Archive for category Native Wildlife
Two weeks ago, Wonder Spouse and I vacationed on Oak Island, NC — a very southern NC beach that is still relatively undeveloped. As a child, I enjoyed family vacations here, so the area holds a special place in my heart.
Thirty-eight summers ago, I spent two wonderful months studying coastal ecology at Duke’s Marine Lab facility in Beaufort, NC, which is a good bit further north of Oak Island. During that summer, I learned the names of numerous coastal ecological communities, and I could identify the plants comprising those varied communities.
Until this recent vacation, beach trips have not given me reason to recall what I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab. But this year, we rented an extraordinary cottage that, while technically ocean-front, had a freshwater wetland pond between the house and the dunes. Native vegetation and wildlife abounded beyond my wildest dreams of what a beach cottage could offer. In short, Wonder Spouse and I were beyond delighted to spend numerous hours on the wooden walkway that crossed over the pond to the dunes watching and photographing some of the wildlife living there.
I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab that coastal ecology is fire-dependent. The various plant communities are healthiest when relatively frequent fires — originally caused by lightning, mostly — burned through the various communities, encouraging seeds of fire-adapted plants to germinate and re-exposing overgrown areas to more sunlight.
The dense mix of low-growing trees and shrubs entangled by myriad vines that grew between the beach house and the pond wetland contained a number of coastal plant species that I recognized, but the composition didn’t quite match the community descriptions I remembered. This may be, in part, due to the fact that I doubt these plants have experienced a fire in many years. Regardless, the low-growing trees and shrubs seemed healthy, and included familiar species such as Redbay (Persea borbonia), Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), Pond pine (Pinus serotina), and Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera) among others.
Growing over, around, and between these woody plants were numerous vines, including Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinqefolia) covered in flower buds, a grape I didn’t identify, Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), and Dune Greenbrier (Smilax auriculata) ornamented with myriad clusters of green berries.
Between the scrub forest and the pond, the ground was variably marshy. The dominant vegetation was a reed that I think was probably the invasive form of Phragmites australis. Closer to the scrub forest, the Phragmites was interspersed with ferns, especially Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), and a few patches of cattails (Typha latifolia), and mats of low-growing plants that I couldn’t get close enough to photograph.
Why didn’t I go charging into the underbrush and into the edge of the marsh, you ask?
We weren’t the only species that appreciated the diverse array of frogs, turtles, insects, and birds that abounded in this small wetland. We didn’t see the alligators the first few days we were there, but we did later. More on that shortly.
Before the alligators showed up late in the week, turtles of all sizes floated and basked in and around the pond. Great Blue Herons, White Ibis, and Great Egrets stalked the shallows and flew in groups overhead. An Osprey routinely hunted in the pond in front of a nearby beach house. Gulls, sandpipers, and long lines of Brown Pelicans flew overhead during daylight hours. Familiar songbirds from home foraged and nested in the scrub forest, including Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, and Brown Thrashers. Red-winged Blackbirds dominated the reeds in the marsh. Feisty males flashed their scarlet shoulder pads at us as they tried to hurry us along the walk and away from their harems of females nesting in the thick reeds. At night, numerous species of frogs croaked and trilled, drowning out the wave sounds of a calm ocean.
In the middle of the week, the turtles seemed to disappear, as did the wading birds. We spotted a large — at least seven-feet-long alligator cruising around the pond. As we stood on the walkway talking excitedly about it, it silently coasted into a position just beneath us. Only its massive head was visible above the water line. It seemed to dare us to dip a leg over the walkway. I got the heebie jeebies and went back to the house while Wonder Spouse took photos. He hasn’t processed them yet, so I can’t show them to you. Trust me, that creature was creepy. The young ones we spotted the next day were a tad less intimidating.
This younger alligator seemed content to float in the shallow end of the pond among the reeds. It allowed us to photograph it for quite a while.
We thought it was barely awake, until suddenly a large, long black snake leapt into the air, reaching for the top of the reeds. We hadn’t seen it, but this young alligator did. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this snake put three feet of air between its tail and the alligator’s mouth in a matter of seconds. We had no idea a black snake could make a vertical leap of that magnitude. It is a lesson I will not soon forget. And yes, the snake escaped; alligators are evidently not great leapers.
This smaller alligator was more colorful, which I read is characteristic of this reptile species when it is young. We could almost imagine how someone might think such a creature would be an interesting pet. Almost. The memory of its fully grown relative we had seen the previous day was still much too fresh in my mind to give such a thought even semi-serious consideration.
No, we didn’t spend our entire vacation watching the pond creatures. We made it onto the beach for long walks at sunrise and sunset, when the light was most interesting for photographs. The beach was littered with the bodies of jellyfish, which I was told was normal at this time of year. Intact shells were hard to find, except for tiny perfect ones, mostly overlooked by other beachcombers. I tried to photograph the Brown Pelicans as they arrowed into the ocean after fish.
We found a few young hermit crabs inhabiting tiny shells, like this one inhabiting an auger shell held by Wonder Spouse.
The most wonderful surprise came during a midweek sunrise walk on the beach. We spotted two women in a small vehicle; they were volunteers with the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, and they had just located and marked a new nest deposited by a female a few hours earlier. The tracks of the mother turtle as she laboriously pulled herself up above the high tide line and then returned to the sea were still visible, unmarred by pedestrian foot traffic. And most fortunate of all, I was carrying my camera.
The jellyfish that littered the beach are a favorite food of sea turtles, I’m told; Mother Nature’s timing was once again impeccable. All in all, it was a perfect week filled with natural wonders that this Piedmonter has either not seen often or never seen at all.
I missed my Piedmont gardens while I was away. But there is something deeply restorative about breathing salt air and meditating upon a tranquil sea at sunrise. The re-centering has come in handy now that I’m back in the Piedmont. My return week has been full of weeds, groundhog damage, and amorous black rat snakes. I’ll fill you in on all of that next time.
Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres of green chaos since 1989. We’re not in a subdivision. Our road was a country road to nowhere back then, with mostly small houses set back from the street a bit, adjacent to fields and forest. Subdivisions seem to multiply daily around us now; schools were built, water lines were laid, but our five acres remain — for now, at least — fairly secluded, thanks to the large creek that forms our eastern border. The land on the other side has been logged in the past, but likely because of its swampy nature, no one has tried to put houses on it.
We found our place in January, but I knew enough about piedmont forests and ecosystems to recognize that the snow-dusted landscape was special. Part of our land is an active floodplain; some years, the creek overflows across it up to a dozen times, turning our home into lake-front property for 12, sometimes 24 hours. One edge of our land shelters a remarkably healthy wetland, where Atamaso lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Lizard’s Tails, Cinnamon ferns, Sweetbay magnolias, and other southeastern US wetland natives thrive.
They were here when we moved in, and I’m delighted to report they are still here, and still thriving. The wetland plants are having a spectacular spring this year, likely due in part to a mild winter, and I think the beavers that have claimed the land on the other side of the creek have much to do with the improved vibrancy of the wetland communities.
My area is in a moderate drought, which usually means our creek drops to a trickle. Not this year. This year, the creek is deep, sluggish, and brimming with wildlife. A family of Canada geese raucously argues over the best swimming spots, their calls echoing up the hill where I pull weeds in my vegetable garden.
Mallards complain, quacking their disapproval, and until recently, female Wood ducks shrieked when suitors pressed a tad too ardently. I’m not hearing them anymore; I suspect they are sitting on nests. Every time I walk down for a closer look, I disturb at least one Great Blue Heron stalking the shallow edges of the pond. They rise, croaking in raspy voices that don’t match their elegant forms. Kingfishers patrol the creek, which has more — and larger — fish in it than we’ve seen in many years.
Dragonflies zip through the trees; frogs are less boisterous, likely because tadpoles teem in the shallows. Life abounds. And we get to live next door to it.
Recently, we showed a plant-loving friend our wetland treasure, knowing he would appreciate what some might perceive as a nuisance. His sharp eyes spotted caterpillars devouring willow leaves at the edge of the pond. They turned out to be caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly, a Monarch mimic that needs wetland food trees for its young.
This is my dream come true — living immersed in the natural world, where every day brings a new discovery, or the return of an old friend as another species pops up for the season. I feel deeply blessed to live in this place and this time while simultaneously worrying about how outnumbered my wild friends and I are these days.
Just a quarter mile away as the crow flies, a massive subdivision covering a thousand acres is nearly complete. Whole neighborhoods are getting group rates from insecticide companies that spray “safe” poisons throughout their yards to kill ticks, mosquitoes, and spiders on contact. On contact? Safe? Can anyone hope to touch, much less open, the minds of those so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that they think a dead, sterile landscape is an ideal?
All I know to do is to keep talking and writing about my green world, in the hopes that at least some of the plant blind — those who cannot distinguish, or can’t be bothered to distinguish, between a maple and a sweet gum, an ash and a walnut, a beneficial spider and a disease-carrying tick — will learn to see the beauty, wonder, and essential role of the natural world they so blithely ignore.
I’ll leave you with two final photos of small jewels native to my wetland and currently blooming there. Many of the photos in this post were taken by the amazing Wonder Spouse and his long lens. A number of the close-up shots are mine. Now that the wetland trees and shrubs are almost fully leafed out, we won’t be able to get many more good shots of the beaver pond, so I hope you enjoy these.
Maybe if every lover of the green world could crack open one plant-oblivious mind per month, maybe, just maybe, we could still salvage what is left.
The forecasters predicted my area could receive as much as 6-8 inches of dry snow on January 7, but warm air pushed up from the south, so we ended up with 2.5 inches of sleet and 0.5 inch of snow on top. Normally, this would have disappeared in a day or two, but this time the frozen precipitation was accompanied by record cold. With ice covering the ground at my house, our thermometer registered 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit one morning, and 7 degrees the next morning. Nighttime lows “warmed’ into the teens after that.
Snow plows concentrated on highways; my small road didn’t get plowed until January 10, and again several times on January 11. Wonder Spouse and I stayed home, enjoying the slowed pace of snow days, and entertained by the crazy drivers navigating our hilly road covered by a sheet of ice that had even 4-wheel-drive vehicles sliding precariously.
Wonder Spouse conducted business as usual via conference calls and computer links. I spent most of my time alternating between reading and wandering around the yard taking photographs. Hence, the rest of this post is mostly photos of a snowy landscape that melted in two days when 60-degree temperatures arrived on January 11.
January 8th dawned at 3.5 degrees, and the thermometer never rose above 26 degrees. I stayed indoors; this southerner is not adapted for such temperatures. It “warmed” to the low 30s on January 9, and the mid-30s on January 10, so I ventured out several times for photos.
I had not seen deer during daylight hours in my yard for several months — until the snow fell. A herd of five braved broad daylight to forage beneath the feeders several times each day.
I enjoyed attempting to parse the tales told by myriad tracks left in the snow. I’ve no idea how one discerns between tiny bird feet. Deer prints were numerous, complete with skid marks on the hills when they punched into the solid layer of sleet lurking just below the veneer of snow on top.
The growing beaver pond and wetland on the other side of our creek was bedazzled by ice during the arctic blast.
We were treated to a spectacular sunrise the next day.
I walked out to survey the road at the end of our driveway.
Sunset on January 10 was so vivid that even my southeast-facing view of our floodplain was highlighted by a pink evening sky, which appeared just as a nearly full moon climbed through the trees.
Finally on January 11, warm southern air surged in, and the great melting began, as you can see by the slumping ice on the solar panels on our roof.
My final shot is blurry, but I could not resist the power of that almost-full moon, as it admired its reflection in the melting creek waters.
We knew rains — significant rains — were promised for New Year’s Day, so Wonder Spouse and I took advantage of a mild New Year’s Eve Day to wander about our five acres. Mostly, we saw what we expected to see, but as always, there were a few surprises.
Our area hasn’t seen significant rain for over two months, and we’ve been labeled “abnormally dry” by the experts who monitor such things. Usually when this is the case, our floodplain dries out, the mud disappears, and the creek level drops to a trickle. But this hasn’t happened this time. Previous such episodes have taught us to suspect beavers.
As New Year’s Eve Day dawned, I realized I was seeing much more water than normal reflecting light on the floodplain opposite our side of the creek. It’s a tad hard to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but this is what I saw.
We pulled on our boots after the light grew stronger and got as close as we could to what turned out to be a growing beaver pond.
When I got in and looked at this next picture, I spotted a suspicious-looking structure on the right side.
I’m fairly certain that’s a beaver lodge in the middle of the pond on the right. Here’s a zoomed-in view.
The beavers are well on their way to creating a very large pond on our neighbor’s side of the creek. And today they got a lot of help — about 1.5 inches of rain, with a similar amount predicted for tomorrow. As night fell, our creek had reached the top of its banks. Even though the rain had stopped several hours earlier, the water was barely moving, thanks to the beaver dam downstream. More rain will certainly cause the creek to spill out onto our side of the floodplain — for how long remains to be seen.
It will be an interesting late winter and spring, if the pond is permitted to remain. The influx of waterfowl could be wonderful, and the last time the beavers did this, a few river otters moved in to enjoy the increase in fish and other aquatic life.
If 2016 taught me anything, it is that life is entirely unpredictable. It’s best, I think, to seek beauty anywhere I can, to savor it, celebrate it, and pray it wins out in the end. With that in mind, here are a few final beauty shots also taken this day.
Vultures, like these Turkey Vultures here, have an image problem. You know the cartoon cliché of a man dying of thirst in a desert, vultures circling, patiently waiting for the man to expire.
It’s true that vultures dine upon death, but without such scavengers, we would be up to our eyeballs in slowly decomposing bodies — assuming the corpse-eating bugs and microscopic life were at least still on the job.
This time of year, Turkey Vultures roost together in large numbers on the high-voltage power line towers about a half mile from my house. When morning temperatures rise above freezing, they lift off and often slowly circle over my house and the adjacent woodlands until they disperse in small groups to find a broken body for breakfast. As sunset approaches, they circle again overhead in increasing numbers until some tacit signal sends them all to their nighttime roost.
I think Turkey Vultures are excellent examples of creatures doing their best with the circumstances thrust upon them. Their naked heads may be practical — easier to clean — but let’s be candid — they are not breathtakingly beautiful birds. They remind me of bald old men — a bit cranky as they argue over a meal, or jostle for the sunniest spot on a winter-bare tree limb. Yet, they endure, and even thrive filling a vital ecological niche that ensures a less messy landscape for us, and survival for them.
And they know how to make the most of an unseasonably warm winter day. Yesterday was such a day at my house; the Turkey Vultures turned it into a spa day in and above the creek adjacent to my property. From my back deck, I had an excellent view as about a dozen of them gathered on sycamore branches leaning over the water.
One at a time, they took turns fluttering down to a wide sand bar. With wings slightly extended, each waded slowly into the water until only its head remained unsubmerged. Due to almost no rainfall in the last couple of months, the current is quite sluggish, so the birds were in no danger of being pulled downstream. Each bird would linger in this mostly submerged position for about 30 seconds, then slowly wade back up to the sandbar, and shake its feathers vigorously. It then fluttered back up to a low-hanging branch, fully extended its damp wings, and let the sun dry its feathers while another bird took its turn below.
Their pool party lasted about two hours, only ending when the sun dropped below the tree line, casting their sycamore perches into shadow. They lifted off, circled, and headed for the power line towers, having squeezed maximum enjoyment from an uncharacteristically warm winter’s day, and reminding me of the importance of grabbing the most joy I can from every possible moment.
Party on, Turkey Vultures, and thanks for the lesson in mindfulness.
New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) has always been a volunteer wildflower on my floodplain. That’s the native habitat for this passionately purple wildflower. This year when we built a new pollinator flower bed, I had an excuse to plant more ironweed. New York Ironweed tops out between five to eight feet, but I decided to try a taller species to plant behind some of the other flowers I added. I chose Vernonia gigantea ‘Purple Pillar.’
Purple Pillar is supposed to reach heights of nine to ten feet, but in its first year for me, it achieved about half that — not bad at all for a late-spring-planted newbie in a new flower bed. I planted two specimens; both bloomed profusely, attracting a wide array of native pollinators, including these:
Ironweed species native to my region of the southeastern US piedmont all bloom in late summer/early fall. Purple Pillars can theoretically bloom through October, but mine shifted to seed production by late September. I’m hoping that next year the plants will be larger and bloom even longer.
I didn’t do any formal record-keeping, but from my photos and my observations, it seemed to me that my ironweeds attracted a wider diversity of insects/arachnids than my enormously floriferous Joe Pye Weeds. Between these two species, I think just about every butterfly in my neighborhood found my new pollinator bed.
Although this wildflower naturally occurs in moist places, it is highly adaptable both in its moisture and light requirements. It will thrive in a typical flower bed. I pampered all my plants in my new pollinator bed with extra water this year, because they were just getting established. Next year, I’m hoping they will grow larger with no additional water from me — unless we are plagued with significant drought, of course. I’m certainly not going to let these beauties die from extreme weather conditions if I can prevent it.
At a distance or up close, covered in butterflies or standing solo, ironweeds are a native perennial wildflower that every piedmont gardener should grow. If you don’t have this species in your garden yet, plan on adding some next spring. You — and your local pollinators — will be glad you did.
I know that many of my readers are, like me, dedicated long-time gardeners. We speak fair botanical Latin. We know what we mean when we say “part sun,” or “drought-resistant.”
But we also see plenty of neighborhoods full of houses landscaped with lots of fescue lawns, perhaps a sad little tree or two stuck in the middle of the green expanse, and some evergreen shrubs planted along house foundations, often pruned into geometric shapes not found in nature. Many of you old-pro gardeners may not realize it, but living in many of those regimented-looking, nearly biologically sterile neighborhoods are folks who would like to do more with their yards. They want butterflies and birds, but they haven’t got any idea how to attract them. And they don’t know where to start.
That’s actually why I started writing this blog back in January 2011. And it’s why I volunteer at the plant help desk at the NC Botanical Garden. I enjoy sharing what I know, trying to make that information accessible to folks new to the southeast (They are legion.), or just new to gardening.
I’ve been telling my readers about the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale for several weeks now. It’s the weekend after this coming one, by the way. That sale can be a bit overwhelming to some folks, because an enormous array of native species is offered for sale — table after table of pots of various sizes, all organized alphabetically by their Latin names. There are signs for every species with photos of mature plants and their flowers, information on how big they will grow, what growing conditions they need. But, still, it can be hard to know where to begin.
Thus, I am delighted to share with you that, this year, the folks at the NC Botanical Garden will be making it a bit easier for less experienced gardeners to pick out plants suitable for their yards with two new features. First, I am working with the staff to develop lists of suggested plants for certain situations. For example, at a table on Members’ Night, you’ll be able to pick up a list of suggested natives — all for sale that evening — suited for a sunny pollinator garden to provide blooms throughout the growing season. This list won’t contain all the possible options; we intend these lists to be starting points. With the pollinator garden list in hand, you can find a plant on the list, read more about it on the sign on the table, and decide if it is something you want to add to your garden. There will be lists of plants that like moisture (as for rain gardens or pond or stream banks) and ones for dry areas too. Again, these lists won’t be exhaustive, but they will give you a place to start.
The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has come up with one other new feature that any gardener trying to add native food sources for our pollinator and other insects will appreciate. As Douglas Tallamy wrote in his now-classic Bringing Nature Home, without the native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses that insects eat during their larval stages, their adult stages will not be available to pollinate our crops, and birds and other animals will die if they don’t have these immature and/or adult insects to eat. An entomologist by profession, Dr. Tallamy compiled lists of which native insects rely on which native plant species. Many insects only eat one species of plant. If it disappears, so do they.
That’s why I think it’s wonderful that the staff of the NC Botanical Garden has created the sign above to inform customers about how many insect species rely on particular plant species. These numbers come from Dr. Tallamy’s research, so you won’t see these signs for every plant at the sale. But when you do see one, you’ll know that the plant in question plays a key role in our local native food chain. When you buy a native blueberry plant, you’ll get a beautiful addition to your landscape that will produce berries and lovely fall color; but you’ll also be increasing available food sources for native insects, birds, and other wildlife — a win-win all around!
I hope I’ll see many of you at the plant sale on Sept. 23-24. The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has worked hard to contextualize their offerings to make it easy for you to figure out what will work best for your landscape. Please come out and pick up some plants to feed your local natives — and to support the only public garden in piedmont North Carolina with the central mission of educating folks about the beauty and importance of native plants.