A nature walk with some history to ponder

In our area of North Carolina, various nature reserves have some background of historical interest. It may be related to the provenance of the land, the names of the reserve and its trails, or the remnants of structures still in place. A newer reserve in Orange County is the Blackwood Farm Park and it had some historical artefacts which I had not expected to see while I searched for beautiful plants and wildlife of different kinds.

The 152-acre reserve has transformed a former working farm into a place with hiking trails through fields and hilly woodlands, preserved farm buildings (barn, smokehouse, corncrib, milking shed, etc.), and meadows where hay is still sown and harvested every year. The first farmers arrived around 1745 and farming ended with the Blackwood family in the 1980s.

 

Dogs are allowed but supposed to remain on leash; currently, the trails are for hikers, birders and others who appreciate nature. On my last visit, a small group of dog trainers were putting canines through their paces in front of the old farmhouse, while a few people were chatting at the picnic tables nearby.

In the meantime, a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) was extensively grooming itself in one of the shady yard trees.

 

 

  

     

 

As I began my walk through the woods, I heard a distinctive bird call and began searching for the scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). Lucky me, he came into sight briefly overhead so that I could admire his handsome but fleeting appearance.

The meadows were filled with flowers, including Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), with its distinctive white and purple flowers, and beautiful moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), which some botanists consider a weed and rip out in glee when they see it (this happened a few days ago when I was volunteering at another reserve!).

           

 

Butterflies, like this American lady (Vanessa virginiensis), were investigating the flowers like me and sometimes feeding on the ground.

 

 

 

  

The trail through the woods is partly level and then leads up and down hills and across small streams. Some sections are alive with bird sound and others are fairly quiet. Small signs indicate where the reserve property abuts nearby privately-owned farms.

As I came nearer to the forest edge adjoining a meadow with a pond, I came across an unexpected reminder of history. A sign at the entrance to a clearing announced that it was a burial site for slaves who had been owned by farmer Samuel Strayhorn from 1817 to 1847 and visitors are asked to observe the site with appropriate respect.

 

Archaeological surveying has identified 34 graves, including adults and children; some are marked by stones and others are now indicated by small metal tags.

 

Oral tradition relates that not only the slaves but some of their descendants were buried here after the Civil War. It is a sobering reminder of a shameful time in the history of this country, but it is good that the site has been preserved and that further historical research is being done to learn more about the enslaved people who lived here.

 

After spending some time in contemplation and wondering how the slaves’ descendants are faring now, I wandered on, emerging into the pond area where numerous dragonflies were flitting about.

 

 

        

Male blue dasher dragonfly                      Female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

(Pachydiplax longipennis)

          Banded pennants (Celithemis fasciata)

 

A couple of amorous damselflies were also in evidence.

 

 

 

Leaving the pond, I entered the woods again and witnessed a pair of six-spotted tiger beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) engaged in mating, but it was not with mutual consent. The iridescent blue male jumped on the greenish female, who did her best to escape. He literally tackled her and at one point had her on her back as he kept hold of her.

 

She continued trying to escape but he was persistent and finally managed to mount her. She periodically engaged in vigorous shaking, obviously trying to dislodge him but he hung on.

 

Finally, after some time, she bucked a bit like a horse at a rodeo and threw the male off so that she was able to streak off with great speed. The male remained behind, alone.

 

A little further on, a black and yellow millipede (Boraria stricta) trundled along the forest floor, its antennae exploring the ground ahead and identifying which obstacles (twigs, stones) it could surmount and which ones it needed to skirt.

 

 

At one point, I pondered a tube hung on a tree by someone who was probably doing a study of some kind, rather than making an artistic statement (I hope).

 

 

 

When I left the reserve, a Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was flashing its wings near a picnic table, undoubtedly looking for insects as a meal to enjoy there.

My walk that day didn’t result in a wide variety of wildlife spottings, but what I did see was interesting. Coming upon the cemetery was an unexpected educational experience that made the visit well worthwhile. I hope the researchers uncover more information that can be shared with visitors in the future.

 

Swallow sibling spats – who gets the food??

Mother Nature came through for me again a week ago, treating me to an interesting session of cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) behavior. (I first thought they were barn swallows but then noted they didn’t have deeply forked tail feathers.) I had noticed the swallows flying high above me as I walked to a favorite birding spot where I hoped to see hummingbirds feeding on the profusely blooming trumpet vines. Instead, I got a lesson on how swallow siblings may interact.

Occasionally a couple birds would come very near one another in flight. My attempts to get good shots were however stymied by their very swift swooping.  As I came upon the structure where I would position myself for the next 80 minutes, I noticed five swallows sitting on a wire, all of them preening and grooming. It was only after taking multiple photos and one flying off that I realized the group included both adults and juveniles.

 

At one point, all but one flew away; he (assuming a male for convenience’s sake) was alone for a good bit of time. Occasionally, he would stretch his feathers or teeter on the wire; I wondered if he had hurt his wings and was therefore staying put, unable to fly.

It turned out that he was just waiting for a parent to arrive with food. The bird would stretch his wings and put them out a bit to help with balance but otherwise didn’t move except when a parent came within earshot. Then he began fluttering his wings and calling with an open mouth guaranteed to trigger the instinct to stuff something down it.

   

Sometimes, this meant having to turn his head 180° to get it in the right position for the deposit of an insect. This had the desired results.

The bird was alone on the wire for perhaps 20 minutes or so – and then was joined by a couple others. They looked a bit bigger and more developed but I finally realized that these were the bird’s siblings, who had been doing more to practice their flight capabilities.

  

“Wire” bird maneuvered his way down the wire in stages to end up right next to, and then almost on top of, one sibling. He almost seemed to be pecking the bird. This did not go down well and finally brother/sister left after wire bird moved back and forth.

 

The parents arrived sporadically with food, perhaps hoping that wire bird would finally take off – and then he finally did, showing he was not injured at all. I think he simply wanted to have table service and figured staying on the wire with an open mouth was easier than having to try catching lunch on the wing like his siblings.

   

Two siblings finally decided to perch on the wire, too, all making sure to keep some distance between themselves. Perhaps they were tuckered out after all those flights; one took a few naps between visits from mom and dad.

Wire bird was very good at attracting his parents’ attention so the other two tried to become more vocal and began fluttering their wings more as well. They also moved closer to him, likely hoping to intercept a meal.

  

 

Things became a bit more difficult for the parents, who could scarcely alight on the wire before having the food snatched away!

 

 

 

  

Then, one of the siblings seemed to have had enough of wire bird’s success and approached him – to wire bird’s dismay.

They had a little spat!

 

  

  

Sibling No. 2 also took a turn at wire bird – they seemed to be saying that enough was enough and he had to stop monopolizing mom and dad’s attention, care and feeding.

   

  

When a crow arrived, everybody flew off in a panic but it wasn’t long before wire bird was back in place. Mom and dad began arriving much more regularly and the siblings decided being on the wire would be more productive than trying to find their own food. The parents finally began feeding the siblings more and everyone seemed to be pleased with that arrangement.

Towards the end of my 80-minute observation stint, I reflected on how patience showed me much more of what was happening than I had first assumed. If I had left after 20 minutes, I might have gone away feeling sorry for wire bird, thinking he couldn’t fly well and had to rely on his faithful parents. It was only by staying and watching that I saw the nest mates have their spats and I had a new narrative to explain the behavior I was seeing.

 

It would be so interesting to be a researcher who follows the development of a species, avian or otherwise. When I was younger, I probably didn’t have the amount of patience needed to spend more than an hour in position to see what would happen next. Now it was a sore arm from holding up my heavy camera and zoom lens that ended my session. But I’m grateful that I have the time and calm now to watch and wait and wonder about what will happen next. And other than the camera equipment and gas expenses, it’s an inexpensive way to keep learning and enjoying the fabulous natural areas that still remain.

My nature muse and a delightful experience

Dear unseen spirit,

You are a muse for me who permeates the air and leaves and water and earth that form the sphere in which I feel so at home, at rest yet invigorated, excited, awed, happy and amazed in turn and sometimes simultaneously, in a welter of positive emotion and feeling.

Yesterday, you brought me one of those moments. A smallish, perhaps teenaged, painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), with a smooth ebony carapace with some iron oxide-like highlights, was busy laying her eggs. My friend Lucretia and I stopped to watch.

Lucretia had discovered her while walking a fence line near a lake cove, sticking to that border of mostly bare dirt except for some leaves and twigs so she could avoid the longish grass that could very well be harboring ticks and chiggers – the nemesis bugs for birders and naturalists!

 

Ms Turtle was not quite vertical but leaning like the Tower of Pisa with her bottom in a hole she’d dug and her red-striped front legs anchoring her above. She was using her back legs and toes to move aside dampened clay earth, sometimes moving her body side to side to widen the depression. We wondered how much she’d had to urinate to get the dry ground to a nice malleable consistency; it turns out that painted turtles can store water in their urinary bladder, which helps with buoyancy in the water – and nest digging on land.

When we first stopped, she withdrew her head into her shell and stayed motionless but not for longer than 45 seconds or so. Her natural impulse for self-protection was weaker than her need to procreate, so she resumed moving small mounds of earth.

After some 15 minutes or so, we moved on along the cove, Lucretia noting birds and me looking for dragonflies to photograph. Spring was still in the air with one female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) being chased by 3 to 5 males in an aerial ballet as they sought to be the one who could grab her head and become her temporary mate.

One pair of conjoined dragonflies skimmed the water’s surface while others hovered over water plants or rested on shoreline foliage for a few minutes.

Spangled skimmer (Libellula cyanea)

  

Eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera)   Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Thoughts of Ms Turtle came back to me and I cut my insect investigations short to go back around the cove to her birthing site. Lucretia was already there and waved me over – she’d just seen Ms Turtle expel two white eggs, which I saw below her tail as she resumed her back-leg maneuvering of damp earth. She was now covering the eggs and perhaps that is also what she had been doing when we arrived. Painted turtles lay from 1 to 11 eggs and we wondered if she had already laid some and was covering them in layers.

At any rate, she was now obviously done with placing her progeny in the nest and was filling in the hole. She deliberately and meticulously grasped balls of soft earth and maneuvered them over the eggs. Her instincts were good and she apparently was doing this all by feel as she couldn’t see what she was doing. Her back legs unerringly found the next clump to move into position and she was quite thorough in making sure it was placed and smoothed over in just the right spot.

The process was slow but careful and as she gathered in the mud, her body began going more and more horizontal – a really noticeable change from when we first saw her more or less standing on end to deposit her clutch.

Ms Turtle was no longer bothered by our presence at all – nothing was going to stop her completing the process, although she occasionally did pause for a moment or two. She’d been at this for at least 70 minutes or so – or perhaps longer if she’d already laid some eggs before our arrival. Lucretia commented on what a hard worker she was!

When Ms Turtle was finally entirely horizontal, resting on the packed earth that was even with its surroundings, she took one more precaution to prevent predators (e.g., snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, foxes, raccoons) from finding her developing offspring. She used her back legs to draw in leaves and twigs to top off the dirt over the nesting site so that it looked exactly like the surroundings!

This, too, was done deliberately and carefully and by feel – never once did she turn around to look at what she’d done. In fact, when she was finished, she set off at an angle to trundle rapidly through the grass to the lake, never casting an eye on the covered nest.

 

We vowed to investigate egg incubation times (on average, 72 days, making 19 August a possible hatching day) and Lucretia tied a paper towel on the fence in front of the site so we could re-locate it. I also tied some weeds into the mesh of the fence.

 

In the meantime, Ms Turtle was making good time to the lake and we saw her tip over the shoreline edge, only to end up on her back. Within 10 seconds, she’d righted herself and plopped into the water, briefly floating and then submerging.

 

 

  

   

We spoke about her wonderful work – even if instinctual, it was amazing to watch and we felt privileged to have borne witness to it. Suddenly, not far off-shore, up popped Ms Turtle; she floated at the water’s surface enjoying a well-earned rest after her double labors (birthing and excavation/reconstruction). Her carapace glistened and she was a beauty to see and admire.

It would be super to be able to see her hatchlings emerge in August. I don’t know if we will be so lucky but recalling their mother’s construction of a nursery will be a great nature memory for sure. And who knows what new event you, my nature muse, will bring along in the meantime – when I arrived home, two of the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) had hatched!

Mother Nature, you always delight and/or edify to be sure!

Many thanks! Maria

                                 

A morning at the Butterfly House – with birds, butterflies and more!

I have all these ideas for blogs in mind, and photos to accompany them as well, but I keep taking new photos and then get behind in posting. One day, the thought came that I could just not go out to photograph and settle down to writing some blogs, but going out for nature walks as often as possible has become a real need in my life. Scientists are saying that “forest bathing” is good for your health and being outdoors and observing and learning about the flora and fauna certainly contributes to my having a happier state of mind, while contributing to my overall stamina (but not weight loss, more’s the pity). I also enjoy “shoreline, field and meadow, creek, river, and backyard bathing.”

It came to me today, after spending 3.5 hours tearing out invasive plants from my yard, that one blog that doesn’t need to be postponed because I keep getting new shots to include is this one – my visit to the Durham Museum of Life and Science Butterfly House with the Carolinas’ Nature Photographers Association.

The Museum had opened the Butterfly House for the morning for our group alone so that we could take photos for several hours without people walking in front of our shots. The Butterfly House is a 35-foot tall, glassed-in dome with many tropical plants such as the Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia). One of the four species of birds living in the conservatory, the Oriental white-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus), was enjoying a meal of tropical flowers. The bird would pluck a petal from the stem and then insert its beak into the base; the white-eyes have a special brush-like appendage at the end of the tongue which helps them forage for nectar and pulp.

   

The white-eyes were brought into the conservatory to help control leaf pests and ants.

 

The butterflies were gorgeous and the subject of many photos in our group. The postman butterflies have variations within a species.

  

Common postman (Heliconius melpomene)

 

Red postman (Heliconius erato)

Another group were the longwing butterflies.

  

Cydno longwing (Heliconius cydno)

  

Sara longwing (Heliconius sara)

 

Tiger longwing (Heliconius hecale)              Doris longwing (Heliconius doris)

  

Numata longwing (Heliconius numata)

As we looked at the butterflies that landed low on flowers, we were able to see the Crested wood partridges (Rollulus roulroul) that are endemic to Asia. They breed in the conservatory, laying their eggs behind dense shrubs, and they help control soil pests in the Butterfly House.

   

Male                                                                        Female

At one point, a museum staff-member brought us a group of insects to see up close. One of them, I certainly would not have touched, although it was fascinating to watch: the Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus).

      

The Chilean rose tarantula (Grammaostola rosea) was a really beautiful tarantula that blended in well with the tree against which it was placed.

The dragon-headed katydid (Eumegalodon blanchardi) was an interesting creature. I do think its head looks more like a horseshoe crab, though!

 

   

The rhinoceros beetle was nice and shiny – I once saw a young boy in Thailand who had one as a pet; he was taking it for a walk in the forest and it looked to be about as big as his hand.

 

It’s interesting how the patterns on the dorsal and ventral sides of a butterfly can be so very different – you may need to look up both sides to get a good ID of the species. This is especially true of the Blue morpho (Morpho peleides).

   

The same is true for the male scarlet peacock (Troides amphrysus)

    

The female shows similarities in her dorsal and ventral wings.

   

 

The owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) was an impressively large individual.

 

 

 

 

 

The Malayan birdwing (Troides amphrysus) spent much of its time huddled up against the windows but I was able to catch it on a flower.

 

 

 

Two kinds of black-and-white butterflies were fluttering about, the Asian paper kite (Idea leuconoe) and the zebra mosaic (Colobura dirce) from Central and South America.

 

 

 

   

 

There is a glass case in the conservatory that has lines of chrysalids hanging on wires. At any time, you may see one or several butterflies that have just emerged and are unfolding and drying their wings. This individual was perched against the glass for the unfurling, giving an excellent view of beautiful feathery antennae.

 

 

 

There were two more birds in the Butterfly House that were beautiful to see. Both from Australia, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) was difficult to photograph as it spent a lot of time very high up in the dome.

  

The most beautiful – to me – was the Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae). The colors are a bit like the American painted bunting but they look as if they were put on in blocks of color like a kind of avian Mondriaan painting. I followed this bird around several times in the hopes of getting some nice photos and finally succeeded in my opinion. I’d love to have this bird coming to my feeders!

The beautiful “baker” bird

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to observe a small bird at close quarters that I had only seen in a couple glimpses in the past, the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla). Like the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, this little avian also has a stripe atop its head. Like the golden-crowned kinglet, the stripe is always visible and orange in color, blending in nicely with its other muted brownish and cream colors.

 

The ovenbird gets its name from the shape of its nest, which is built on the ground in a shape reminiscent of an outdoor or Hopi oven. It is domed and has a side entrance and can be difficult to see.

The ovenbirds spend the winters in the Caribbean region and Central America and then come North for the summer breeding season. My sightings of the singing male have been at our local nature reserve, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, where I volunteer as an invasive plant eradicator and sometime planter of native flowers.

 

The male sings a three- to-five note call in the spring as part of his courting behavior and the call varies among individuals. When males are in neighboring territories, they will sing together in duets and it can be difficult to know how many birds are singing.

   

The sound is so loud that you expect to see a much larger bird and his song inspired poet Robert Frost to dedicate a poem to him.

 

If he is sitting on a branch, you can eventually find him but it can be a challenge since they prefer to reside in forests with heavy canopy cover so that it is fairly dark.

 

   

Once you see him, you may be able to watch for a while as they don’t seem to be very wary of people. This individual let me observe as he groomed on a low tree branch, pausing now and again to let out a few notes.

  

   

These birds prefer areas with heavy leaf litter for their homes – the leaves provide cover for their ground nests and they blend in really, really well as they scurry about foraging in the leaves for insects, worms and snails to eat. Both the females and males participate in feeding the fledglings until they can fly at about 30 days.

When they emerge into a patch with a bit of sunlight filtering down through the leaves overhead, you have a bit better chance to see them. Otherwise, you may end up staring at ground cover until you catch a bit of movement and can zero in on the motion to see them.

 

Photographing the bird is a challenge since they spend their time in areas with so little direct light. My first photos were a bit dark, but then I increased the ISO on my camera considerably (a tip from fellow photographer, Mary – thanks!) and the photos were a bit better. Still, the somewhat darker photos reflect the environment in which you discover these little troubadour warblers. Now that I know where to look for them, I hope to see them more often in years to come.