Yard Mystery

Experience suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you do after you arrive.

~Lois McMaster Bujold

Green Treefrog backlit on leaf (click photos to enlarge)

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.

Green Treefrog on Beautyberry leaf
Treefrog #2, hanging out on a Jewelweed stem, where it blends in very well
Treefrog #3, hunkered down on a Jewelweed stem

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?).

These guys are just so cool

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.

October Surprises

The surprise is that you continue to be surprised.

~Jill A. Davis

I interrupt the truck camping travelogue posts to bring you some current yard sightings. We have been gone quite a bit the past couple of months so the “yard” has taken on more of a jungle look. On Friday, I started some long overlooked chores like washing all the windows and trimming back some of the plants in front of said windows so I can get to them. Our dining room window has a Beautyberry growing in front of it (I know, not ideal placement, but I like to watch the birds feeding on the berries), so I started trimming it to allow access for the long-handled window squeegee. After a few cuts, I saw something on one of the remaining stems – a Green Treefrog! It was clinging to the branch with that typical Buddha-like expression that this species pulls off so well. Though it is likely the same individual I saw in this part of the yard back in August, I can’t be sure as I photographed them from different sides so I can’t compare the location of the few gold flecks of color (I’m not even sure if these gold spots are a constant over time on an individual treefrog).

Green Treefrog clinging to a Beautyberry branch (click photos to enlarge)

It surprised me that this little guy was still clinging to the plant I had been cutting on and jerking around, but perhaps the cool temperatures has made it more accepting of my intrusions.

That peaceful treefrog pose

As I moved around the plant to photograph the frog, I found another surprise – a late season sphinx moth caterpillar. Over the past few years, we have found several Rustic Sphinx Moth larvae feeding on Beautyberry, so we routinely scan these shrubs for signs of caterpillars.

A Rustic Sphinx Moth larva on Beautyberry

I had noticed some of the Beautyberry leaves had been eaten when we first got back home from our road trip, but assumed the caterpillar had already moved off to pupate, since most larvae are scarce by mid-October. Like the treefrog, this caterpillar did not move while I was shaking its habitat. In fact, I kept a check on it from Friday (when I first saw it) until late Saturday afternoon. It didn’t move for that entire time and then late Saturday, it was gone. Not sure if a bird found it or if it had had enough of my yard work and just crawled off to find a suitable place to pupate.

Wondering what the purpose of all those bumps might be

One last Beautyberry surprise was under a leaf near the Rustic Sphinx – a small “inchworm” of some sort. Needless to say, I carefully looked over the branches I had trimmed to make sure I wasn’t displacing any other inhabitants (I didn’t see any). This is one of the reasons I usually leave the yard a bit untidy (okay, I guess that is a bit of an understatement) until March or so – you never know what is using those standing dead flower stems and branches as habitat.

An unidentified Geometrid moth larva on Beautyberry

I found another late caterpillar yesterday afternoon as I was mowing, a tussock moth larva. Wasn’t sure at first which species as it lacked the usual hair pencils (tufts of setae) on the front end. But, after looking at BugGuide, it must be a Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar. One of the experts on that site speculated that these larvae may lose the hair pencils as they near pupation.

Banded Tussock Moth larva (it is missing the anterior hair pencils)

It will be interesting to see how these and other yard invertebrates (like the few remaining orb weaver spiders) will survive the next few predicted cold nights. But no matter, it is getting to be that time of year where change is inevitable, but a few surprises may linger. And these are the only types of October surprises I am in the mood for right now.

Nice Earring

All walking is discovery. On foot we take the time to see things whole.

~Hal Borland

Green Treefrog 1

Green Treefrog clinging to a shrub (click photos to enlarge)

On a recent walk in the South Carolina Low Country, I spied a bright patch of color clinging to a limb on a blueberry bush – a Green Treefrog. I love the way these guys clutch vegetation during the day – in a tucked in position with a satisfied look in their intricately patterned eyes. I always stop and take a look whenever I see one, and usually grab a photo. I was lacking my usual macro set up so I just took one shot and was about to move on when I took a closer look.

Green Treefrog

Tiny snail clinging to the frog’s skin

What at first had looked like a piece of dead leaf on the side of the head turned out to be a very tiny snail hitching a ride, or at least hanging out, on the frog. I have seen some nice earrings with natural history themes, but this is one of the best.

Growing Up Green

Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.

~Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Just finished a very wet weekend with a wonderful family from the Netherlands down at Pocosin Lakes and Alligator River National Wildlife refuges. Since it was raining most of Friday afternoon, I didn’t even take out the camera. But Saturday morning was a bit more cooperative. I challenged the group to find Green Treefrogs in the vegetation along the canoe launch at Milltail Creek, and when we started finding one every few feet, I couldn’t resist snapping a few images.

Green treefrog juvenile

Juvenile Green Treefrog (click photos to enlarge)

As we looked, we found frogs of all sizes, from one inch long “juvies” to the mellow-looking adults. The smallest ones were recently transformed from the tadpole stage and showed the blunter nose of the juvenile frogs.

Green Treefrog young on leaf

Young Green Treefrog in the classic “I’m about to jump” pose

I kneeled down to get closer views of several frogs – I never tire of looking at these guys. There is something about their form that is so very appealing to the eye.

Green treefrog ARNWR

Adult Green Treefrog

And when eyeball to eyeball, I really appreciate these green beauties.

Green treefrog ARNWR closeup

Closeup of the golden eye of a Green Treefrog

Surprise Visitor

Frogs are strange creatures. One would describe them as peculiarly wary and timid, another as equally bold and imperturbable. All that is required in studying them is patience.

~Henry David Thoreau

My plans to post on moths during National Moth Week have been easily waylaid – it appears as though I am easily distracted whenever I go outside. And so it was yesterday afternoon. I was taking a few images of a couple of moths clinging to the screen porch when I noticed a flower blooming on the Jewelweed near the porch. I had thrown a few seeds out two years ago in a small patch of ground out back that normally stays damp due to runoff from the slope above. I had also planted a few Netted Chain Ferns and called it my backyard wetland. In actuality it is only about 5 feet across and tends to wither during times of dry weather, but it has produced a few interesting insects and an occasional hummingbird visitor. When I walked over to check out the flower, I was surprised to see an unusual visitor perched high on a Jewelweed stem – a Green Treefrog, Hyla cinerea.

Green Treefrog underside

Green Treefrog clinging to a Jewelweed stem (click photos to enlarge)

By day, they often perch on vegetation in a very sedate pose, their legs folded tight against their body. They can sit like this for hours and seem to blend into their chosen plant perch.

Green Treefrog side view

They often look like a swelling on a plant stem, until you give them a closer look

The unmistakable bright green color and the white “racing stripe” down the sides are distinctive for this species.

Green Treefrog back view

Green Treefrogs often have gold flecks on their backs

They frequently have small golden splotches on their dorsum, which may serve some camouflage function in a sun-dappled environment.

Green Treefrog head

The eyes of frogs and toads are incredibly beautiful up close

This is the first Green Treefrog I have seen at the house. And it comes as a bit of a surprise, since there are no wetlands up here on the hill. The closest suitable habitat is about a half mile down the power line, but I have never heard their distinctive “queenk” call anywhere out here. About a decade ago, I reported this species near a water garden at the place I used to live in Chatham County. That proved to be a new county record for this species, which is much more common in our Coastal Plain than in the Piedmont, although they seem to be expanding westward.

Green Treefrog closeup

The frog was calm as I photographed it from several angles and even got up close and personal to appreciate the details of its skin

This little guy was very calm, or, as HDT might say, imperturbable. I photographed it from several angles and it remained peaceful, thinking its froggy thoughts, or perhaps just pretending to be part of a plant. A close look revealed intricate details in the patterns of its eye and the folds of its moist skin.

Green Treefrog dark

This morning, my rare visitor had vanished

After about an hour, it started raining, so I reluctantly went back inside. This morning when I checked, my visitor had vanished. Whatever the reason, I am glad it paid a visit to my “wetland” and made me stop and appreciate its beauty. Now, about those moths…

Trip Report, Part 1: Pocosin Lakes-Mattamuskeet

I am in the middle of leading two  trips to my favorite places in NC РPocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. This is a brief visual report on the first. Last week, I had four great folks from the Raleigh area join me for a wildlife viewing trip. We started at Pocosin Lakes last Thursday and spent some time with some of the stars of the refuge this time of year РRed-winged Blackbirds, Tundra Swans, and my perennial favorites, the Black Bears.

Red-winged Blackbird flock over filed

Red-winged Blackbird flock over field (click photos to enlarge)

We started and ended our day with Red-winged Backbirds. There are huge flocks of these beautiful birds at the refuge in winter which provide a visual and audible delight to observers (and meals to a variety of predators). They roll across the fields as dark clouds, often fashioned into swirls by the movements of raptors such as Northern Harriers.

Red-winged Blackbird flock

Flashes of red from the shoulder patches of males in the Red-winged Blackbird flock

They change from twisting masses of dark feathers to spiraling flashes of red depending on the light and whether you have huge numbers of male Red-winged Blackbirds in the flock (the males have bright red shoulder patches that flash in the sunlight as they twist and turn in flight). The flocks also usually contain smaller numbers of other species of black-colored birds such as Common Grackles and Brown-headed Blackbirds.

Swan feather

Swan feather

Swan feather close up

Swan feather close up

We spent time photographing Tundra Swans flying out of Pungo Lake and watching Bald Eagles patrol the area for injured or weak waterfowl. But I am always looking for the small beauties on the landscape as well….a lone swan feather in a puddle caught my eye and deserved a closer look.

Black Bear sow and young

Black Bear sow and young

The day ended walking through the woods and listening to sounds of thousands of swans and Snow Geese on the lake. As we waited for the Snow Geese to hopefully come into the field (unfortunately, they only flew over) we were kept company by a few bears, coming out for their evening saunter.

Sunrise near Intracoastal Waterway bridge

Sunrise near Fairfield, NC

The next day was a full day spent at Mattamuskeet. Sunrise was over marshes near the Intracoastal Waterway on Hwy 94.

This is camouflage

American Bittern in its element

We were greeted at the entrance to Wildlife Drive with an expert in camouflage, an American Bittern.

Bittern close up6

American Bittern close up

Then another allowed some close viewing a few minutes later. These birds are a delight to watch and this refuge is one of the best places I know to find them.

Looking up in cy6press swamp

Looking up in a cypress swamp

Looking down in cypress swamp

Looking down in cypress swamp

Mattamuskeet provided great looks at a variety of waterfowl and scenery throughout the day. Clouds started to move in mid-day, providing a different perspective to the landscape.

Cypress in Lake Mattamuskeet

Bald Cypress in Lake Mattamuskeet

Back and white of impoundment

Clouds moved in and provided some interesting highlights to the scenery

Reed in ice along noardwalk

Reed in ice along boardwalk

There was still a lot of ice in the canals and swamp even as the temperatures warmed throughout the day. As the skies darkened with the promise of an upcoming storm front, we drove through the refuge one last time.

White Ibis fly-by 1

White Ibis fly-by

A large group of White Ibis kept our attention until one participant spotted something moving on the ground.

Green Treefrog 1

Green Treefrog

An unexpected January amphibian, a Green treefrog! It must have looked odd to passing cars as a group of five people squatted on the ground intently taking pictures of an unseen subject, but it was a great way to finish our experience – from birds to bears to frogs, it had been a great trip.