When we think of autumn, we often think of fall colors, specifically the onset of the kaleidoscope of colors created by the changing hues of tree leaves. But there are many other fall colors to enjoy that require looking down, not up. Here is a sampling from the past week or two here in the woods.
Experience suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you do after youarrive.
~Lois McMaster Bujold
I took this photo of a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea) in May of 2006. I was walking around the yard looking for insects to photograph and stumbled upon this frog, backlit on a Tulip Poplar leaf. It was the first individual of this species I had ever seen on our property. I had seen many of these beautiful frogs on my travels in the Coastal Plain, but they were not common in the Piedmont back then. If my memory is accurate, this photo provided evidence for a new county record for this species in the database of amphibian distribution for the state maintained by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, my employer at that time. They seem to have greatly expanded their range in recent years and are now fairly common in many suitable habitats in our area.
Over the years since, I have seen a Green Treefrog in the yard from time to time, but never more than a single one in any one season (and many years, none at all). I began to wonder if we just had one really old animal that had somehow found our little open spot in the woods on top of a hill (but since I assume most frogs of this size typically live only a few years, I started doubting that theory). Then, last year, there were two in the yard for a couple of months, regularly seen perched on the stems of Jewelweed in their stoic hunched pose. And again, this summer, we have seen two individuals, until yesterday, when I found three of them perched on plants just outside our front windows.
So here is the mystery…where are these guys coming from and where are they breeding? Though we have a couple of small water gardens that provide habitat for several species (Green Frogs, Bullfrogs, Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, Eastern Narrowmouth Toads, Spring Peepers) we have never heard a Green Treefrog calling in our yard or anywhere in the neighborhood for that matter. I think I remember hearing some once at Jordan Lake, a few miles from our house, but you would think if they are breeding here that we would have heard that distinctive nasal queenk, queenk (or hey baby, hey baby) call at least once. As I write this, there are two perched within sight, one on a Jewelweed stem, the other on the same leaf of a Beautyberry shrub that it has been on the past three days (this is the one that has perched on our dining room window for several days recently). Other than our water gardens, the closest water is our intermittent stream down the hill and another water garden on a neighbor’s property a quarter of a mile from our house (he hasn’t seen or heard these frogs there). And yet, here they are, seeming content and doing what treefrogs do (except calling). I’m going to continue to keep track of them, assuming I can even identify individual frogs by the number and arrangement of the gold flecks on the dorsal surface (I think these remain constant?).
So goes the life of people that live in the woods…you wander and ponder about your natural neighbors, hoping to gain some insight into how the world works, but enjoying their presence even if it all remains a mystery.
It’s the horns of a dilemma, no question about it.
Melissa needed a few caterpillars for a teacher workshop this week, so I went out the other night with our UV flashlight to scan the vegetation around the house. A reminder that many species of caterpillars glow under UV light at night, making them much easier to spot. It was slim pickings but I did see one sphinx moth larva (aka horn worm, due to the presence of a spike on the posterior end). It had just molted so I didn’t want to disturb it. Its size and behavior (feeding on the underside of a leaf) gave the impression of a Walnut Sphinx caterpillar, a species I have found several times in our yard. Plus, when I glanced at the host plant and saw the compound leaves, I assumed it was a hickory, one of the hosts of Walnut Sphinx larvae. I noted the location and headed inside, hoping the caterpillar would still be there in the morning.
When I went out the next day to retrieve it, I saw that the sapling was not a hickory, but an ash, and that the larva was not a Walnut Sphinx…but, what is it? I had not paid close attention to detail in the glow of the UV light and the pattern and colors were not yet evident in the freshly molted caterpillar. I took a few quick photos and went inside to search my well-worn copy of Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America. There are six species of horn worm larvae that feed on ash so it made the search a bit easier. None of the images matched the bold pinkish splotches along the sides of my caterpillar, but reading the descriptions helped me decide that this beauty is a Waved Sphinx caterpillar, Ceratomia undulosa. They are quite variable as larvae, with most being green overall, others pink and yellow, or some combination.
But they all tend to have the textured pinkish horn and black dots on the anal plate (the hardened area on the top of the last abdominal segment). A quick search online (BugGuide.net) showed the diversity of this species’ caterpillar colors and confirmed this variation for a Waved Sphinx larva. I am guessing this is a 4th instar, so it has some growing to do before its final stage. Just goes to show, never assume you know what you are seeing without paying attention to the details. But, no matter the name, it is a stunning caterpillar and a joy to discover just outside our home in the woods.
The significance and joy in my science comes in those occasional moments of discovering something new…
~Henry F. Schaefer, III
Last night we had friends over for pizza and beer and …mothing (wait, what?, you mean you don’t have people over and put out a moth light when it is 90 degrees and 95% humidity?). We had some good moths, including a couple of large Tulip Tree Silk Moths and at least three Rhinoceros Beetles. But, my favorite find of the night was a strange creature that I can’t remember ever seeing before. When Melissa first saw it, she exclaimed, I’m not even sure which group of insects it belongs to…it looks like a tiny cicada. Well, that was certainly a good description.
It does, indeed, have the body shape of a mini-cicada and is about an inch in length. The coloration reminded us of tree lichens. When I first approached it with the macro lens, it jumped, leading us to believe it was some sort of weird planthopper. The SEEK app identified it as a type of Fulgorid Planthopper (i.e. a planthopper in the family Fulgoridae). This morning I went to my laptop and searched the very helpful web site, Hoppers of North Carolina, browsed the Family Photo Gallery link and found a photo resembling our mystery critter. The heading for the matching image is Calyptoproctus marmoratus – No Common Name. The description says it is uncommon to rare, found in deciduous forests from VA to FL (it as been recorded in fewer than 20 of our state’s 100 counties). Searching online didn’t yield much more information other than little is known about its feeding habits or general life history. One scientific paper I found showed it being found in several museum and university insect collections and that almost all were collected at night when attracted to lights. It is always satisfying to see something new and wonder about where and how it lives. The No Common Name add-on to the nomenclature though seems unfit for such an interesting creature. I offer these possible solutions – Lichen-colored Mini-Cicada or perhaps the Lichen Cicadalet. I’m open to other suggestions in the comments. Keep looking out there, there is more to discover and ponder.
The night still twinkles with fireflies but the day’s heat lingers and the air has a dusty August scent, the smell of languid Summer.
We are definitely in the Dog Days of Summer, the heat and humidity making me rethink my desire to be out and about in the afternoon. But, it only takes a short walk to find beauty and mystery surviving, no, thriving, in the heat. Below are some scenes from the summer here in the woods.
Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.
The heat of summer seems to have slowed the activity around the trail cameras in our woods, but sometimes, amid all the images of squirrels, raccoons, and wind blown leafy branches, there is is a jewel that really makes me appreciate the 24-hour a day presence of those eyes on the trees.
This first one is from a while back and is a very quick clip showing one of the opossums that uses the root ball den site carrying some leaves back to the ‘possum hole with its tail. Who among us couldn’t use an extra hand now and then?
One of the things I have been surprised by recently is the lack of trail camera images of deer fawns. I have been seeing them along the roads here in the neighborhood for a few months, but they have not been recorded on a trail camera until this week.
This next one is the video that I have been waiting for…a Bobcat in our woods! The video is cropped a little so it is not as sharp as some, but this is a clip of a nice-sized Bobcat walking down the now dry stream bed in our woods. I have long hoped to see one here in the neighborhood. We have plenty of woods and potential prey, and being near the Haw River corridor, there is ample habitat for these majestic animals.
I have admired the mystique of these secretive wild cats for many years. My first sighting was probably back when I worked for NC State Parks and I spotted a Bobcat and her kittens walking down the road at Goose Creek State Park. Since then, I have seen them mainly at wildlife refuges in our Coastal Plain – Alligator River, Mattamuskeet, and at Pocosin Lakes NWR. Most have been quick glimpses of one as it slinked off into the vegetation. Only a few have been recorded with a camera. Here is a brief list of some of those photographed encounters…
Note the white patches on the back of the ear in the photo above. Look at the video clip again and you can clearly see these distinctive white marks on the back of the ears. My only other Bobcat sighting in the Piedmont was one at Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill many years ago. When I returned to the parking lot I saw what looked like a large cat sitting in the adjacent field. It was looking away from me and I saw those white patches and it was then that I knew it was a Bobcat!
Though I have been lucky to witness Bobcats in the wild several times, there is something extra special about knowing there was one in our woods. I just hope one day I will be lucky enough to see one for myself in our personal refuge.
If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.
I’ve been wandering around the yard again, camera in hand, looking for the little things that might be living alongside us. The heat of summer tends to make a lot of the big things (like me) a bit less energetic. But this is the time for the smaller life forms to excel, to achieve their life purpose, before the cold weather returns. There are a lot of familiar neighbors out there, and always something new to see as well, be it a different species, a different life stage, or some interesting behavior. All it takes is a little time and a slow meander through the greenery. Here are a few of the latest little things that make life in the woods so interesting…
Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.
There is so much we see when we spend time in nature, but having a few trail cameras set out shows how much we miss. Here are a few of the wildlife happenings our three cameras caught over the past couple of months, vignettes of the life in our woods when we are not there to witness.
Nothing is more humbling than to look with a strong magnifying glass at an insect so tiny that the naked eye sees only the barest speck and to discover that nevertheless it is sculpted and articulated and striped with the same care and imagination.
I’m blaming it on our month-long trip out West back in May. At least that’s what I will tell anyone that wonders why our yard is so, well, jungle-like. Over the years, I’ve kind of let plants do what they wanted to do, in violation of most standard gardening practices. There are tall Joe-Pye-Weeds in front of shorter plants, a couple of species of ferns have run amok and taken over large portions of beds, and the tree canopy has grown so much that most wildflowers are abnormally tall and leggy and therefore often fall over without adding plant supports. But, it helps keep the invasives, especially Microstegium, at bay (a little). And then there are the rabbits that like to munch on the species I truly prize (like Cardinal Flower and Rosinweed), so the garden definitely has a mind of its own in terms of species make-up and arrangement. But, it provides food and shelter for a pretty amazing array of creatures, big and small, that keep me company when I wander with my camera. The past few days, I have not had much energy for yard chores due to the heat (another reason it looks this way) but I have managed to stroll through the jungle, looking for some of our tiniest of neighbors.
Below are some of the small things we see on our meanders through the greenery…
What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bees.
Earlier this week I was walking down in our woods mid-day, switching out the memory cards in our trail cameras, when I came across a termite emergence near the opossum hole. What I noticed first was a group of large dragonflies, maybe 30 or more, swarming in a sunny patch down by the soon-to-be-dry creek. There were a couple of species of dragonflies, though the larger ones (probably some species of darner) were by far the most abundant. They were zooming back and forth snagging winged termites as they fluttered up from the ground in their nuptial flight. I sat mesmerized for several minutes watching the proficiency of these aerial hunters. I thought I should try to capture some video of this spectacle, but then walked on, figuring I couldn’t capture anything worthwhile with just a phone (boy, was I wrong about that, as you will see later).
I walked about 150 feet along the creek and encountered another, smaller, termite swarm, but with few dragonflies present.
I wrote about termite swarms a few years back and pondered then about the triggering mechanism for such synchronous swarms. I found suggestions that temperature (air and/or soil), humidity, conditions before or after storms, etc. as the causes for nearby termite colonies all emerging around the same time. Well, this happened on Tuesday last week, with no significant change in weather before or after that day, so I am still baffled (and in awe) of this phenomenon. After taking a couple of pictures, I continued on up toward the house for lunch.
As I reached our little footbridge, there was another emergence (probably 300 feet from the last one). Interestingly, they were emerging on the same log that I had photographed them on when I wrote that last termite post. When I looked at the photos from that blog post, I saw the date they were taken was May 2, 2015.
The alates followed the same path along the log as they had back then, working their way up toward the tip (the highest point) where most of them took flight.
Here’s a short video clip of the tip of that log and the emerging brood of termites (almost identical to the video clip from 2015).
As I had found back in 2015, these emergence flights don’t last very long (15-30 minutes), and many predators, both terrestrial (ants, spiders, lizards, etc.) and aerial (dragonflies, birds, bats in the evening, etc.) gather to take advantage of this slowly flying buffet. As this swarm started to thin, I walked up the trail, only to encounter one more emergence. This one was smaller, in deep shade, and had only two dragonflies in attendance. Still, the number of dragonflies I had seen in our woods on this walk was way above any number we normally see, especially down by the creek.
I soon got to the top of the ridge and walked through our side gate to find Melissa out in the yard with her phone making video clips of a cluster (one of the proper collective nouns, although I prefer the more fanciful, dazzle) of dragonflies attacking yet another large termite swarm. There were at least 50 dragonflies (mostly large darners, and we both think they were probably Swamp Darners) swooping to and fro in our side yard out near one the water gardens (this area is basically a small, sunny hole in the forest canopy. I was impressed by the quick clip she showed me and we continued to watch and marvel at the aerial capabilities of the dragonflies as they turned on a dime and snatched a hapless alate out of the air. After a successful snag, a dragonfly would munch in the air (you could see termite wings drop from on occasion) before continuing the hunt, with success after success in grabbing an in-flight meal. Once inside, I was blown away by what Melissa captured on video (and her editing abilities).
So, we present this short video of the amazing airy antics we witnessed (too bad the Oscars are this evening). The first segment is actual speed, but she filmed the rest in slow-motion video. Watch the sharp turns the dragonflies make as they hunt. And keep your eyes on prominent termites as they fly through the screen…do they make it?
Once again, we have witnessed synchronous termite swarms in our woods – five swarms over a distance of about 1/4 mile and a time span of about 45 minutes from creek bottom to the top of the ridge. This probably helps with genetic diversity by allowing mates from different colonies to find each other during the short nuptial flights (they drop their wings shortly after landing). But what triggers this synchrony over unknown distances and seemingly varied micro-climates?
And now I have another big question…how the heck do all these dragonflies suddenly appear at these termite emergence sites? We are both amazed that so many dragonflies appeared seemingly out of nowhere (the greatest number of darners I have ever seen patrolling the yard is probably 3 or 4 at any one time). Our friend and researcher at the museum, Chris, has studied dragonfly swarms, and states that this type of swarm is probably a static swarm (feeding swarm), although she speculated these may also be related to migratory swarms (yes, many species of dragonflies migrate). One study showed that the number of dragonflies you see in a swarm is just the tip of the iceberg, with those you count representing fewer than 20% of the number in the vicinity. Where are all these dragonflies on a normal day? Are they cruising the treetops, out of our sight? Can they communicate with one another in some way to take advantage of a short-term food bonanza? I’m hoping Chris sees this and comments with any updates from dragonfly researchers that may shed additional light on how dragonflies can gather so quickly for such ephemeral feeding frenzies. However it happens, it is something special to behold, so be on the lookout for a swarm near you (and have your phone ready).