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.

 

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 working farm as a nature reserve

cattle I77A8663© Maria de Bruyn resTo continue the saga of Braeburn Farm, I’d like to introduce you to some of the non-avian wildlife to be found there. As a vegetarian, I’ll admit I was originally a bit reluctant to go there, but I must acknowledge that the farm management does many things to give the cattle a good life.

Red Devon cattle I77A6581© Maria de Bruyn resThey keep their herd of Red Devons (Bos taurus) to about 300 animals and allow the calves to reach the age of at least 3 years. Some cows and bulls are allowed to grow much older (10-12 years or more) and they enjoy a peaceful life before they go to market, rotating through the farm’s varied habitats, which include meadows and fields, ponds, woods and creeks. No pesticides are used in the habitats and the vegetation is allowed to grow as naturally as possible. Farm manager Nick said that when it is time to shift the cows to a new pasture area, he just calls them. The older cows know that they will be enjoying fresh and different veggies so they follow him willingly, leading the rest of the herd along.

My visits in June and July showed how this farm is cultivating biodiversity among plants and wildlife. The fields were dotted with thistles, white clover (Trifolium repens), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and many other plants.

brown-eyed Susan I77A7112© Maria de Bruyn res        Moth mullein Verbascum blattaria I77A5812© Maria de Bruyn res

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)                           Moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria)

Bees and butterflies were abundant, showing that the farm’s methods are good for the pollinators.

clouded sulphur I77A6930© Maria de Bruyn res    Clouded skipper I77A7102© Maria de Bruyn

Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)                             Clouded skipper (Lerema accius)

Least skipper IMG_0155© Maria de Bruyn    Sachem skipper I77A7026© Maria de Bruyn res

Least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor)          Sachem skipper (Atalopedes campestris)            cabbage white I77A6735© Maria de Bruyn res         monarch I77A6970© Maria de Bruyn res

Cabbage white (Pieris rapae)                      Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus), margined leatherwing soldier beetles (Chauliognathus marginatus), bees and various species of syrphid flies (also known as hoverflies and often mistaken for bees) were exploring the thistles.

leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4412© Maria de Bruyn res   leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4400© Maria de Bruyn res

margined leatherwing soldier beetle IMG_4437© Maria de Bruyn resMargined leatherwing soldier beetle

Eastern carpenter bee 2 I77A6964© Maria de Bruyn res            syrphid fly Sphaerophoria I77A5781© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)            Syrphid fly (Sphaerophoria)

common oblique syrphid fly Allograpta obliqua IMG_4418© Maria de Bruyn res

Common oblique syrphid fly (Allograpta obliqua)

Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn bg    Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn res

Syrphid fly (Palpada vinetorum)

Elsewhere, the nymph of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) moved along large leaves.

Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4499© Maria de Bruyn    Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4481© Maria de Bruyn res

It pays to look down at your feet as you wander through the fields in the early morning. The grasses are covered in tiny webs that glisten with water droplets. Underneath are the tiny red dwarf sheetweb spiders (Florinda coccinea) that may show themselves if you stay very still.

dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0117© Maria de Bruyn res     dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0126© Maria de Bruyn res

dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0127© Maria de Bruyn   dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0121© Maria de Bruyn

In the vegetation below you can also see other insects, like the Spur-throated grasshopper (Melanoplus), or the Forage looper moth (Caenurgina erechtea).

spur-throated grasshopper Melanoplus IMG_0152© Maria de Bruyn res      Forage looper I77A5943© Maria de Bruyn res

Various dragonflies and damselflies balance on grasses and sometimes alight on the ground (the former hold their wings out when resting and the damselflies fold their wings along their bodies).

halloween pennant I77A6315© Maria de Bruyn res   halloween pennant Celithemis eponina I77A6337© Maria de Bruyn res

Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Double-striped American bluet Dancer damselfly I77A6155© Maria de Bruyn res

Double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens)

widow skimmer I77A6998© Maria de Bruyn bg

Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

common whitetail I77A6394© Maria de Bruyn res

Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)

At the creek crossings, you may see a common sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus, a lifer for me!), paper wasps (Polistes) or a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) having a drink or looking for a mate. The viceroy mimics the monarch but can be distinguished easily with the line crossing its wings horizontally when you see it rest.

Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6480© Maria de Bruyn res    Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6508© Maria de Bruyn res

paper wasp Polistes I77A6454© Maria de Bruyn bg       Viceroy I77A6432© Maria de Bruyn res

Walking through the fields, you may also occasionally spot a mammal although they are not as easy to see as the other wildlife. As I trudged around a pond, this white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) was startled from its hiding place – showing off the part of its anatomy for which the species is named and looking as if s/he was sporting a very large feather.

white-tailed deer I77A6198© Maria de Bruyn res           white-tailed deer I77A6199© Maria de Bruyn res

On one outing, Nick and I spotted a couple darling raccoon kits (Procyon lotor), who wasted no time scurrying for cover when they spotted us.

raccoon I77A7213© Maria de Bruyn res     raccoon I77A7225© Maria de Bruyn res

Red Devon cattle I77A6617© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm is a great place to spend quality time outdoors. You can contact the farm management to schedule a visit and they will instruct on which fields and areas are open for visitation. And if you should wander by mistake into a field with some of the cattle, you needn’t worry as the Red Devons are likely to walk away or just watch you as they are a placid breed. I hope that Braeburn Farm becomes a popular birding and wildlife observation area so that we can continue enjoying visits there.

See anything good?

Sandy Creek path IMG_4981© Maria de Bruyn resThat’s a common question I get when I am out on one of my nature walks. Since I carry a camera with a large zoom lens and often a smaller camera, too, it’s obvious to passersby that I’m out observing nature. And I realize that when they ask the question, what they really want to know is whether I saw anything unusual or spectacular.

A recent walk at Sandy Creek Park in Durham, NC, was a case in point. I told one couple who posed the question that my most memorable sighting so far had been a male ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) – the iridescence of its body and wings in the sunlight was wonderful. They smiled a bit uncertainly and the lady of the pair admitted that she didn’t know anything about damselflies as they walked on.

ebony jewelwing I77A0417© Maria de Bruyn res   ebony jewelwing I77A0469© Maria de Bruyn res

Fragile Forktail damselfly I77A0648© Maria de Bruyn resAn hour or so later, another couple asked if I had “seen any good ones?” I repeated my delight in seeing the male damselfly, adding that the female is not as striking with her brown color and white spots. “Yes,” said the man, “that is often the case with other species. In our species, though, it’s the females who shine.” That may be the case some of the time, but my day was made by seeing a female damselfly that was a member of a new species for me – the fragile forktail (Ischnura posita).

 

My experience is that I find some beauty in almost all the wildlife I see (ticks and chiggers are an exception). So I want to share a few of those “good things” I saw at Sandy Creek Park last month in a two-part blog “tour”. In this first part, I’ll continue on with the insects.

Identifying dragonflies is not easy since the females and males can look quite different. The great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans) provides an example – the male lives up to his name with a blue hue and large size, but the female shows off her beauty with a brown and yellow abdomen.

great blue skimmer dragonfly I77A0715© Maria de Bruyn res    great blue skimmer dragonfly I77A0741© Maria de Bruyn res

The Eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) has distinctively different appearances as a male and female. The adult male is a blue individual, sometimes with a bit of greenish tint; the female – and the immature males! – is brilliant with different shades of green. I remember being excited when I first spotted a female as their green color is so striking.

Eastern pondhawk I77A0721© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern pondhawk I77A0749© Maria de Bruyn res

blue dasher I77A0172©Maria de Bruyn resThe blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) has some stripes, as do some of the bumble bees. The brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis) lives up to its name with a brown stripe, while this American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) feeding on a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) has white bands. Like honey bees, the latter bee has pollen baskets (corbicula) on its hind legs in which it stores pollen. I enjoyed watching this individual – s/he would dip down into the flower, back up a bit, and then plunge forward again, almost always keeping the pollen basket above the tip of the flower.

Brown-belted bumble bee I77A0218©Maria de Bruyn res   American bumble bee I77A0763© Maria de Bruyn2 res

Bumble bee I77A6297© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The pollen gatherers were numerous during both visits and willing to share the sources of their bounty – here you see a bumble bee (Bombus), syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus) and sweat bee (Halictus) feeding peacefully together on a coneflower (Echinacea).

 

 

Eastern carpenter bee IMG_0768© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

The milkweed plants were attracting many species of pollinators; here an Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) was enjoying a meal.

 

 

common buckeye I77A0237© Maria de Bruyn res

 

While there were many, many bees the days of my visits, there were fewer butterflies but the common buckeye (Junonia coenia) was stunning!

 

 

The little wood satyr (Megisto cymela) and dun skipper (Euphyes vestris, to the lower right on the milkweed) were not as colorful, and some people might even call them dull, but they are still nice to see and the Eusarca moth (Eusarca confusaria) was also an evenly colored beauty. I had grown up thinking moths usually fly at night, attracted by lights so it still draws my attention when I see them in the daytime.

Little wood satyr I77A0584© Maria de Bruyn res         Eastern carpenter bee IMG_0804© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

Confused Eusarca moth Eusarca confusaria I77A5701© Maria de Bruyn

Even a somewhat tattered American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) offered a pretty view.

American lady I77A6238© Maria de Bruyn res

The broad-headed sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona), a leaf hopper, and the spotted pink lady beetle (Coleomegilla maculata) are tiny but such colorful insects that close perusal of the vegetation helps you spot them (and presumably makes it easier for birds to see them, too?).

broad-headed sharpshooter Oncometopia orbona I77A0592© Maria de Bruyn      Spotted pink lady beetle I77A0081©Maria de Bruyn bg

Emerald ash borer trap I77A0719© Maria de Bruyn res

 

One beetle that we don’t really want to see is the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), an invasive species that came to the USA from Asia. The larvae of these beetles kill ash trees and the park administrators have hung a trap box for them to determine whether this species has reached the park.

 

 

Spotting mammals is not always easy at the park but one day fellow birder Jim was kind enough to alert me to an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) in a tree when we met on a walking path. He told me approximately where it was and I spotted that one and another in a nearby tree; I thought it might be a mother and grown offspring but that was a guess and I certainly couldn’t confirm it. As these are nocturnal animals, it was pretty cool for me to see two in broad daylight. The only marsupial found in the United States and Canada is a beneficial animal for us humans (and other wildlife) as they could eat up to 4000 ticks in a week! 

opossum IMG_0605© Maria de Bruyn res     opossum I77A5788© Maria de Bruyn res

One of the pair demonstrated that they can open their jaws widely – watching him/her slowly stretch that mouth offered me a surprise; I would think it couldn’t go any further and the animal continued to show that s/he could really please a dentist who would like lots of space to investigate those teeth.

opossum I77A5897© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern cottontail rabbitI77A5578© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

The Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) was not so lucky, carrying a fat tick in its ear. Too bad the opossums couldn’t come by and groom him/her and remove that pesky arachnid!

 

The park is not only attractive for the entomologists. Reptile enthusiasts can spot turtles fairly easily, especially in the spring when they are looking for places to lay their eggs. A large painted turtle was crossing a field looking for a spot, while an Eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) was trundling down a paved path one morning, not far from a pond which often has many painted turtles and red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), like this one – who must have been a bit bothered by a bird feather caught in its shell.

Eastern mud turtle IMG_0741© Maria de Bruyn res    Red-eared slider I77A5941© Maria de Bruyn2

Which bird could it have been? I’m thinking a swallow – see part 2 of the tour for a view of the species and more of the wonderful biodiversity that can be seen in the park.