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Get to know some local chelicerates, from spiders to scorpions and pseudoscorpions

This is an excerpt from my article in the September – October issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available at local libraries, the NC Botanical Garden, plant nurseries, etc. and posted online at www.trianglegardener.com. This is the last part of the article. Also, the annual Big Sweep and UNC University Day trash clean-ups are coming up in October. Late September also seems to be the season when copperheads get on roads at night, often in the same places every year, and then can’t or won’t avoid traffic, possibly because they get too cold, and get killed. I carry a metal grabber so I can safely remove copperheads, but I often come across them too late. Note that people have been ‘bitten’ handling dead snakes.

I doubt that arachnophobia is innate, but I have long been disturbed by spiders. I used to be a bit creeped out just looking at the photos in the Audubon guide to insects and arachnids. When I was very young there were large, striped spiders in my backyard, perhaps rabid or dotted wolf spiders, and unfortunately I tried to kill them. I don’t remember going out of my way to knock down webs and some arachnids and spiders were less unsettling. I wasn’t really afraid of omnivorous daddy longlegs, also known as harvestmen or shepherd spiders, though I think I was bitten once. NC has many species of daddy longlegs. Later I volunteered in UNC’s invertebrate biology lab, and was asked if I wanted to hold the hairy, palm-sized tarantula. It had its legs tucked in and didn’t move, so it wasn’t very trying. On the other hand last fall I was disturbed when a brown orbweaver, spinning its, probably her, web at the front door on a breezy evening suddenly dropped down to anchor a line, revealing just how large and ‘spidery’ she was, legs outstretched. A few weeks ago I saw a pretty large wolf spider indoors. I was preoccupied at the time, so I let it stay inside temporarily as a beneficial animal, but I haven’t seen it since.

Insects have three body sections and six legs with five parts, while spiders have two body sections and eight legs, with seven parts. Crustaceans are arthropods with 10 legs and four antennae, but are accepted as food animals. Insects generally have a pair of compound eyes and three smaller simple eyes, while spiders have at most eight simple eyes, the arrangement and acuity varying by family. Moving a pencil tip around a corner attracts a sharp-eyed jumping spider, like a curious cat. Jumping spiders might also tend to be more intelligent than most spiders, especially those that specialize in hunting other spiders. Spiders use ‘hairiness’ for functions like sensing, in the absence of antennae; defense; etc. Spider chelicerae end with sharp, venom-injecting fangs and are sometimes toothed. The chelicerae and pedipalps just behind rub together to grind up prey, but spiders typically only consume pre-digested juices. Some spiders are actually omnivorous or even mostly herbivorous. Males can be identified by their clubbed pedipalps, used in mating. Many spiders engage in courtship and in most species males survive the attempt. It seems like arachnids are often longer lived than insects and spiders often mature later in the growing season. Spiders can go to an exposed point, such as the roof of a car, and release a long silk thread to catch the wind and balloon to a new location. Spiders typically make several kinds of silk, even a silk just for egg sacs. Medicine spider silk was once used to make a painkiller and clothes, bandages, and canvases for painting have been made with spider silk.

The NC Biodiversity Project website lists 713 arachnids in the state. LL Gaddy estimated in 2009 that there are around 600 spider species in the Carolinas. The Tuscarora orbweaver is only found in NC, including in Durham County. The spruce-fir moss spider is an endangered species found on peaks in the Appalachians.

At Falls Lake State Recreation Area there are black trapdoor spiders of some kind, resembling tarantulas. Actual tarantulas are considered a normal food animal in some cultures. Huge dark fishing spiders live around the park buildings, where I saw one kill an adult Carolina mantis. Smaller and more aquatic six-spotted fishing spiders, which actually have more than six spots, might be seen around Parkwood’s Euclid Pond on summer days, delicately moving on and sometimes under the surface. Species of elongated long-jawed spiders typically build their webs in vegetation at the edges of ponds and are common in the area.

Once I got lost in a scrubby forest behind Kure Beach, between Wilmington and the end of the Cape Fear River, where the water from Northeast Creek meets the sea, and was struck by the many large brown and yellow butterflies, probably giant swallowtails, flitting about. I was also struck by the numerous boxy webs inhabited by very large female golden silk orbweavers and much smaller males. It seemed like the spiders weren’t catching the similarly huge swallowtails, but I have seen other orbweavers capture a swallowtail or cicada. Golden silk orbweaver build their webs in stages and refurbished them a half at a time. I think I read that they have been found in Raleigh, but these spiders might have been brought back by vacationers. On the other hand with a warming climate they might extend their range inland. Southeastern NC is at the northern limit of their range, which extends to the Amazon. Male spiders often live near or in webs spun by females, but truly social spiders are limited to the tropics. There is also the case of introduced snakes killing off native birds in the tropical Pacific, leading to forests abnormally full of solitary spider webs.

Another large orbweaver is the yellow garden spider, known for the stabilimentum, a jagged line down their webs. In recent years I had some, the males staying near the females. One morning last summer a wrapped up and stored away and May beetle was waving a backleg and I peeled off the silk and freed it , apparently unharmed, but afterward the female left, as if taking umbrage, followed by her retinue, and I haven’t seen any since.

There are still one or more large brown nocturnal orbweavers, maybe Neoscona species, though it seems like they were more abundant many years ago. I saw one or two near porchlights over the summer, but not in recent weeks. Occasionally the large orbweavers are joined by much smaller conical spiders colored like liquid mercury, species of Argyrodes, co-habiting the webs as kleptoparasites, feeding on caught insects and possibly also on the orbweavers when they die in the fall.

Several smaller orbweavers can be seen during the day in wooded areas and yards and their webs can stick to people in late summer. This summer I noticed a few spiny orbweavers, white or yellow with somewhat colorful spots and ‘spines,’ the harmless spikes possibly providing some protection from birds. Their webs have prominent white dashes around the edges and in the center. More familiar Micrathena orbweavers are also spiny. It seems like triangulate orbweavers or something similar like to place their large webs across bottomland clearings. Triangulate orbweavers have a prominent white, yellow, or pink triangle on the top of their abdomen. Conical trashline orbweavers leave a vertical line of silky debris in their webs.

I sometimes see widows in webs around house foundations and in outbuildings. Female Northern and Southern black widows are large and black with bright red markings, but the smaller males look different and brown widows are moving north. Unrelated brown recluses are apparently not native to the Carolinas and are rare. These are the only venomous spiders regularly found in the Carolinas whose bites might cause serious effects. Some spiders are physically unable to bite humans and in general venomous animals won’t bite or sting if left alone and if they do, some have the option of injecting little or no venom.

I occasionally see green lynx spiders, relatively large and bristly spiders that hunt on plants, females turning from bright green to brown in the the fall. Aparently green lynx spiders fill an ecological niche similar to that of crab spiders. I see various crab spider species more often, usually lying in a wait on an upper leaf or flower, where they can be very colorful for camouflage.



Some resources:


Spiders of the Carolinas LL Gaddy, 2009

The Audubon Guide to North American Insects & Spiders [and other arachnids] Lorus and Margery Milne, 1992

North Carolina Biodiversity Project – Arachnids – www.nc-biodiversity.com/taxonomic-group/arachnids

Arachnids of NC, from the above site – auth1.dpr.ncparks.gov/arachnid/index.php .

Arachnids of NC checklist – auth1.dpr.ncparks.gov/arachnid/checklist.php?format=pdf

Biology of the Invertebrates, Fourth Edition Jan A Pechenik, 2000

The Life of the Spider John Crompton, 1954 – anecdotes

eco.confex.com/eco/2008/techprogram/P12401.HTM – a mostly vegetarian Central American jumping spider – information at the 93rd annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America

A review of the ethology of jumping spiders (Araneae, Salticidae) David B Richman and Robert R Jackson, 1992 – www.peckhamia.com/hosted/Richman%20Jackson%201992%20A%20review%20of%20the%20ethology%20of%20jumping%20spiders.pdf

Pseudoscorpions of the World – museum.wa.gov.au/catalogues/pseudoscorpions

Spiders of North-West Europe – ednieuw.home.xs4all.nl/Spiders/spidhome.htm

World Spider Catalog – wsc.nmbe.ch/statistics/

Global Biodiversity Information Facility – www.gbif.org

BugGuide – www.bugguide.net/

American Arachnological Society – Americanarachnology.org

International Society of Arachnology – arachnology.org

The Arachnid Order Solifugae – www.solifugae.info/index.html

AracnoLab – Aracnologia MNRJ – Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro – mndi.museunacional.ufrj.br/aracnologia/ – on daddy longlegs, harvestmen, or shepherd spiders

Jumping spiders (Arachnida: Araneae: Salticidae) of the world –www.jumping-spiders.com

International Field Guides – find a field guide by subject or region – www.library.illinois.edu/biology/fieldguides/

Grasshoppers and kin, the acoustic insects

The orthopterans – mainly grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets – are familiar and appealing insects, easily heard, if not seen, and sometimes colorful. They are active year-round and often prominent. Bird grasshoppers can be seen flying in deciduous woods and thickets on sunny late winter afternoons. By early April the buzzing flight, or crepitation, of small grasshoppers was audible in yards. On warm evenings in spring there is a loud, monotonous buzzing, undoubtedly from orthopterans. I first hear the familiar katydids of summer in late June, continuing towards first frost, long after the cicadas. Next crickets stand out. Compare how loud nights are in summer and fall to how silent they are, animal-wise, from late fall through spring, though a few crickets call on warm nights even then. There are also tree crickets and bizarre, fossorial mole crickets. There could be silent, sometimes non-native camel crickets indoors. 178 butterflies have been recorded in NC, versus 259 orthopterans (and almost 500 birds), and butterflies are probably the better surveyed group. Gardeners could invite orthopterans into wild or nocturnal gardens.

The Orthoptera (combining “straight” and “wing”) is one of the more ancient insect orders, with similarities to dragonflies. At one time it also included cockroaches, mantises, and walkingsticks. Orthoptera is divided into two suborders, grasshoppers (sometimes termed short-horned, many in the Acrididae family) versus katydids (or long-horned grasshoppers) and crickets, Caelifera and Ensifera respectively. Some short-horned grasshoppers are called locusts, from locus ustus, Latin for “burnt place,” describing the land picked clean by grasshoppers. Apparently cicadas have been called locusts since the late 1600’s, but cicadas are sucking insects in the order Homoptera, with tiny, colorful leafhoppers, treehoppers, and aphids. There are also leguminacious locust trees.

Orthopteran wings are pleated, folding like hand fans. Not all adult orthopterans have wings, but in general they have toughened forewings, or tegmina, protecting hindwings. Their calls are made by stridulation, rubbing their wings and/or legs, a very different method than that used by cicadas. Male orthopterans generally make calling songs and in some cases the females briefly reply. There can also be courtship songs, fight songs, and protest songs. Some orthopterans produce sounds by wing snapping in flight, crepitation, or by drumming their hind legs against the substrate they rest on. Females have ovipositors, often prominent and sometimes brightly colored in katydids and crickets, which they use to hid their eggs underground or in plant tissue; most grasshopper species lay their eggmasses in the soil. Orthopterans grow through simple metamorphosis, the nymphs resembling adults, just wingless and having possibly cute proportions. Hoppers’ big eyes and deliberate movements might also be appealing.

There is growing talk of dietary changes being necessary for sustainability, and orthopterans have long been on the menu. They have relatively soft exoskeletons and look meaty, with 50-75% crude protein in grasshoppers and katydids, though I wonder how arthropods could be killed humanely. I ate a tasty assortment of salted insects, including orthopterans, I received one Christmas.

This is an excerpt from my article in the May – June issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available in print at local libraries, stores, and gardens and posted online at www.trianglegardener.com.


Some guides and sources:



The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders. Milne, Lorus and Margery, 1992.

Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States. Capinera, John L, Scott, Ralph D, and Walker, Thomas J, 2004.

How to Know the Grasshoppers, Cockroaches and Their Allies. Helfer, Jacques R, 1953.

auth1.dpr.ncparks.gov/orth/index.php – Orthoptera of North Carolina

nc-biodiversity.com – The North Carolina Biodiversity Project [Orthoptera of NC is a subsidiary of this project]

www.bugguide.net

songsofinsects.com

Orthsoc.org/sina – Singing Insects of North America [covers crickets, katydids, and cicadas; created by the Orthopterists’ Society]

Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. Jeffrey A Lockwood, 2005

roadsendnaturalist.com [a blog in Chatham County with some orthopteran photos]

www.carolinanature.com/insects/ [another Triangle blog with some photos]

Explore upper New Hope Creek around Johnston Mill Nature Preserve

The Triangle Land Conservancy’s Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, established in June 1999, protects 296 acres along upper New Hope Creek. Much of the Triangle is in the New Hope basin, including major tributary Northeast Creek, and most of the Jordan Lake reservoir, a source of water for several municipalities, sits in the valley of the New Hope River. The lower end of New Hope Creek meanders across wide bottomlands in the Triassic Basin, while at Johnston Mill the Creek, still surprisingly wide, is clear and rocky like the Eno and there are stony remains of gristmills. I didn’t see any fish when I visited in mid-February, though I also didn’t make a special effort to find them, but this should be a good place to watch fish building their nests and spawning in the spring and early summer. In February a spring bloom of algae grew on cobbles in shallow sections with the increasing warmth and daylength. Much of the surrounding forest is not especially old, though there are some large and old trees, but it still shelters many rare to threatened species and is very biodiverse; for example more than 125 bird species have been seen and there many species of early-blooming and often very uncommon woodland wildflowers. The mix of fields and old to young forest, ranging from dry hilltops down to riparian edges, heightens biodiversity and the Preserve roughly links segements of Duke Forest for species that need large areas of contiguous forest. Being just north of Chapel Hill and near Durham, this seems to be one of the TLC’s busier preserves, especially near the Mount Sinai Road entrance. I found someone’s painted #Rockhunt cobble hidden between two trees far out on the Old Field Bluff Trail.

The reddish soil has numerous rocks, metamorphic or maybe igneous, unlike the generally sedimentary and relatively soft bedrock laid down in the Triassic Basin. Jagged outcroppings, a few supporting Polypodium ferns, and exposures in creek beds reveal vertically upturned bedrock.

The TLC says Johnston Mill has beech up to 150 years old, and there are large oaks. White and Northern red oaks, along with red maples, are common on the hilltops while lower down there are large, uncarved beech and May-blooming tuliptrees, above summer-blooming sourwoods. Elsewhere sycamores, hackberries, sweetgums, shagbark and other hickories, sugar maples, ash, and three species of pine grow above ironwood, hophornbeam, red cedars, black cherries, and occasional hollies. Black walnuts are most frequent in the younger woods in the northwest of the Preserve, along a high-tension powerline, where the forest intergrades with rural farmland and a few houses. Large lianas dangle from the canopy, including grapes and trumpetcreepers, attracting hummingbirds. These massive vines probably grew together with the original woody old field pioneers, such as the tuliptrees and sweetgums. Early-blooming spicebush and painted buckeyes grow near the streams, especially in the northwest section of the Preserve. There might be fringetrees, which bloom later in April. Elms, almost ready to bloom when I last visited, and a few boxelders and birch border the creeks. Throughout the Preserve what must be crownbeard, a tall yellow composite flower that blooms in late summer, is abundant and there are the stems of last summer’s mullein, mint, millkvine, dogfennel, nightshade, and broomsedge. The NC Natural Heritage Program’s inventory of significant natural areas in Orange County says “this is one of the most pleasing forest areas of its size in the county” and “The diversity of spring-blooming herbs is also extremely high and of great aesthetic value,” and includes early-blooming Hepatica, trout lilies, rue anemones, spring beauties, toothworts, jack-in-the-pulpit, and very rare Catesby’s trilliums (I don’t think I have ever seen any trillium species growing wild). Evergreen Christmas ferns, mosses, clubmoss, wild ginger, and May-blooming pipsissewa stood out in the leafless winter forest.

Shortly after walking in from the Turkey Farm Road entrance I saw a golden-crowned kinglet fluttering, gleaning the bare twigtips, a rare sight for me, though maybe not the first time after all, and it was just where Liz Pullman’s write-up for the Carolina Bird Club says to look for them ( www.carolinabirdclub.org/birdingnc/johnston_mill.html ). A belted kingfisher loudly patrolled along New Hope Creek. I saw, heard, or found evidence of 4 to 5 woodpecker species, white-breasted nuthatches, thrushes, hawks, barred owls, turkey vultures, brown thrashers, white-throated sparrows, what I think were savannah sparrows, possibly a phoebe, and several other species. Many warblers, both summer and scarlet tanagers, flycatchers, vireos, and other birds not often seen in yards can be seen in the bottomlands, especially during migration. Turkeys, bobwhites, hawks, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, and similar blue grosbeaks can be seen in the open areas. According to the NC Natural Heritage Program Inventory 21-23 species nested near Old Field Creek annually during the 80’s, including the more montane broad-winged hawks and worm-eating warblers.

Catawba rhododendrons, galax, trailing arbutus, saprophyte sweet pinesap, and foamflowers (another wildflower I have only seen cultivated) grow a short distance downstream in Duke Forest, at least partially accessible from Mount Sinai Road. There more typically western and montane plants, nesting cedar waxwings, red salamanders, and large red sumo mites meet more eastern dwarf waterdogs, yellow-bellied sliders, and snail bullheads.

Eastern chipmunks live in Duke Forest if not here, and the leafy nests of gray squirrels were very visible in late winter. A dog off-leash flushed out three or more hidden deer, and a small herd stood by Turkey Farm Road in the twilight as I left; the deer warning signs in the area are very appropriate. There were signs of beavers; river otters live in parts of New Hope Creek, possibly including Johnston Mill.

It was sunny and cold, but what were probably upland chorus frogs sang briefly near the Turkey Farm Road bluff in early afternoon. It didn’t feel that cold, but the temperature might have been in the 30’s and the wind picked up later. Marbled and spotted salamanders, Northern cricket frogs, and others breed in the bottomland while four-toed salamanders and gray petaltails, rare and primitive dragonflies, breed in hillside seeps. I saw a pickerel frog, similar to a leopard frog but earth-colored, with rectangular spots, and poisonous to other frogs, in rural Orange County when I was very young and never again anywhere else, though they can supposedly be found statewide, and they have been seen hereabouts. I am also impressed that queen snakes, a species more common in western NC and specializing in crayfish, especially recently molted, ‘soft-shelled’ ones, can be found downstream in Duke Forest.

Despite the lingering cold I found some arthropods, a small brown ant and small gray spider, as well as a large mantis eggmass, possibly from a Chinese or praying mantis, and many hackberry leaf galls. Getting to Johnston Mill small yellow daffodils, brilliant blue bluebirds, and a thrush were out as spring approached.

This is a re-edited excerpt from my article in the March – April issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available at local libraries, gardens, and stores and also posted online at www.trianglegardener.com.
For a trail map, etc. see: www.triangleland.org/explore/nature-preserves/johnston-mill-nature-preserve

Seasonal Nature Notes for winter

This is a revised version of an article I wrote for Cathy Starkweather’s South Durham Green Neighbors Newsletter, posted each month on the sdgreenneighbors Googlegroup (there is also a Facebook group), outlining some of the natural sights and wonders people can look out for this winter.

Seasonal Nature Notes

Despite the cold winter weather, some plants regularly or potentially bloom in December. East Asian camellias bloom in yards from fall into spring, depending on the variety. They don’t seem very attractive to insects, but yellowjackets check them out in the fall. Red maples can start blooming well before spring and when they do small insects can be seen flying around the canopy on relatively warm days.  Many years ago pastel pale blue bluets bloomed in December outside Eno River State Park’s main office, though they normally bloom months later. Peaches on the south-facing side of Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough also bloomed in winter that year and still developed fruit. There were cold temperatures that winter, and there were frigid and icy mornings on the shaded north side of the small mountain. I was surprised to see a white atamasco or Easter lily, usually a flower of mid-spring, blooming near Little Creek in Orange County in early November 2020, after herbaceous brush had been cleared. Hepatica, a pale lavender to blue, and occasionally white or pink, early spring woodland wildflower often found on rocky hillsides, can bloom in January or February if not December. Witch-hazel, a diminutive relative of sweetgums, also might bloom on hillsides around now. This is also a good time of year to look for evergreen mistletoe, a semi-parasitic bush growing in the bare treetops. It is common on silver and red maples near the intersection of Sedwick and Revere roads and it often appears on oaks along city streets in downtown Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, and Raleigh. It seems to be most common in built up areas but sometimes grows on red maples around beaver ponds and large waterways. It was unusual to see one high in a Northern red oak surrounded by other trees at Cary’s Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, near but not immediately next to Swift Creek. There are a few deciduous tree species that mistletoe seems to prefer, but it can grow on a range of native and non-native trees. Recently I have been admiring the shape of the fallen leaves, especially those of Spanish or Southern red oaks. There are many species of oak, each with a different leaf shape, and the form of each leaf is individual, depending on how shaded it was, its history during the growing season, etc. Oaks are among the last trees to lose their leaves, probably finishing in early December, and some oaks and other trees regularly retain their earth-colored dead leaves until spring, at least when young. The whitish paperlike leaves of related American beech, increasingly common in Parkwood, are picturesque in brilliantly lit deciduous woods in winter. Lingering winged seeds can be seen in the skyscraping crowns of bare tuliptrees along Northeast Creek and the sweetgum gumballs won’t fall off for a few more months and attract seedeating birds during the winter. Fruit might linger on plants such as greenbriars, hollies, hawthorns, and Japanese privet while December is likely too late for the last American and Asian persimmons. Apparently cedar waxwings can be poisoned during the winter by the red fruit of Nandina, an East Asian shrub with compound leaves.

It seems like live oaks drop their acorns in winter and other oaks might still be scattering the last of their acorns in early December. The official Landscape Manual for Durham recommends against planting Virginia live oaks, native along the coast into Virginia, but those growing around the old Parkwood Shopping Center, at the intersection of Revere and Seaton roads, don’t appear to have any problems with damage from cold temperatures or ice and their acorns, very abundant under the trees around now, sprout if scattered in yards while still viable. The only drawback might be that they grow slowly, at least when somewhat shaded. Live oaks are evergreen, hence their common name, but might have fewer leaves during the winter. Young oaks of many species are often semi-evergreen or retain dead leaves in winter, and water oaks, which are native to Durham and have reached a pretty large size in some yards and on the UNC campus, are a little closer to being evergreen. This is another native oak Durham seems to unfairly malign, claiming that it is prone to “untreatable decay,” and they have problems with the supposedly “exotic” pin oak, which seems to be native in central NC if not Durham. They did not seek public input before updating the manual in 2020. Oaks often turn red in the fall, some species strikingly so, but when fallen leaves are picked up they are usually more brown than red.

This is a good time to look for migratory waterfowl, including American coots, pied-billed grebes, ring-billed gulls, non-resident Canada geese, and ducks such as black scoters, long-tailed ducks, and mergansers. Some species, such as hooded mergansers, can stay well into the spring and might breed here but it seems like the majority of the migrants fly north by or in February. I like to look for them at Crabtree Lake in Cary but they also visit Parkwood Lake, large stormwater ponds, the waterfowl impoundments, and sometimes even small beaver ponds (see my February 2014 article at www.northeastcreek.org/wordpress/784/ ). I sometimes spot unusual shorebirds, terns, etc. at various times at the large reservoirs, but only one or a few at a time and it is easier to search smaller lakes. Migrating shorebirds can also turn up on dry shorelines around small beaver ponds. Small flocks of colorful wood ducks can be seen in Northeast Creek now, but they are very wary and I usually only catch a glimpse as they shriek and fly off. Woodcocks or just their tracks and probings can be found along waterways in winter, though I might see them more often in late winter than now. Seeing a well-camouflaged woodcock usually means not seeing it until one gets close and it flies away, though maybe not with quite the speed of a wood duck. Flocks of turkeys and their tracks can also be found in bottomlands in winter; despite their reputed wariness about 20 landed above me in a swampy area after sunset on a Thanksgiving Day, and I think they didn’t fly off as I left. Maybe they were experienced enough to know I wasn’t hunting. According to John K Terres they roost over water for protection from great horned owls and presumably other predators. Woodcocks start displaying around January and the NC Botanical Garden usually has excursions to see their displays, rising 300 feet in the air above open areas at nearby Mason Farm Biological Reserve as night falls. Barred owls, bald eagles, and hooded mergansers are among the birds that can begin to breed in December or January. The plaintive calls of yellow-bellied sapsuckers are a common winter sound in Parkwood. These migratory woodpeckers spend winter here, chiseling rows of holes in many tree and shrub species for sap; they also eat insects. They breed further north and at high elevations in Western NC. Other birds and insects also visit sapsucker holes, potentially including overwintering butterflies. Wounded trees, as well as fruiting persimmons,are good places to look for butterflies in the fall. The ground can be heavily littered with fruit under untended pear trees, but in my experience they don’t seem very attractive to butterflies and other insects, or maybe it is late in the season.

Winter is also a good time to observe some insect life stages, such as the egg masses of mantises and Eastern tentworms and the large cocoons of some giant silk moth species. I frequently see large cocoons dangling from the twig tips of birch planted around buildings. Some species attach their cocoons to the twigs while others allow their cocoons to fall with the leaves, one reason it is important to leave fallen leaves. For example, both promethea or spicebush and tuliptree silk moth caterpillars can be found on tuliptrees, but promethea caterpillars usually spin their cocoons so they won’t fall while tuliptree moths let them fall. Related polyphemus moth caterpillars usually either travel to the ground to pupate or fall with the leaves. Sometimes they do attach their cocoons to twigs, and these might be the cocoons I see on birch. This group of very large moths can be found in Parkwood and there are plants for their caterpillars, but they seem more abundant in places like UNC and Falls Lake. Insects have many ways of surving winter and one frigid winter morning I jostled a holly and very small green inchworm caterpillars dangled on silk, though the ground below was hard with ice. At other times I have seen insects and spiders out as snow melts. Carolina wrens and other birds can be seen investigating lingering dead leaves. The various species forage in different ways, searching the tips of branches or along trunks and working in different directions, avoiding competition. Galls created by insects or other organisms can be seen on the stems of goldenrods and other plants. Under hickories carefully pruned twigs can be found, cut off by twig girdling beetles. The round exit holes of weevil grubs can be seen in this year’s acorns and other nuts. Don’t bring eggs masses, cocoons, etc. indoors for long or they might hatch early, with disastrous results. It is now safe to examine the nests of social paper wasps, often hidden in brush or under eaves and bald-faced hornet nests suspended from tree branches. I sometimes find the tiny mud vases of solitary potter wasps hidden in closed up wild carrot or Queen Anne’s lace seedheads. Even on what seem like freezing nights some moths can be on the wing, as well as bats. I found a large gray hoary bat roosting at ground level on the outside of UNC’s Greenlaw building one day in mid-January. During warm spells hibernating butterflies and moths can appear and in some cases last year’s caterpillars emerge as adults, possibly too early. Black swallowtail butterflies, especially males, frequently hatch when it seems too early, and it might have been on a night at the end of a warm spell in December, with the wind picking up as a cold front approached, that I saw a large pastel green luna moth unseasonably fly by a streetlight at Eno River State Park.

Depending on the weather early spring frogs can start singing in December. I sometimes hear individual frogs call quietly on mild, cloudy days in the fall and while species such as upland chorus frogs are so loud in late winter and early spring it might be easier to actually see them in the fall and summer. Marbled salamanders silently court and lay eggs in dry depressions in early fall, females guarding their eggs until these vernal pools fill up. The dark brown or black larvae with a collar of frilly gills can be seen, developing front legs first, unlike frog and toad tadpoles. What are probably marbled salamander larvae can be seen in the bottomlands around Northeast Creek and in puddles next to some nearby roads. Like frogs and toads they can breed in pools created by human activity, though they seem to prefer ‘wilder’ pools. Construction destroyed some nearby breeding pools and might have killed off the adults and they also get killed crossing roads to reach their customary breeding locations. Closely related spotted salamanders breed later, dancing underwater in the now brimming pools, and their larvae can be prey for the older marbled salamander larvae. At least in the case of spotted salamanders breeding adults prefer to return to their natal pool, and can follow the same route every year. I haven’t ever found an adult spotted salamander myself, so as far as I know they aren’t found in southern Durham County, but I occasionally find marbled salamanders hidden under debris on moist hillsides near creeks. Spotted salamanders famously breed in large vernal pools at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and there are usually tours, which fill up quickly. One or more small salamander species can be found in Parkwood’s streams, possibly only breeding there, but they are well hidden or uncommon so I rarely see them. Salamander biodiversity is very high in North Carolina but they are usually not as conspicuous as frogs and toads.

I think of lizards as animals of summer but Carolina or green anoles are easy to see in the fall and winter. I first noticed them in Parkwood about 10 years ago and several moved into my yard in the summer of 2020. I wonder if this is a sign of climate change, but they were known in Chapel Hill by at least 1995 and according to roadsendnaturalist.com/2021/09/05/yard-mystery/ anoles have lived in that part of Chatham County for at least decades. I started seeing them in Orange County around the same time as in Parkwood and a few years ago they were common in places at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area. I haven’t seen them further north near the Eno, though Falls Lake is a rich in reptiles, including species that I had not realized live in the piedmont. Despite changing color to match their surroundings, anoles are conspicuous and I would have noticed if many had been living around here. Last fall and winter I would often see them on sunny south-facing walls and an air-conditioning unit, even in December, and I was afraid that they might not survive the winter, but they did and were out again this year. Fence lizards live or lived at Parkwood Elementary School, spiraling around trees to escape capture, but otherwise seem very rare in this part of the Triangle. They are common in places at Falls Lake State Recreation Area. I found one near the Eno on a cold, wet day, probably in late fall or early winter, but it seemed dangerously chilled. I can’t recall seeing any skinks out in fall or winter.

The Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice is Tuesday, December 21st this year, when the night will be longest. Daylength changes little from day to day close to the solstice, but changes faster closer to spring. I thought the first frost was usually in mid-November, and that was the case this year, but some sources ( such as gardening.ces.ncsu.edu/average-first-and-last-frost-dates/ ) say it is earlier. We can get significant snow in December, but the coldest temperatures are usually in the New Year, in late January, when snowstorms are more likely and snow and ice can linger. The Earth’s orbit actually takes us closest to the Sun during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, but the Earth’s tilt reduces the amount of heating produced by the Sun’s rays and it takes time for the land and oceans to warm or cool. For a few years it seemed like we often had balmy weather in late December. So far mild to warm weather is forecast for much of early December.

Winter is the best time to see atmospheric phenomena created when sun or moonlight interacts with ice crystals in motion, in clouds such as cirrus and cirrostratus, though optical phenomena can appear in any season. There are many kinds, including various haloes around the Sun or Moon, often indicating approaching stormy weather; sun and even moondogs, also called mock suns/moons and parhelia/paraselene, on one or both sides of the Sun or Moon; circumzenithal arcs, like rainbows in the center of the sky; and many other kinds, ranging from relatively common to very rare. Around midday on about November 15, 1996 the sky over southern Durham seemed to be full of lines and I wonder if anyone else noticed. That might have been when I first noticed sundogs. There are also the optical effects created by water droplets; rainbows are more common in the summer, but coronas often form around the Moon when it shines through a thin bank of the mid-level cloud altocumulus.

With the Sun setting early and the trees bare, this is also a good time to see both the colorful sunset in the west and the bands of color in the east as we enter the Earth’s shadow.

The night sky is also interesting and the sky is often limpid if burning cold in winter. Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mercury will be plainly visible in the evening and Uranus and Neptune will be visible through binoculars. Before dawn on the 31st the delicate, gleaming white waning crescent Moon, reddish Mars, and the reddish star Antares, in the heart of the constellation Scorpius, will appear close together low in the southeast. Scorpius appears shortly before the Sun rises now, but is up much of the night during the summer. Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) might become bright enough to be visible to the unaided eye, after having spent tens of thousands of years approaching the inner solar system. On the 17th Comet Leonard will appear near Venus. There are other comets in the sky as well, but they are not expected to become very bright. Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt, will be visible using binoculars in the constellation Taurus. It was the first asteroid discovered, January 1, 1801, and could harbor extraterrestrial life.

There are several annual meteor showers, mostly weak, with only a handful of meteors per hour on average, or even fewer. Some but not all of the showers potentially visible now are listed below, based on David H Levy’s The Sky: A User’s Guide, the American Meteor Society’s website (see below), and other guides. The Southern Taurids already peaked, but can be seen until December 2nd; they are relatively slow-moving and often form bright fireballs. The Northern Taurids are also supposed to end December 2nd. Meteor showers are named for the constellation they appear to radiate from, in this case Taurus, but they can be seen looking elsewhere in the sky. The Leonids are visible November 3rd to December 2nd, peaking November 18th, and these meteors have the greatest speed of any annual shower. Andromedids appear occasionally but not every December and the AMS says this shower ends December 2nd. The Monocerotids can be seen until December 26th, peaking on the 11th. The Geminids are supposed to be the strongest meteor shower of the year, visible December 4th – 17th peaking early on the 14th. The Geminid and Leonid showers are strongest, especially the Geminids, but the Moon and light pollution can lower the count even if it is a clear. Showers can vary in strength and some occasionally produce extraordinary storms of meteors. There is a Leonid storm every 33 years. The Ursids are visible December 17th – 26th and peak on the 22nd. The Coma Berenicids are visible until December 23rd and peak December 15th. The Quadrantids, named for Quadrans Muralis a superseded constellation bordering the Big Dipper or Ursa Major in the north, are visible December 28th – January 7th and peak briefly on January 3rd. Some years I’ve tried to see all of the main showers. 

Satellites and sometimes larger objects, such as the very bright International Space Station, can be seen passing slowly overhead (some of the websites below give the dates and times when the ISS and other objects transit over the area). It is easy to see satellites early in the night and in the pre-dawn hours, when they are bathed in sunlight while we are in shadow. Huge numbers of satellites, mainly “constellations” of communications satellites, are being sent into low Earth orbit now, a growing problem for astronomers and other satellites.

Some of Parkwood’s green areas are good places for stargazing, but are closed at night, though I suggested to  the Parkwood Association that it would be good to have places to look at the sky. There are also more streetlights, but it is possible to request that they be better shielded or removed altogether ( the contacts were listed in the Association’s newsletter a few years ago). Despite streetlights the areas around Revere and Seaton roads; places along Highway 54, such as the watershed between Northeast and Crooked creeks, topped by Barbee Road; large ponds and lakes; and possibly Southpoint Mall, despite all of its lights, have good views down towards the horizon. The Jordan Lake Wildlife Observation Site off Martha’s Chapel Road and the nearby gamelands don’t seem to have closing times and state parks are open all night for campers. CHAOS, the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society, organizes local events and trips to darker locations and Morehead Planetarium at UNC hosts events.


Stargazing:

Heavens-above.com
spaceweather.com
skyandtelescope.com
astronomy.com
amsmeteors.org
chaosastro.org
moreheadplanetarium.org
spacewatchtower.blogspot.com

Atmospheric optical phenomenon:

atoptics.co.uk
atoptics.wordpress.com

See also the Audubon and Peterson weather/atmosphere guides; the Peterson guide has diagrams showing many of the optical effects.

Late summer soothsayers

In late July or early August last year I walked under a hackberry sapling in my backyard and thought, surely I won’t look up and see an arboreal rough green snake. Instead I was surprised to find a large green and brown mantis, and it was there almost every day through mid-September. The hackberry attracted a species of large, blueish-gray plant-sucking true bug, and the mantis ate those, and then cicadas, putting on weight. It stalked large dragonflies that perched on dead twigs but I never saw it catch one (it also stalked small katydids, but I’m not sure if it caught any). At night it rested, often upside down, its ‘beady’ green eyes turning black. Earlier that summer I saw a beautiful green nymph that might have been the same mantis. The adult was probably a female Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), but it could have been a narrow-winged or Japanese mantis (Tenodera augustipennis), or a praying or European mantis, which is actually only one kind (Mantis religiosa). Later I found an eggcase, resembling that of a Chinese mantis, on a low plant nearby and nymphs are around again this year. There were also Carolina mantises (Stagomantis carolina), a small, mottled gray species with bright orange markings. One spent a night just before Halloween on a red maple snag covered with morning glories vines. There are more than 2500 species, and over 11 in the USA (and introduced species might be harming native mantises). Mantises or mantids were classified with grasshoppers as orthopterans and then given their own order, Mantodea. Mantises are closest to cockroaches and termites, and they can all be grouped together as dicytopterans.

Also in the area there are much smaller but also predaceous mantisflies, which resemble a cross between a mantis and a wasp or fly, but they are neuropterans like lacewings and antlions.

Mantis comes from Greek for prophet, and mantises are charismatic creatures worldwide. Here they have been called soothsayers, rearhorses, devil-horses (god-horse in the Caribbean), praying locusts, and mulekillers, because their dark saliva was thought to be poisonous (and blinding). In the Southwest they were called campomoche and cortón, rezadora, or just mantis in Spanish. A Japanese name is kamakiri, which appears to combine sickle and “to cut,” but this is a guess about the etymology. Another name is tōrō. T. augustipennis is called Chōsen [Korea] kamakiri in Japanese while T. sinensis is ōkamakiri (presumably big mantis). Praying mantis is la mante religieuse or prie-Dieu in French and Gottesanbeterin in German. A dictionary from ancient Assyria calls them necromancer or soothsayer-grasshoppers. In ancient Egypt the bird-fly was thought to guide the dead and in ancient Greece mantids directed lost travellers. The Southern Africa trickster god !Kaggen could appear as a mantis inspiring an Afrikaans word for mantis, Hottentotsgot. Mantids were apparently more closely observed in East Asia than in Europe and inspired two Chinese martial arts. Mantises appear on ancient Greek coins and in modern monster movies. People today talk about being abducted by mantislike beings. The Carolina mantis is South Carolina’s state insect while Connecticut’s is the praying mantis. Mantises are also popular as insect pets.

This is an excerpt from my article in the July – August issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available at many libraries, public gardens, and gardening-related stores in the Triangle and posted online at: www.trianglegardener.com

Some resources:

A key to the mantises of Florida, but useful elsewhere:

entnemdept.ufl.edu/choate/mantid_key2_03.pdf

Carolina mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/4821

Praying mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/22947

Chinese mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/12409 

Narrow-winged mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/22947

Asian jumping mantises (recently found in Virginia and north apparently):

bugguide.net/node/view/1738253

animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Stagmomantis_carolina.html/ (Carolina mantis)

animaldiversity.org/accounts/Tenodera_aridifolia/ (Chinese mantis listed under an old classification or a closely related species)

“Praying mantids of the United Statesn, native and introduced,” a detailed article in the 1950 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution:

www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/8787514#page/408/mode/1up

“Another Oriental mantis well established in the United States” in the 1933 Entomological News:

www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/20315#page/9/mode/1up

Japanese insect website with many photos:

www.insects.jp/konbunkama.htm

The remarkable “Bark Flowers”

In the early 90’s an educational website, I think associated with NOVA and on the Prodigy service, had a series of possibly tongue-in-cheek articles about the abilities of a hypothetical pet slime mold, so I wanted to find one of these strange creatures. Several years later first saw one, on an old stump in deep shade along Crooked Creek near what is now Southpoint Mall. More recently in late May one year I saw some on shredded wood or bark mulch in front of the Raleigh Convention Center, in a very built-up area of downtown Raleigh. This mulch, and possibly old pine logs, seem to be favored habitats. I usually see them around now, when it is warm but still moist. There was enough rain last summer that I found some later than usual and for the first time in my yard. All of these might have been bright yellow scrambled-egg slimes (Fuligo septica), once called bark flowers and unusual in extreme bioaccumulation of zinc, used in a pigment. The many-headed slime (Physarum polycephalum) is a stereotypical slime mold popular in research. I might have seen light red wolf’s-milk or wood-loving slimes (Lycogala epidendrum) on a pine log at Falls Lake State Recreation Area. I’m not sure if I saw a fungus or chocolate tube slime, also called pipecleaner or deep-brown slime (Stemonitis splendens) and others, on pine logs at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area. There are hundreds of species in North America but there might be around 50 in a given region, many described in the Audubon mushroom guide. Diversity is highest in temperate areas, and slimes can live in the treetops, snow, underwater, and even in deserts. They are no longer consider fungi and don’t seem particularly slimey. Despite their sometimes loud colors, slimes are usually inconspicuous organisms, but still have cultural connections to humans and other ecological connections. A plasmodial slime mold is basically a giant cell, without nerves or muscles, but since the 90’s their mental abilities have been uncovered and they get mentioned in surprising places, from geography to astronomy.

The rest of this article is in the May-June issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, distributed at Durham County libraries, which I think are reopening now, and at other locations, and it is available online at www.trianglegardener.com