pollinators. I can see why Thoreau thought, How important then to the bees this late blossoming plant!

Look closely at a witch-hazel and you may see two distinctive galls, one on the leaves, one on the twigs, both caused by aphids:

Witch hazel cone gall

Witch hazel leaf gall

The witch hazel leaf gall resembles a witch’s conical hat protruding from the upper leaf surface. It is caused by an aphid, Hormaphis hamamelidis.

Witch hazel seed capsule and gall

Spiny witch hazel gall (below) next to dried seed capsule (above)

The other gall, the spiny witch hazel gall, is similar in size (usually a bit larger) than the dried seed capsules, but adorned with small spines.

Spiny witch hazel gall 1

Galls can vary in number and length of spines

This gall is also caused by an aphid, Hamamelistes spinosus, that alternates between species of birch and witch-hazel to complete its life cycle. The new leaves on river birch often become distorted and appear crumpled when infested by these aphids (I have never seen this stage). Winged aphids that will migrate back to witch hazel, or wingless aphids called accessory females, develop inside these wrinkled leaves. The winged aphids migrate to witch hazel and give birth to a generation of wingless males and females. These wingless aphids mate, and the females lay eggs on witch hazel. The accessory females that remained on the birch tree produce additional generations of winged aphids that migrate to witch hazel later.

Spiny witch hazel gall

I opened one gall to look inside

Overwintering eggs are laid on witch hazel in June and July. These eggs hatch the following spring and the new aphid nymphs crawl to the flower buds to feed. Feeding on the flower buds induces the plant to form a spiny gall. A second generation of aphids develops inside the galls, but then leaves and moves to birch to start the alternating plant life cycle again.

Aphids inside spiny witch hazel gall

Winged and wingless aphids inside a spiny witch hazel gall

When I opened the one gall in late November, I saw both winged and wingless aphids along with white fuzzy tufts. There was also an odd-looking sphere…

Mystery item inside spiny witch hazel gall

Mystery blob inside spiny witch hazel gall

This blob was somewhat translucent, white, about 1/4 inch across, and squishy. I gently pulled it out of the gall to photograph it and placed it on my table. I didn’t realize there was a droplet of water from the condensation on my water glass, and when the blob touched it, it literally vanished! I looked with a hand lens and there was nothing left but a very tiny bit of white fuzz on the table. If anyone has any thoughts as to what this mystery is, please let me know (my Google search turned up no clues).

Witch hazel leaf in fall color

American witch hazel is a beautiful addition to any garden, with its unusual flowers and bright yellow fall foliage

Thoreau mentioned witch hazel in many of his writings, as it certainly would stand out to anyone spending much time in the woods with the approach of winter. He wrote, There is something witchlike in the appearance of witch hazel…with its irregular and angular spray and petals like furies’ hair, or small ribbon streamers. Its blossoming, too, at this irregular period, when other shrubs have lost their leaves, as well as blossoms, looks like witches’ craft. Certainly it blooms in no garden of man’s.

Though I don’t often disagree with Henry, I believe this shrub is certainly worthy of any native plant garden or landscape. Not only does it have beautiful fall foliage and strange, late-blooming flowers, it also has a fascinating cultural history, and some strange faunal associates. What more can you ask from a native plant? Be sure to look for it next year as cold weather approaches, or come by the North Carolina Botanical Garden to enjoy this beautiful and unusual native species.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returning

When the uniqueness of a place sings to us like a melody, then we will know, at last, what it means to be at home.

~ Paul Gruchow

It has been almost a year since I went back to work. Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky to have landed in such a wonderful place as the NC Botanical Garden – a beautiful setting, a staff of knowledgeable, fun, and kind people, and a mission that I believe in (plus, the nicest office I have had in all my years). But, I have to tell you, in case you are not aware already, work sure gets in the way of some of the things you want to do. And with the chill of winter in the air lately, my mind turns to a special place for me in my home state, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). It hit me recently that I have not been down there in months and that is such a departure from my last few years. So, when I was offered a chance to tag along with a museum group last weekend, I jumped at the chance. The only down side was the weather…it was pretty miserable, especially Friday night and Saturday. Cold, windy, and wet. Because of that, I now realize I did not take a single photo all day Saturday, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say the highlights were seeing my first swans of the season on Lake Phelps, and four river otter and a bobcat at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (especially the bobcat!).

Tundra swans at sunrise

One of my favorite scenes, tundra swans at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

The next day proved to be much nicer, but bitterly cold. We spent the day at Pungo arriving before sunrise, seeing a couple of bears right away, and watching the sun rise over the trees at Marsh A, watching and taking in the sounds at the place that calls me back year after year. This is how certain places are – they are part of who you are, a brief sighting, a certain sound that can fill your mind’s eye with years of images and feelings in amazing detail.

We spent the day cruising the roads, looking for wildlife, keeping track of our sightings.

Estern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

We spotted many of the usual suspects, from Eastern phoebes to killdeer, and saw the first flocks of snow geese of the season lift off from Pungo Lake in the early morning light.

Bald eagle perched

A bald eagle viewed through the van windshield

Bald eagle flying away

Taking flight

Several eagles were spotted, including one that allowed us to drive up quite close before taking flight. My first winter walk of the season on “Bear Road” was brisk but beautiful.

Large black bear

Huge black bear resting next to the corn

We only saw one bear on that walk, but he was a huge one, easily 500+ pounds. When I first spotted him, he was lying up against rows of standing corn, soaking in the morning sun. He finally sat up, walked a few steps to get a drink out of a nearby ditch, then laid back down. I hope he stays on the refuge and makes it through the upcoming bear hunting season  (the refuge boundary is just beyond those trees in the background of the photo above). We didn’t see as much bear sign as usual, but there was still evidence of several bears (different sized tracks) using the corn fields.

Bald eagle flyby

Bald eagle fly-by

Though it was a weather-challenged trip, it was great to be back. Returning to this part of the state, especially in winter when the waterfowl have returned, always makes things seem better in the world, that the morning light will still brighten the dark sky, and the spirit of wildness still lives in a place close to home.

_-3

Even when surrounded by charismatic wildlife, don’t forget to take the time to enjoy the simple beauties that surround us

Species observed at Pettigrew State Park, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on December 8-10, 2017:

Birds: American coot, Common loon, Double-crested cormorant, Pied-billed grebe, Canada goose, Snow goose, Tundra swan, Canvasback, Ring-necked duck, Mallard, Black Duck, American widgeon, Wood duck, Green-winged teal, Northern shoveler, Gadwall, Bufflehead, Northern pintail, Hooded merganser, Forster’s tern, Ring-billed gull, American bittern, Cattle egret, Great egret, Great blue heron, White ibis, Black-crowned night heron, Killdeer, Greater yellowlegs, Bald eagle, American kestrel, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Barred owl, Turkey vulture, American crow, Fish crow, Wild turkey, Belted kingfisher, Mourning dove, Northern flicker, Yellow-belliied sapsucker, Pileated woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, Red-bellied woodpecker, White-breasted nuthatch, Brown-headed nuthatch, Northern cardinal, Northern mockingbird, Carolina chickadee, Tufted titmouse, American robin, Eastern bluebird, Hermit thrush, Eastern phoebe, Carolina wren, Winter wren, Marsh wren, White-throated sparrow, Swamp sparrow, Eastern meadowlark, Red-winged blackbird, Yellow-rumped warbler

Reptiles: Ribbon snake (dead); Worm snake, Skink sp., River cooter, Painted turtle

Mammals: White-tailed deer, Black bear (4), River otter (4), Gray squirrel, Eastern cottontail rabbit, Virginia opossum, Raccoon, Nutria, Bobcat

Petals of Ice

[W]hat a severe yet master artist old Winter is…. No longer the canvas and the pigments, but the marble and the chisel.

~John Burroughs, 1866

Yesterday’s post shared some of the intricate beauties of a frosty morning – objects adorned with tiny crystals that reveal new patterns and create sculpted coats on everything in the landscape. One of my coworkers saw me out taking photos and asked if I had seen any frost flowers. He then went on to explain they usually occur on a couple of species of plants (he threw the Latin names out and they escaped me) in the garden, but he couldn’t remember exactly where they were. I replied I had not seen any, all the while searching my memory bank for an image of what a frost flower looked like. We parted and I put the camera away and went out to fill the feeders in the bird blind. As I was walking back, something caught my eye in one of the garden beds…

Frost flower 1

My first frost flower (click photos to enlarge)

That has to be one – a frost flower! I ran and got the camera and told our communications assistant about it so she could get some photos as well. The sun was hitting that area so it would not last long. There were two plants with these unusual structures. A quick web search helped explain this bizarre phenomenon.

Frost flower with pen for scale

An ice flower with a pen for scale

More commonly called ice flowers, these structures go by a variety of other local names – frost flowers, ice ribbons, and rabbit ice to name a few. Several resources mentioned that although they are often called “frost flowers”, these formations are not a type of frost. It seems as though these beautiful creations are caused by a process called ice segregation. Under certain conditions of temperature and humidity in late autumn and early winter, super cold water moves through a medium toward ice, freezes at the interface, and adds to the ice.

Frost flower

Ice flowers typically have curved “petals”

At this time of year in some species, water is still being brought up from the soil by the roots or through capillary action. When conditions are right, the water expands in the dried stems, fracturing thin slits in the stem wall. Water squeezes from cracks in the stem and becomes ice, pushing the previous ice further out. Ice crystals on the outside of the stem may be a prerequisite for the formation of ice flowers. There are quite a few resources online with many beautiful photos of this phenomenon – see Ice Flowers and Find an Ice Flower Before it Melts for samples. For reasons that are not fully understood, this has been found in relatively few species of plants. I hope to get some help identifying this one by its basal leaves when I get back to the office. And now that I have seen my first ice flowers, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for these delicate, ephemeral beauties on cold frosty mornings in the future.

Frosty Morning

It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.

~John Burroughs

It has finally turned cold, the true feeling of winter is now in the air. Walking in to to my office yesterday morning I could see the early hour handiwork of an special artist whose work is only available certain months of the year. Everything within a few feet of the ground was delicately sculpted with miniature pillars of ice – a heavy frost covered the plants and ground, painting the world with a crystalline white palette. I couldn’t resist and grabbed my camera for a walk-about to see the frosty splendor. Below are some of my favorites from a stroll through a temporary world of frozen masterpieces.

blueberry leaf

A native blueberry shrub with one frozen leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Southern maidenhair fern

Southern maidenhair fern

Phlox flowers

The last delicate phlox flowers of the season

Creeping blueberry?

The tiny leaves of what I think is a creeping blueberry

Lotus leaf upside down with frost

The last leaf on an American lotus droops over towards the water

bushy broomsedge seeds

Grass seeds

There are so many interesting seed heads now and they were all covered by ice crystals, adding another layer of beauty to these minute botanical sculptures.

seed head

bushy seeds

Coneflower seed head

Maryland golden aster seed heads?

Partia seed head

seed head 2

The frosty detail of a single stem of horse tail is simple, yet elegant.

Horse tail

Horse tail (scouring rush)

My favorite icy hosts were the pitcher plants. Their unusual shapes and colors seem an unlikely companion to a coating of ice crystals, but they manage to pull it off.

Pair of pitcher plants

Large crystals formed on the top of pitcher plants that have “lids”

Hooded pitcher plant 2

The hooded pitcher plants developed a “spinal column” of tiny frost crystals

Hybrid pitcher plant top

The ice enhances the details on this hybrid pitcher plant

 

Hooded pitchers

The hooded pitcher plants have such artistic forms

Hooded pitcher plant 1

A shape that could make a sculptor envious

Tops of pitchers

If plants huddle for warmth, this was a day to do it

But the most unusual ice feature of the morning is one I had never seen before…I will share that mystery with you in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Mamas

Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.

~Robert Browning

It has been a good few months for new mothers at work with several new babies among the staff. So, it seems only appropriate that I share a couple of extraordinary mothers from the Garden’s animal kingdom as well. First, an update on the amazing green lynx spider that I wrote about last time. You may recall she had been sitting with her egg case for a couple of months in the top of some rattlesnake master seed heads in our Piedmont Habitat. Her spiderlings emerged around October 20 after having their egg sac already guarded for about a month by their attentive mom.

Green Lynx spider with yellow jacket

Green lynx spider with a meal of yellow jacket last week (click photos to enlarge)

I have been keeping an eye on her off and on since the eggs hatched and am amazed at her site fidelity, even after most of her offspring had seemingly dispersed. Last week she caught a yellow jacket on one of the warm days when flying insects were out and about. This is the first prey I have seen her capture in all this time, although I heard from some other staff that she had caught a couple of other insects during her ordeal.

Green lynx and young on Dec 1

She is still at it on on December 1…amazing!

I made a special visit to see her last Friday, on December 1, to confirm that she had made it into another month. She is still at it and to my surprise, when I checked my photos, I saw one of her offspring sitting next to her on the egg sac (zoom in on the photo above). It looks like it has molted at least once since I photographed the group in October because the shape and color pattern now more closely resembles the adult female. I plan to keep tabs on this dedicated mom, but I don’t expect her to last much longer, with another wave of freezing temperatures headed our way later this week. She has been guarding this egg sac since late September, a truly amazing feat of motherhood.

Salamander pool in winter NCBG

The salamander pool was high and dry last week

While looking for some trees to use in an upcoming activity last week, I decided to check out the salamander pool in the woods near my office. When I started work last winter its water surface was probably 5o feet across and was a hotbed of activity of animal life, shifting from spotted salamanders and upland chorus frogs in winter to American toads and dragonflies as the seasons progressed. With the lack of rainfall this fall, it was no surprise to see it totally dry last week. This is typical for many vernal pools, and is one reason they are such hot spots for breeding amphibians (due to the lack of fish). I gently lifted a few of the smaller logs lying in what had been the water-filled area this summer, hoping to find some salamanders.

Marbled salamander eggs

Marbled salamander eggs under a log

After turning a few, I found part of what I was looking for – an egg mass of a marbled salamander, but minus the attending adult female. Females typically lay their eggs in September and October in these parts, usually under a log near the edge of a low-lying area that fills with water in the winter and spring. She stays with her eggs until rains begin to fill the pool and cover them (usually late October to December) and then she heads back to her woodland home nearby, leaving the eggs to hatch with hours or days of being inundated. If the rains don’t come, she may head back to the woods before they hatch. I wrote about this interesting species in a post a couple of years ago when we found a very late clutch of eggs (in March) that was finally about to be covered by water. I think the thing that surprised me the most that day was how quickly one of the eggs hatched after I placed it in a small container of water. It hatched within just a few minutes! As reported in my bible of salamander biology (Salamanders of the United States and Canada by James W. Petranka), this is  caused by the release of digestive enzymes (from hatching glands on the snout) that dissolve the egg capsule and allow the embryo to escape.

marbled salamander guarding her eggs 1

An adult female marbled salamander guarding her eggs under a different log

Turning over a nearby log, i found a large female marbled salamander curled up around her egg mass. Studies have shown that egg clutches where the female remains with them until they are covered by water have a higher offspring survival, perhaps because she helps protect them from predation or getting too dry. I carefully laid the log back in place, and wished her well and for rains to soon fill this pool. Another case of a dedicated mother.

newt under log in dry vernal pool

Red-spotted newt under another log

Lastly, on a non-motherly note…the last log I looked under had a somewhat crumpled-looking red-spotted newt laying under it. At first, I thought it was dead, but looking a bit closer, its eyes were open, so I presume it is just lying in a protected spot, waiting for the waters to rise. Let the rains begin…

Big Cat in the Garden

Venom spitting spiders hatching out all over Alabama make great mothers.

~Ben Raines, title of article in Real Time News from AL.com

Green Lynx spider with hatchlings

Green lynx spider and recently hatched spiderlings (click photo to enlarge)

You may remember this photo from about a month ago in another post. It is a female green lynx spider perched near her recently hatched egg case, with many spiderlings visible in the surrounding web mesh.

Green lynx spiderlings

Close-up of spiderlings

Their egg cases (usually only one per female per season) contain anywhere from 50 up to 600 eggs. Mating occurs in late summer and egg are laid in September or October.

Green lynx spider with wasp and freeloader fly

Green lynx spider with one of their favorite prey, a wasp (note the small flies clinging to the wasp, most likely members of the so-called free-loader fly group that steals a meal from a large predator while it feeds)

Green lynx spiders are named for their bright green color and their stealthy hunting technique, much like a big cat. They do not make webs for capturing prey, but rather tend to stalk around flowers and then leap on their victims (often taking fairly large wasps and bees). These are one of our most recognizable spiders, females being large (3/4+ inch body length) with long legs adorned with stiff black spines. They have a distinctive hexagon-shaped whitish eye patch with eight keen eyes.

Green lynx spider near egg case after it hatched and broke free

A late season female has changed color and has one lone spiderling clinging to the seed head just to the right of her abdomen

Late in the season, they often change color, gradually losing the bright green and slowly blending more into the fall colors of the wildflower stalks where they usually place their egg case. This species is well known for guarding their eggs, and this female was no exception. She first spins a loose irregular web in the top of wildflower stalk or small shrub, and then lays her eggs, protected by a somewhat flattened egg case having several irregular projections. She then takes up a nearby position and guards her eggs, aggressively taking on any would be egg-eaters like ants or egg parasitoids. Eggs hatch into postembryos within about 2 weeks. After another 2 weeks, the postembryos molt and the now fully formed spiderlings soon emerge. The female often assists their emergence by tearing open the egg sac. Most of the young spiders disperse after a few days, but the mother continues to stay in the vicinity in “guard mode”. Perhaps it is to protect any stragglers (look for the one spiderling hiding on the seed head to the right of her abdomen in the photo above).

Green lynx spider egg case after hatching

Spider egg case weeks after the hatch

This particular spider has been a frequent stop on my tours this fall as she was right next to a path, and quite visible if you knew where to look. The amazing thing to me is how long she stayed with her eggs. The first photo was taken on October 20, a day after the eggs hatched. She had already been guarding her egg sac for at least 3 weeks at that point. I would check on her every time I walked past. On November 14, I noticed the egg case, and the female, were not in their usual place. I found the egg sac a few inches outside the web mesh, probably dislodged by wind or rain. The female had simply moved to the back side of the rattlesnake master seed heads.

Green lynx spider at end of season

The female holding her egg sac after I retrieved it

After taking photos of both the egg case and the female, I decided to move the egg sac back over to its former position. She stretched out one of her legs as I pushed the sac through the silk lines, and then gingerly pulled the egg sac from my fingertip, and clung to it again as she had for the past several weeks. A couple of days later, I showed some coworkers how she would take it from my hands and we all looked at her through magnifiers, admiring her markings and her motherly instincts. We discussed some aspects of the life history of this species and I wanted to find out more, so I did a web search when I returned to the office. That was when I stumbled across the article title used in the quote at the start of this post. It turns out this species has the unusual ability to squirt venom a distance up to several inches as part of her defensive strategy while guarding her eggs! A good mother, indeed. The venom is reportedly an eye irritant in humans, but it appears as though we were all lucky as we moved in for a closer look (I think my coworkers have forgiven me). I have never noticed this behavior when photographing this species, but I have only been close to a couple at their egg sacs over the years. Of course, now I want to test this next year and see for myself (with a clear piece of plastic rather than my eyes). I also want to see how much longer this female stays in this spot (she has been there almost 2 months at this point!). She will soon succumb to the freezing temperatures, but her young will overwinter, hidden in protected spots in the vegetation, and will repeat this amazing life story next year. Once again, I am amazed what I learn every time I wander outside and take the time to observe and ponder.

Cypress Cities

Visit the only bald cypress blackwater swamp habitat in Wake County and you will feel like you’ve stepped back through the ages.

~from Robertson Millpond Preserve brochure, Wake County Parks and Recreation

I finally had a weekend “off” and was able to join Melissa and Megan on a Museum educator workshop, Find Your Muse on the Millpond. It was a collaboration with the 2017 Piedmont Poet Laureate, Mimi Herman, with a focus on experiencing nature and writing poetry in a beautiful setting, Robertson Millpond Preserve. The millpond was created in the 1820’s to run a grist mill that stayed in operation for over a hundred years. Though the mill was demolished in the 1970’s. the dam remains intact. It was built on Buffalo Creek, so named for herds of bison that once roamed the area. Wake County purchased the millpond and some surrounding land (85 acres total) in 2013 for a nature preserve due to its unique flora – it is the only bald cypress habitat in Wake County and is more similar in species composition to a Coastal Plain habitat than one in the Piedmont.
Cypress trees

Robertson Millpond with fall colors tinting the swamp in reddish brown bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) needles (click photos to enlarge)

If you know us, you know that Melissa is the poet in the family, not me. But I thought this would be an opportunity to take some time and try to write, and, hopefully, get some tips on the craft. And it certainly is a beautiful place, so what’s to lose??

group on millpond

Part of the group of educators on the workshop at the millpond

It was a hearty group of folks that assembled Saturday afternoon, ready to paddle into the swamp on what turned out to be a very brisk day (highs only in the 40’s). The marked paddle trail winds through the cypress trees for a little over a mile, with a nice change of view from sections of narrow, twisting trail, to small openings or “rooms” in the otherwise heavily forested swamp. I had helped Melissa lay out some signage in the swamp for use during the workshop before everyone arrived and was struck by the diversity of plants growing on the small cypress islands.

cypress trees 1

The swamp consists of numerous cypress islands, most with one or two bald cypress trees and a host of shrubs and herbaceous plants underneath

As our line of kayaks snaked through the swamp, I enjoyed the fact that I was a participant, not in charge. It gave me time to observe and help others as they pondered some natural history mysteries.

wheelbug egg mass

A beautiful egg mass of a wheel bug provided a nice surprise on one alder trunk

We paired up at one point and took some time to observe the communities on several cypress islands. One team found a fascinating mini-sculpture of a wheel bug egg mass.

cypress flower midge gall

Cypress flower midge galls

Something else we saw as we examined the tangle of life on the islands were hundreds of tiny whitish, vase-shaped structures scattered among they fallen cypress needles. At first glance, they resemble a tiny fungus, but they are actually caused by the larvae of a gall midge fly classified as Taxodiomyia cupressi. Galls are formed in response to chemicals injected by the adults at the time of egg laying, or produced by the developing larvae and are characteristic shapes on specific areas of certain plants. Each type of gall insect creates a unique structure on a particular species it favors. It would be like living in our refrigerator – a nice, relatively safe home, with plenty to eat.

journaling in kayaks, Roberston Millpond Preserve

Writing our poems with the darkening sky reflected in the blackwater swamp of Robertson Millpond Preserve

After paddling, stopping, observing, and writing for a few hours, I finally came up with a poem. Mimi instructs her students to not have any disclaimers about your poetry (this isn’t very good, I am not that pleased with it, I’m not really a poet, etc.), so I’ll leave all that off (sort of)…here goes:

Cypress Cities

Paddling on this glassy highway, through a city of islands

Taxodium towers, gray-trunked skyscrapers

Sentinels, watching over their tangle of tenants

Crowded storefronts with strange names, hawking their winter wares.

Dodder has braided bracelets.

Alder, catkins and cones.

Titi, with patches of red and green.

And dried flower bouquets from Itea.

Beneath each tower, a rust-colored carpet, soft and spongy,

A welcome mat and refuge for weary drifters

Traveling with me on this highway of wind and water, all seeking sanctuary

titi

Titi, Cyrilla racemiflora, in brilliant fall colors