Tag Archives: UNC

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/

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.

Where the red fire pink blows and other campions in the Triangle

Fire pinks seem to be very rare wildflowers in and around the Northeast Creek basin and possibly throughout the Triangle. I have only come across these bright red flowers with five deeply notched “pink” type petals at two locations in southern Durham County, on the edge of RTP. Fire pinks were the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s 2015 Wildflower of the Year, and free seeds were offered at the time ( ncbg.unc.edu/plants/nc-wildflower-of-the-year/ ; this year’s plant is the American beautyberry), so some might grow near the visitor center, but I haven’t seen them there myself. The first time I came across one of these unusual flowers might have been in May or possibly June off of South Alston not far from the border with Wake County, between the basins of tributaries Burdens Creek and Kit Creek. It might have been on a Sunday morning in late May 2001, also memorable because Sheriff deputies had a roadblock up the road, though there wasn’t much traffic. I stepped off the road along a rocky brook I think of as azalea brook in a somewhat open forest of pines and deciduous trees with sort of ‘dry’ soil where abandoned farmland was reverting back to forest on a late spring/early summer morning. I was familiar with the area because my Dad used to unicycle on a curcuit through the area on Saturday mornings and I sometimes joined by bicycle. The brook flows over slabs of solid bedrock, and the unusual igneous rock intrusions in the area might be the reason fire pinks and other rare flowers have grown there. On a high bank above a sharp bend there was an unusual wildflower maybe 1 to 3 feet high, probably bent over, with sparse leaves and striking red flowers that were sticky on the outside. On another occasion, maybe in the summer, I saw a single small fire pink on the edge of lawn on So Hi Drive near the Creek (maybe this was actually the first one I saw). Several years ago many fire pinks grew in a ditch at the edge of the woods across “Solutions Drive,” former South Alston, from what is now the back gate of the Social Security Administration’s secretive printing facility at 3604 Louis Stephens Drive, but more recently I have only seen yellow Jerusalem artichokes there (native flowers, despite the name). Wildflowers of North Carolina (Second Edition) calls fire pinks “weak perennials” and individual plants don’t seem to live very long. I went back to see the first plant I mentioned one or a few years later and there was no sign of it. I haven’t seen a fire pink in many years; possibly I haven’t been in the right habitat in the right season, but I think they must really be rare or I would come across them more often. They seem to prefer well-drained possibly poor soil with at least part-sun, and being shaded out by trees might be one reason individuals don’t live very long. They might benefit from periodic burning so they can get more sunlight.

Fire pinks (it seems like they could be called firepinks, but at most guides just hyphenate the name), also called Indian pinks and red or scarlet catchflies, are in the pink, campion, or carnation family (the Caryophyllaceae), as is star chickweed, a somewhat common early spring woodland wildflower, and several other sometimes showy flowers that should be found in the Triangle, though I haven’t encountered them myself. Like carnations and other pinks, fire pinks have opposite (paired) leaves and the stems are swollen at these nodes. The leaves are rounded and without serrations and when not in flower the plant is a clump of basal leaves. Fire pinks and related flowers often have a swollen calyx (the green sepals around the base of a flower) to varying degrees. Pink refers to their deeply notched petals, sometimes so deeply notched that they appear to have many petals, as is the case with star chickweed, not to their sometimes pink or red colors. “Pink” probably relates to pinking, as in pinking shears, scissors that make a zigzag cut in cloth, similar to the petal shape of many pinks. Catchfly refers to the stickiness of many of these species, not always around the flowers.

Fire pink’s scientific name is Silene virginica; it is unclear whether the generic name Silene refers to the Greek mythological figure Silenus, chief of the woodland satyrs and foster father and teacher of Dionysus, the god of wine, or to saliva (sialon in Greek), because of the stickiness. Both interpretations could be correct. The eFloras website says these flowers were or are called seilenos in Greek, possibly because Silenus got drunk and foaming. All About Alabama Wildflowers, an informative book that covers propagating and growing many wildflowers, compares distinctive projections low on the petals to hooves, satyrs sometimes sometimes being described as hooved. Both the genus and this species were named by Carl Linnaeus.

There are several species of native and introduced Silene in North Carolina, as well as less closely related flowers. Silene that might be found in the Triangle include the starry campion, also called star silene or widow’s frill (S. stellata); bladder campion or maiden’s-tears (S. cucubalus); sleepy catchfly (S. antirrhina); wild pink (S. caroliniana; it can hybridize with the fire pink); and night-flowering catchfly or sticky cockle (S. noctiflora). None are bright red, but in the Midwest royal catchfly, also called wild pink (S. regia), is another bright red Silene, and there are related flowers in the West that have been called Indian or fire pinks. Non-native bladder campions are named for their very enlarged calyx, and have also been called bird’s-eggs, fairy-potatoes, and rattle-bags. Also in the Triangle there might be non-native corn-cockles (Agrostemma githago) and mullein pink or dusty-miller (Lychnis coronaria). Lychnis comes from the Greek for flame, lamp, or light, another fiery color reference. White campion, also called evening lychnis or white cockle (L. alba), can be found elsewhere in the Carolinas. Species of Lychnis and Silene are very similar and are sometimes classified in one genus. There could also be soapwort or bouncing bet (Saponaria officinalis), both names related to how it produces a soapy lather in water (bouncing bets were washerwomen).

There are many related native and non-native chickweeds, in more than one genus, and while they are probably best known as household weeds star chickweed is a bright white wildflower blooming in older woodlands along Northeast Creek around now, and stands out as the forest floor is cast into shade later this month. Its scientific name is Stellaria pubera; the generic name refers to stars and the specific name might refer to its minute fuzziness or puberulence. It is also called giant or great chickweed, wood starwort (some other chickweeds are also called starworts), winterweed, and birdseed and has five petals, but they are so deeply notched that five seems to be ten. Introduced common chickweed or starwort, S. media, is eaten by chickens and other birds (and so it has been called “the hen’s inheritance,” according to A Sampler of Wayside Herbs), and there is grass-leaf chickweed, also called lesser or common stitchwort, S. graminea, another non-native, as well as native and non-native mouse-ear chickweeds in the genus Cerastium.

Related Dianthus, such as carnations (D. caryophyllus), sweet william (D. barbatus), and the (garden) pink (D. plumarius) are common ornamental relatives from the Old World with many cultural associations around the world, including with International Workers’ Day (May 1st, labor day in many countries), International Women’s Day (March 8th), Mother’s Day (May 9th this year), both weddings and funerals, and carnations are one of January’s birth flowers. Sweet william and pinks grow wild in parts of the Carolinas, and Deptford pinks or grass pinks (D. armeria), another European introduction, can be found in the Triangle, according to the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. D. superbus, native from Europe to Japan, is called nadeshiko in Japanese, and Yamato nadeshiko refers to Japan’s traditional feminine ideal (Yamato is one of the many old names for Japan) and the national women’s soccer team is nicknamed Nadeshiko Japan.

A fire pink flower has five petals (with distinctive projections around the flower’s green throat), five sepals, ten male stamens, three female styles, and the deep tubular throat of the flower is ribbed longitudinally. The flowers are arranged in a wide and loose cluster called a cyme, in which the center flowers open first, and a fire pink probably has blooms over several weeks, producing flowers and ripe seedheads at the same time. Each flower can yield several brown seeds, in a bell-shaped capsule with six teeth at the top. There doesn’t seem to be any special means to spread the seeds, yet they seemed to spread far along that stretch of South Alston in only a few years, though there might have been more plants than I knew about.

According to Wildflowers of North Carolina, fire pinks can bloom April – July. The Illinois Wildflowers website ( www.illinoiswildflowers.info/woodland/plants/firepink.htm ) hypothesizes that they are pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds and larger butterflies, which would make sense given their bright red color and tubular shape. It seems surprising that these relatively small flowers growing in dry soil would produce enough nectar to satisfy a hummingbird. The stickiness should deter ants and other insects from stealing the nectar without transferring pollen, as well as deterring pests. Bees can steal nectar by biting through the sides of flowers, such as morning glories and probably also coral honeysuckles, another red spring and summer flower, but fire pinks might be toughened against this. A Field Book of American Wild Flowers (first printed in 1902) says white starry campions attract clouded sulphurs, a medium-sized yellow butterfly, and moths. Some related campions, such as night-flowering catchfly and white campion, as well as soapwort, are stark white and fragrant, to attract moths, specifically including sphinx moths in the case of soapwort (according to A Naturalist’s Guide to Field Plants).

Fire pink flowers have both male and female parts (a perfect flower), but other Silene species have been used in the study of the genetic determination of sex in plants (and they have sex chromosomes similar to our own, though the phenotypic results can be much more complex than just producing male or female flowers) and they suffer from a sexually transmitted fungal disease that causes sterility. Some species of Silene also have exceptionally large or even the largest known mitochondrial genomes (these genes control a eukaryotic cell’s powerplants, the mitochondria, which might have originally been free-living prokaryotic cells).

I haven’t come across any information about herbivores of fire pinks. There are also seemingly few recorded cultural uses or associations with fire pinks. Fire pinks were apparently considered poisonous by some Indian groups, possibly because fire pinks were conflated with pink-root (Spigelia marilandica), also called Indian pink, a five-petalled red and cream-colored flower related to the early spring-blooming and poisonous (if eaten) yellow jessamine vine, South Carolina’s state flower. Pink-root and possibly fire pink were used to drive out intestinal worms. For some reason starry campion was once used to treat copperhead and rattlesnake bites, but this treatment has long been called useless. Old World campions, including bladder campion, were thought to have the power to stun scorpions and neutralize their stings, and maybe this idea was transferred to snakes. The leaves of both bladder campion and chickweeds can be eaten after boiling (some chickweeds are eaten raw). Reportedly people on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Minorca lived on bladder campion after locusts consumed their crops. Chickweed is or was even considered “a delicacy” in Europe, sold in markets and substituted for spinach (according to Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway). Several of these plants contain saponins, ranging from a poisonous level in soapwort to just adding a little bitterness in bladder campion. Saponins are surfactants and soapwort really can be used for cleaning, and has been called fuller’s herb for its use in the fulling (cleaning and thickening) of wool cloth.

The reason to think about fire pinks early this spring is because three rezoning requests will probably be coming up near where fire pinks have been found. First, a few years ago Durham County bought the large flat field bordered by NC 55, TW Alexander Drive, and two stubs of what was South Alston, “Solutions Drive” and “Experiment Drive.” Until about 13 years ago this was a large hill covered with a young pine forest; a house near the top had a commanding view up and down 55, with a few mimosas, sumacs, black locusts, or the like and winged elms over grass and herbs down to the highway, while blackberries bloomed along TW Alexander in April. The hill was blasted away day and night, reportedly trucked away as fill for NC’s first modern toll road and whatever was left was deposited in the abandoned claypit a short distance southwest across 55, on what was the continuation of South Alston into Wake County. I remember hearing it from miles away on balmy late spring or early summer evenings. When I went by the corner in late May it had already been mostly levelled, with a whitish or pale cliff at the south end. I think they were reported to the police several times for noise heard further west. Blasting the igneous and sedimentary innards of the hill might have rattled the County’s Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant, across 55 and dumping into Northeast Creek. There were plans for residential construction or a commercial strip mall at the corner, shown on some maps, but nothing was ever built. The site, about 40 acres, is addressed as 451 TW Alexander, 6001 NC 55, and 6026 Experiment Drive, probably where the farm’s driveway was (these parcels can be searched for through Durham’s Interactive Maps durhamnc.gov/1455/Interactive-Maps ). I thought management at the Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant wanted the land for a sludge-drying facility, a valuable feature the plant currently lacks, but a community virtual meeting February 18th was about rezoning the site to Office and Industrial (from residential, commercial, and office zonings) for “a new Durham County Public Works Administration Building.” I was the only person who ‘attended’ the meeting. The presenters gave basically no information beyond what was in the brief Planning Department announcement about the meeting. I said what needed to be said, but I had a feeling that I had been insulted and there seemed to be little point to the meeting. Based on the very little that was said, I don’t have an objection to building an office building, but as I said then, it would be good if the landscaping fit with the unique features of the site, or if wildflowers were allowed to colonize the site naturally, and it seems likely that an office building wouldn’t take up all of the land. I haven’t seen any fire pinks at the site, but they could be there. Buttercups and probably Lespedeza or bush clover are abundant in the field and woodland spring ephemerals are currently blooming along a rock-lined stream I could call cane stream. The field used to be mown periodically, but even after that ended trees have been slow to return, and probably little real soil was left after the hill and its topsoil was carried away.

Business interests want to rezone a vast area of Triangle Brick Company land a short distance south of the above site, extending from the east side off 55, just south of the intersection of the new Hopson Road and 55, through the abandoned claypit off Greenlevel Church Road (formerly South Alston), as far west as the top of the ridge that can be seen from the Grandale Road bridge over Northeast Creek, a site that could be in all more than a mile across. Some of the land might not be in Durham County, but I think the proposal calls for building only in Durham. I’m suspicious about what such a project would mean for the land owned by the Wrenn family further west, along Grandale and Wake roads. Both of these vast areas were clearcut, the Triangle Brick Co.’s land around summer 2010 and the Wrenn land maybe in 2018 or before. The land immediately around Northeast Creek is owned by the Federal government and managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission as gameland and on the west side of 55 a large area is owned by Durham County. I think I was one of only two community members ‘attending’ the virtual meeting on January 26th, but the well-known lawyer Patrick Byker, the main presenter, must not have known I was there. I think the figure given was that this “assemblage” is in all 241 acres, and they want it all rezoned Light Industrial (some of it is currently Rural Residential) and annexed by the City of Durham, to build a business park with five to six short office or industrial buildings (similar to those built recently at the corner of Hopson and 54, I think it was said by the same company), with construction in stages, starting in the spring of 2022. These low-lying gamelands are NC Natural Heritage Program inventory sites, and this discouraged residential construction on Scott King Road near the Tobacco Trail about ten years ago (but a DPS elementary school will soon be built at the “Scott Mill” site). The bottomlands periodically inundated by Jordan Lake for flood control are protected as public lands, but species living on the protected land could be lost if they also need the surrounding rural uplands to live or if they require a larger habitat than just what is preserved on the government lands. A stark example is provided by two very large woodpeckers. Pileated woodpeckers don’t seem to like built up areas, but I often hear their calls along Northeast Creek and elsewhere in the Triangle and occasionally see one, while ivory-billed woodpeckers, which are much larger but similar in appearance, are now more like rumors or apparitions than living birds and might be completely extinct. The related Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, a subspecies or a separate species, might also be extinct, as might the related imperial woodpecker of Mexico, apparently the largest woodpecker in the world if it still exists. I saw something like a breeding chuck-will’s-widow or whippoorwill in a scrap of woods at the school site on Scott King Road, rural birds that I thought had been driven out of the region (the bird, I assume a hen, was obviously trying to lead me away from a nest or chicks hidden nearby). The NHP inventory reports note nesting black-and-white warblers and probably nesting sharp-shinned hawks and the presence of ribbon snakes as rare animal species in the area, as well as Douglass’ bittercress and other state or regionally rare or unusual plants, and there were otters and mink along the Creek, but the area hasn’t been surveyed since 1999. The most recent Durham report recommends that “Preservation of upland buffers along the edges of the bottomlands should be given a high priority. These slopes provide denning areas for terrestrial species, as well as refuges during periods of high water” while the 1999 Jordan Lake Inventory recommends that “No more utility corridors should be allowed in the area” along Northeast Creek between 55 and 751, and a project south of the Creek there would probably require new Durham water and sewer connections and lift stations to get over the hills, and maybe new electrical infrastructure as well. I think there was discussion of building a utility easement through here for 751 South at one point and earlier there was discussion of a road extension.

Lastly, during this economic crisis there is a rezoning proposal at the intersection of Northeast Creek Parkway and So Hi Drive (2102 So Hi Drive, on the south, RTP side of the intersection), near the Triangle Curling Club building and extending towards the intersection of Northeast Creek Parkway and East Cornwallis Road. Northeast Creek flows through this large, long undisturbed wooded site and the site also includes a small amount of land on the north side of the Parkway. It is owned by Parmer Woodlands 3 LLC, with an address in Carlsbad, California. Similarly named LLCs with the same address own much of the north end of RTP and March 23rd there was a Board of Adjustment hearing over rear parking lot landscaping at a very large project already being built a short distance beyond the Creek, but hidden by the forest (it has the addresses 2152 and 2362 So Hi Drive and 224 Northeast Creek Parkway, but doesn’t seem to connect, at least for now). I must have been the only person ‘attending’ the community meeting, which was also the evening of February 18th. They want the site rezoned as Science Research Park, from Rural Residential, to build two office buildings, but it was not entirely clear if the proposal is to build along the road, so Northeast Creek wouldn’t be crossed. I have seen many locally rare plants nearby, including horsetails, liverwort (the non-flowering plant), toothworts, Hepatica (a pale blue early spring flower sometimes called liverleaf or liverwort), star chickweed, at least one large Catawba Rhododendron (it is unclear if someone planted it long ago or if it really is the last of its kind along Northeast Creek, and a few years ago it was narrowly missed by a logging road), serviceberries (probably done blooming by now; their fruit is apparently a favorite food of chuck-will’s-widows), spicebushes, Penstemons, and umbrellatrees, deciduous magnolias with huge leaves that usually bloom by the start of May. Umbrellatrees seem to be much more common in Wake County than west, and perhaps fire pinks are also more common in the Neuse River basin. There are numerous beaver ponds, some visible from Northeast Creek Parkway near Cornwallis. These two ends of RTP where fire pinks grow (or grew) are also some of the few places where there are pinxterflowers, deciduous native azaleas a bit more common than fire pinks, with elegant honeysuckle-like nearly white to light pink or purple, fragrant flowers in late April, another sight to see before the Silene’s fiery red as summer’s heat begins.

Watch out for blooming catalpas this month

This month there will be many showy white flowers on the small catalpa in front of the condos on Revere Road in the Parkwood subdivision in southern Durham. There are actually two very similar species, Catalpa bignonioides, the Southern catalpa, and C. speciosa, the Northern or hardy catalpa. Southern catalpas grow naturally in the Deep South while Northern Catalpas grow in the region where the Ohio joins the Mississippi. The Revere Road tree is probably a Southern catalpa. The species difference is dramatically revealed in spring, when they bloom at different times, but there are some other differences. Southern catalpa flowers have more spots and fewer blossoms per cluster. They also don’t grow as tall as Northern catalpas and there are differences in the seed pods and bark patterns. Apparently the crushed leaves of Southern catalpas have a bad smell. Northern catalpas might be the only ones that have glands at the base of the leaves, perhaps to attract ants for defense. Catalpas resemble royal paulownia, Chinese natives with big leaves and clusters of pale blue flowers in March or April, and have round seed pods. Catalpas are related to native crossvine and trumpet creeper. The word catalpa is supposed to be a native term for this tree while bignonioides refers to a vine with similar flowers and speciosa means ornamental.

Catalpas self-seed here, but are still pretty rare. The only other specimens I can think of are a few at Sedwick and Prospectus Drive, one on Grandale, one growing beside Northeast Creek near Jordan Lake, and several individuals of both species in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. There is a towering Northern catalpa across South Road from Coker Hall at UNC. A week ago it was crowned with white blooms and is probably peaking or past peak by now. There were one or two large catalpas near the corner of Fayetteville and 54, by Crooked Creek. Catalpas stick out because of their peculiar yellowish green leaves and pagodalike canopy. In their native habitat, catalpas grow near waterways and in bottomlands. They seem to prefer full sun, which could be a reason they aren’t more abundant here.

Catalpas were probably planted so widely for their flowers, and sometimes to grow caterpillars for fishing bait. Catalpa wood is sometimes used indoors, but is mainly used for posts, railroad ties, and telephone poles, because it is rot-resistant though brittle. Bark tea has been used as an antiseptic, laxative, sedative, and to treat snake bites and worms, while the pods were also thought to be sedative and to have an effect on the heart. The leaves were used to treat flesh wounds, as was seed tea, which was also used for respiratory problems. Catalpas are also sometimes called Indian cigars, which could be because kids smoked the pods

The flowers are grouped in panicles on the ends of new shoots. When they open, the large frilly white flowers are tubular and have five asymmetrical petals. They have dark purple spots and two yellow lines inside to guide pollinators. Bumblebees, honey bees, moths, butterflies, and ants are among the insects attracted by the nectar and pollen, yet one source says the nectar is toxic to skipper butterflies and ants. Catalpas will probably bloom for a few weeks, and then the trees sprout long, thin green pods all summer.

Catalpas are noticeable again in summer when they attract catalpa sphinx moths. Apparently their only larval food is catalpa, and the adults don’t eat. Like other sphinxes, catalpa sphinx caterpillars are hornworms, with a ‘horn’ on the tail, and they have striking yellow, black, and white stripes from head to tail. They are unusual for hornworms in being social during most of their caterpillar stage, and groups sometimes defoliate even a tree the size of the one in Parkwood. If Wikipedia is to be believed, cropdusting was first used against catalpa worms. When irritated they vomit a green liquid and thrash.

Nothing else seems to eat catalpa leaves much, so the trees are quiet until the brown pods attract angular gray leaf-footed bugs in late fall. As the weather gets cool, the pods split in half lengthwise, releasing winged seeds, while the husks remain on the trees into winter.