Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 2: non-avian wildlife!

Birding is an activity I enjoy, especially since I can usually spot at least one bird during my outdoor excursions. I’d prefer to call myself a “wildlifer” rather than a “birder”, however, since all kinds of other wildlife also fascinate me. Here is a selection of some wildlife surprises and new species I saw last year, including a new plant – the honeyvine milkweed (Cynanchum laeve).

 

This vine is sometimes described simply as a native plant that spreads by seed and long roots; other websites call it a noxious weed. It does perhaps spread quickly but it is also a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars so it seems like a desirable plant to me.

This mushroom was another one of my favorite vegetation spottings last year – it looks to me as if it is an animal with large ears.

Mammals are favorites of mine but I only see a restricted number regularly – white-tailed deer, Eastern squirrels, raccoons, Eastern chipmunks. When I get to see an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) – like one who visited the yard at night during our early December snowstorm, it was a treat. It seems many people dislike North Carolina’s state marsupial (and the only marsupial in North America) but it is a valuable neighbor since it eats up to 4000 ticks a week. There likely weren’t many ticks around for it to eat but I hope it found something for a meal!

   

This past year was my “year of the beavers” as I had a chance to follow these nature landscape architects in three different places. And as mentioned in a previous blog, I was so thrilled to get a shot of the warning tail-slapping behavior.

  

2018 was a good year for seeing new insects. Some are so tiny that you can’t really see their body patterns without magnification. Here are a few of my “discoveries”. The flies can be very interesting.

Sunflower seed maggot fruit fly (Neotephritis finalis)


Parasitic fly (Archytas)

2018 was a year for learning about reproduction among the bugs; not only did I see caterpillars but also chrysalids and arthropod parents caring for offspring. The green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) is a very attentive mother; she often hangs her egg sac from a grass stalk and then encircles it with her body to keep predators away.

One green lynx at the NC Botanical Garden placed her egg sac underneath the “lid” of a pitcher plant and then hung out on that and neighboring plants to keep an eye on the sac. I was lucky to see one of the babies after it hatched.

Another spider was not so lucky – it became a meal for one of North Carolina’s endemic “special plants”, the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

North Carolina has many species of grasshoppers; I saw several species this past year, including several mating pairs. Here is a young short-horned grasshopper.

It’s always nice to see some pollinators.

 

  

Brown-winged striped sweat bee                        Small carpenter bee                                (Agapostemon splendens)                                   (Ceratina)

 

I got to see the chrysalids of two fritillary butterfly species, the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta Claudia, left) and the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilla, below).

Sometimes, I think the moths get a bum rap, being seen as poor cousins to the “beautiful butterflies”. But there are many really beautiful moths, like the lunate zale moth (Zale lunata) and delicate cycnia moth (Cycnia tenera).

  

I got to see several moth caterpillars this year; the experts at BugGuide were very helpful in identifying them for me.

   

Common tan wave moth                           Gold moth caterpillar  (Basilodes pepita)          (Pleuroprucha insulsaria)

 
Turbulent phosphila moth caterpillar (Phosphila turbulenta)

For the first time, I got to see an evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). There were several hanging out in trees next to a rural farm pond – they did not restrict themselves to an evergreen tree but hung themselves from a persimmon, privet and cedar tree. I think the last photo shows the caterpillar as it was completing the “bag” into which it would insert itself.

    

In the summer, I was lucky to see a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

   

In December, I discovered two cecropia chrysalids, as well as the cup-like chrysalis of a polyphemus moth (Antheraea Polyphemus, which was empty).

  

Another discovery was that the larvae of soldier beetles look like some type of caterpillar as well.

There were lots of katydids around, including the slender straight-lanced katydid (Conocephalus strictus) and the stockier Scudderia bush katydid.

 

  

Some new bugs appeared in my yard, including a plant bug with muted colors (not yet identified to species) and some more colorful scentless plant bugs (Niesthrea louisianica) on my Rose of Sharon shrubs.

  

  

A seed bug on a seed pod and a head-on photo of a millipede (Narceus americanus-annularis-complex) were cool sightings, too.

   

2018 was a good year for my observations of reptiles, too. Seeing a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) flash its red dewlap (also known as a throat fan) was not a new experience but the fact that it was only a foot away from me doing it was a surprise.

   

 

Seeing one of these anoles jump from one small flower twig to another in order to catch a bee for supper was a surprise – I didn’t know they eat bees. I felt a little sad that we lost a pollinator that way, but the anoles have to eat, too.

 

 

 

One day, when walking at the same wetlands where the anole hung out I came across some beautifully colored turtles. The yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta) had a beautiful pattern on its face.

 

 

 

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) with its long claws had some beautiful bright red striping. It had gotten a prime sunning spot on a log that another turtle wanted for itself; the first turtle held it off.

 

The second turtle circled around and tried to get on board from the other side but turtle No. 1 kept it at bay.

  

My snake encounters included seeing Northern water snakes and rat snakes. It was a beautiful red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) that caught me by surprise when it suddenly veered off its course toward me. I backed up and the reptile stopped approaching, flicking its tongue out as it explored what was going on.

My final spotting to share with you today is another gorgeous snake – a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). It had been a long time since I had encountered one and this individual had quite vivid colors.

Next up – some beautiful raptors.

Finding fungal friends!

Although I find mushrooms interesting, they honestly are not especially favorite members of the plant kingdom for me. However, they do attract my attention when they are unusual or unusually abundant after rainfall. And I do find them a tasty addition to a meal for sure. So when the non-profit Friends of Bolin Creek sent out an invitation for a mushroom walk, it seemed like a nice way to take an outdoor break from my numerous tasks and chores.

 

I was hoping to see a lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) on the walk – mushroom enthusiast friends had recommended this one to me and I happened to have purchased one from a fungus grower at the farmers’ market the previous day.

The walk was organized by the Association’s nature walk coordinator, Salli Benedict, and led by Van Cotter, a retired mycologist and volunteer with the University of North Carolina’s Herbarium in Chapel Hill. He still mentors students involved with environmental studies and our group included several students who were intent on adding to their collection of 25 species for a class assignment. So, the walk participants included people of various ages and degrees of fungal knowledge.*

 

 

 

We divided into two sub-groups and our group set off into the woods. Our first spotting was a Suillis mushroom. This type is associated with pine trees and we did indeed find three growing at the base of a tree. A mycologist in our group pointed out the veil, a membranous tissue covering the cap, and she cut it length-wise so we could see the inside. These mushrooms are also called butter mushrooms.

 

   

As we walked on, we came across a few species of fungi growing on fallen and rotting logs. A few were polypores, which are mushrooms with pores or tubes on the underside of the cap. Some of them were shelf or bracket mushrooms.

  

Some species look as if they have a maze of tubes underneath the fruiting body. The polypores are important in furthering wood decay, which in turn is important for cycling of nutrients and production of carbon dioxide in forests.

  

The tiny Mycena mushrooms have conical caps with gills and fragile thin stems. Some species are edible, but others contain toxins.

   

 

The Lactarius mushrooms, known as milk-caps, release a milky substance when the cap is cut or damaged. The undersides of the caps are gilled.

Armillaria fungi are also known as honey fungus; these mushrooms grow on rotting wood in clusters and can eventually become quite large. In fact, it is thought by some that an Armillaria in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest is the largest living organism on earth – it now covers about 2470 acres and may be about 8650 years old!

 

When I spotted these brightly colored Pholiota mushrooms, they were greeted with enthusiasm both by the non-mycologists and the student collectors. They only took a few and left the rest for other walkers to admire.

 

 

When we returned to our starting point, the two sub-groups laid out all their specimens and Van told us interesting facts about them. The Lepiota mushrooms are often poisonous. Because edible and poisonous mushrooms can look very similar, people without in-depth knowledge of fungi should not eat mushrooms they find growing outside. In North Carolina, for example, only about 200 of the more than 3000 identified mushrooms are common edible ones.

Few people die from eating poisonous mushrooms (7 deaths were reported in 2012), but people are hospitalized because they don’t recognize unsafe species. Some mushrooms need to be prepared for consumption in a special way to make them safe; some should not be consumed while drinking alcohol and some individuals may have personal problems with particular species.

Van also pointed out that mycologists use spore prints in identifying fungal species. The color of spore prints is particularly important.

 

 

 

  

When I returned home, I prepared the lion’s mane as recommended by those who eat them regularly (sautéing or grilling; I sautéd it). It was with great anticipation that I took my first bite, remembering how much I loved oyster mushrooms when I first tried those. Sad to say, I found the lion’s mane bland and rather tasteless, but at least I had tried it. And I did have an enjoyable time on the mushroom walk, thanks to Friends of Bolin Creek!

** Thanks to Salli Benedict for providing the group photo!