Venturing forth on overcast days

Our area has been inundated with rain for 9 days straight now – not a big deal if you live in a region with monsoon seasons but it is not really usual for us. We also had two hurricanes and several severe storms the past 5.5 months as well as other rainy periods and the ground – much of it clay – is just not absorbing all the water anymore. My yard (which I am fortunate to have, don’t get me wrong!) currently has patches that are simply sodden mud and clay with no vegetation to be seen. Paths in the nature reserves are slick and slippery. Still, if you’re a person who gets “spiritual sustenance” by going out into nature, you venture forth on those days that might have a few overcast but rain-free hours to see what is out and about. Though I haven’t seen beavers lately, I did see their tracks in one reserve. A father had brought his children out and they made plaster casts of the tracks – a wonderful outdoor nature lesson.

Because we have also had some unusually warm days for this time of year, the flowers began budding a bit earlier than other years. Daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses are blooming profusely and a few of my neighbors have lovely flowering quince (Chaenomeles).

 

 

A winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) at one park had some lovely blossoms.

 

 

 

 

 

At another reserve, an apple tree (Malus pumila) has lovely flowers emerging.

 

Unfortunately, the tree is right next to a grove of cedars that are laden with mature cedar apple rust galls (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae). When they emit their spores, they will kill the apples. I used to have an apple tree in my yard but the nearby cedars also got apple rust and now the tree has died. I’ve planted a plum tree and hope that that one will thrive and survive.

With the leaves having fallen from most trees, it’s possible to see the cocoons of some of our larger moths. So far, I’ve found three cecropia moth cocoons, two polyphemus moth cocoons and several bagworm moth cocoons in three different places. The Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg cases are also showing up better with little foliage to hide them.

Getting nice shots of birds is not easy on those dull and gray days. Many of the smaller birds were huddled in bushes and trees, puffing themselves up to trap some body heat as a means of coping with the cold and wet conditions.

 

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

I tried to get close to a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius), who kept flying just a bit further away when I slowly approached it. As I was walking back to my car, it suddenly turned and flew right by me – I swung up my camera and got one shot, which was not perfect but still a bit of a reward.

 

A gorgeous great blue heron (Ardea herodias), on the other hand, deigned to entertain me with a protracted grooming session at a local pond. S/he first perched above a couple turtles and watched them until they plopped down underwater.

Then the bird began picking at its feathers, showing off how its long neck can be twisted to enable that long beak to reach where it wants.

Note where the beak is peeking through in the photo above right! Flexible neck!

The preening activities gave me a chance to get what I considered to be a series of nice portraits.

 

The weather forecasters predicted that the rain would end, it would get very windy and the sun would shine this afternoon – they were right! They also say we will have a week of sunny days coming up – I certainly hope that that’s the case so I can exchange my muck boots for regular walking shoes again. Hope you are enjoying some pleasant weather!

 

The sad spring saga of Sassy squirrel

cape-may-warbler-i77a5989-maria-de-bruyn-2resSpring has come early to North Carolina, leading to some early bird migration (like this Cape May warbler, Setophaga tigrina, on its way North), avian courtship and nest building, as well as spring blossoms already emerging in profusion. My garden has seen some lovely flowers, both cultivated and wild: daffodils (Narcissus), crocuses (Crocus), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis).

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My camellias ( Camellia) bloomed in much greater profusion than ever before.

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The shrubs and trees also sent out their buds weeks “ahead of schedule” – since the past month was the warmest recorded February in this area, my plants advanced their springtime blossoming, including the serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), viburnums, dogwoods (Cornus kousa and Cornus florida) and common elderberry (Sambucus nigra).

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My new blueberry bushes burgeoned with delicate little flowers, but the past two nights I had to cover them up so that they wouldn’t shrivel up as the temperatures dropped below freezing.

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It wasn’t only the plant and bird life responding to the unusually changing season, though, as I discovered when I finally noticed the altered pillow on my front porch rocking chair. I first saw that the cloth covering the pillow had been torn; upon closer examination, I saw that the pillow had been opened up with its filling tufting up in places.

 

 

eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a0093-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen I began watching the rocker in addition to the bird feeders, I discovered the culprit – an industrious Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), whom I named Sassy as she shows no fear, just a little caution.

Sassy is quite bold, coming up onto the porch even when I’m seated there. She keeps an eye on me but goes about her business in a calm and confident mood. This was also the case for her nest building activities. She perched on the pillow and used her teeth to tear out the insides.

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She then manipulated the tufts with her paws and teeth to form them into neat little oblong packages that she could easily transport in her mouth.

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Sometimes, she added some dried leaves to the mixture.

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When her mouth was filled with enough material, she left to transport it to the nest that she was constructing – as it turned out, high in a loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) in a neighbor’s front yard. As I followed behind her, she stayed aware of my movements.

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Then she crossed the street and scurried up the tree, where she deposited her “mattress stuffing” among the leaves and other materials lining the nest.

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Since Sassy was so very industrious and the pillow was no longer salvageable, I left it out for her. She returned for several days, systematically dismantling her found source of nest material and carrying off her little woolly trophies.

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When the stuffing began to disperse with the wind, I finally gathered it up and threw out what was left, figuring she had had plenty of manmade contributions to her home.

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Then a couple days later, I was dismayed on her behalf to see that the new neighbors had decided to remove the tree where her nest was located. The landscapers said Sassy’s nest was not a factor in their decision; they just thought the tree was in the way. I watched with sadness as Sassy’s tree was dismantled and her nest plunged to the ground.

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I didn’t see where Sassy was during this event but am sure she was watching from some other vantage point. I felt badly for her – all her innovative and dedicated work was destroyed. Of course, people lose their homes, too, to flooding, fires, tornadoes, etc.  and that is horrible. But I still regretted that this hard-working mammal had lost her home as well.

I presume Sassy has been building a new nest elsewhere. And given her boldness, I’m fairly certain that she was the squirrel I saw yesterday afternoon who had decided that she likes dried mealworms.

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As my feline companion Moasi watched from her cat tree perch in the living room, Sassy was busy on the other side of the window chowing down on the worms in a new window feeder that I had actually bought for the Carolina wrens and chickadees, who often perch on the chair in front of the window.

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Sassy didn’t seem to mind Moasi watching her and she wasn’t fazed when I approached either. It was only when I knocked on the window that she finally descended to the porch and then left for the yard. I like to think that Sassy has made a new home and is now busy getting extra nutrition for the babies to come. And spring continues to unfold with temperatures varying from 24 to 70 degrees and above!

A walk in the woods with a bit of local history

Ken Moore IMG_6384© Maria de Bruyn resOn a sunny afternoon in mid-April, volunteers at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) had the chance to learn about Bill Hunt, a horticultural expert who donated hundreds of acres of land for environmental conservation to the University of North Carolina. Hunt’s work laid the foundations for the expansion of the Garden with the Hunt Arboretum and the Piedmont Nature Trails in woods behind the cultivated gardens. The trails were “re-dedicated” during a walk to commemorate the Garden’s first public offering, which was originally dedicated on 10 April 1966. A walk in the woods was quite a nice way to help celebrate the NCBG’s 50th birthday.

Ken Moore IMG_6398© Maria de Bruyn resWe learned about how the Nature Trails were created and maintained from Ken Moore, retired assistant director of the NCBG and the Garden’s first employee.

Moore was accompanied by other Garden staff who offered other interesting tidbits of information. For example, Johnny Randall, NCBG Director of Conservation, told us about how Mr. Hunt visited his rhododendron bushes along Morgan Creek and invited friends to swim at Elephant Rock and to forest picnics at his personal grill located creekside, all the while wearing a suit and tie in his beloved woods.

elephant rock IMG_6443© Maria de Bruyn resHunt barbecue IMG_6436© Maria de Bruyn res

Staff pointed out some of the lovely native plants seen in the springtime woods, including plants that were rescued from other sites such as the trilliums.

Sweet Betsy IMG_6405© Maria de Bruyn res Virginia pennywort IMG_6411© Maria de Bruyn res

Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)                 Virginia pennywort (Obolaria virginica)

The woodsorrels have three-lobed, clover-like leaves.

Common yellow woodsorrelIMG_6429© Maria de Bruyn   Violet woodsorrel IMG_6423© Maria de Bruyn res

.Common yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta)   Violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea)

Indian plantain IMG_6439© Maria de Bruyn res         Spotted wintergreen IMG_6434© Maria de Bruyn res

Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum)   Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

We also heard about the non-native and invasive plants that were planted along the Nature Trails before conservationists were aware of how they out-competed native plants for space and nutrients. They pointed out that we should remove such vegetation during our volunteer hours and from our own gardens at home, such as Oriental false hawksbeard (Youngia japonica (L.)), which I realized is nestling in in my yard, too.

Special attention was given to the plant with the delightful name of Italian lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum). There were many clumps of these large-leaved flowers and numerous specimens were blooming. While Ken told us how to identify male and female plants so we could eradicate them, other staff demonstrated how to uproot them with gusto.

Italian lords-and-ladies IMG_6481© Maria de Bruyn res          Italian lords-and-ladies IMG_6494© Maria de Bruyn res

Listening IMG_6499© Maria de Bruyn res

As we climbed out of the woods after a couple hours, some last words were said about invasive plants and then Ken sped ahead to greet everyone as we re-entered the demonstration gardens. He kindly offered participants a small booklet about Bill Hunt’s life, a nice gift to commemorate 50 years of the Garden. It will be interesting to think about what the next 50 years might bring.

Ken Moore Ed Harrison IMG_6524© Maria de Bruyn resrue anemone windflower IMG_6450© Maria de Bruyn res                       IMG_6466© Maria de Bruyn res

IMG_6468© Maria de Bruyn res                   IMG_6458© Maria de Bruyn res Wild comfrey (right, Cynoglossum virginianum)

A wildflower walk with surprises!

owl IMG_3036© Maria de Bruyn resThis past Saturday morning, we awoke to water streaming from the heavens in quite a heavy downpour. A local conservation group, Friends of Bolin Creek, had scheduled a wildflower walk to see some of our ephemeral spring blooms but the wet conditions were not inviting. A decision to postpone the walk to early afternoon was taken – and the weather-people had gotten it right – the sun began shining at mid-day and the temperature rose, creating lovely conditions for a walk after all. A large owl (later revealed to be granddaughter Kate of the group’s president) greeted the small group of intrepid walkers and we set off to see what we could find.

Southern arrowwood IMG_3039© Maria de Bruyn res

Our first flowers were the not-yet-open blooms of a Southern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum). We passed numerous black and yellow millipedes on the paths and then found another millipede species (Narceus americanus) curled up next to a little brown jug (also known as arrowleaf heartleaf, Hextastylis arifolia var arifolia).

millipede IMG_3052© Maria de Bruynlittle brown jug IMG_3048© Maria de Bruyn

We came across other nice specimens of the plant, including one with four small flowers.

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The painted buckeye trees (Aesculus sylvatica) were blooming profusely with their greenish-yellow flowers.

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Clusters of Eastern spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) were in their vicinity.

 

 

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Some of the star chickweeds (Stellaria pubera) were near another white bloom, the rue anemones (Thalictrum thalictroides).

 

 

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Both the trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and cranefly orchids (Tipularia discolor) had already bloomed, the trout lilies about 7-10 days ago and the orchids in the winter (when there are no leaves). One orchid had left behind its brown stalk as a witness to the flower that had seen the light.

trout lily IMG_3156© Maria de Bruyncranefly orchid IMG_3148© Maria de Bruyn

Tiny bluets (Houstonia pusilla) in clusters here and there provided some variation from the ubiquitous white blooms that we were seeing. The mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) were just emerging and it will be a little while before we see their flowers emerge underneath the leafy umbrellas.

tiny bluet IMG_3118© Maria de Bruynmayapple IMG_3196© Maria de Bruyn

 

Bolin creek IMG_3165© Maria de BruynThe creek was running high and fast and we debated on crossing it at the first branch. Only two of us had wellingtons (and one lady found that her boots leaked); others were wearing running and walking shoes but everyone made it across by using stones, canes and walking sticks that some of our group had brought along. Our immediate reward was a view of a gorgeous pinxterbloom wild azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides).

pinxterbloom azalea IMG_3174© Maria de Bruyn

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A sighting of a foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), followed by a cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) provided a bit more color, as did the littleleaf buttercup (Ranunculus abortivus), although its blooms were not fully expanded yet.

 

cutleaf toothwort IMG_3187© Maria de Bruynlittle leaf buttercup IMG_3092© Maria de Bruyn

Only the jigsaw puzzle-like leaves of the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) were in evidence as that flower had stopped blooming already. A tufted titmouse singing overhead (Baeolophus bicolor) gave us a nice little concert as compensation.

bloodroot IMG_3198© Maria de Bruyn tufted titmouse IMG_3201© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3428© Maria de Bruyn resAnd then we came across our three surprises of the walk. We had already seen several Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) fluttering by in one’s and two’s and we remarked how welcome they were because of the paucity of butterflies we had had the past couple years. But then across another branch of the creek, we spotted some 12-20 butterflies congregating over some delicacy of unknown (to us) origin.

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3259© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3263© Maria de Bruyn res

The water was fairly deep and flowing fast, so we did not cross but we surmised that someone’s dog had left a pile of poo to provide a mud-puddling butterfly feast.

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3443© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3447© Maria de Bruyn res

Then we noticed on a rock just below the bank under the butterflies where two Northern watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon) were having a little rest.

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northern watersnake IMG_3408© Maria de BruynThey were a bit dull in color, which became quite obvious when compared to a third northern watersnake that we spotted on a rock closer to the creek – perhaps a younger individual who had decided that a sunbath was just the thing for a Saturday afternoon.

northern watersnake IMG_3241© Maria de Bruyn northern watersnake IMG_3349© Maria de Bruyn

While we were all enamored with the flowers we’d seen, the butterflies and snakes gave our walk a special feel.

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On our return trip through the woods to reach our transportation, we came across an invasive plant, the bugleweed (Ajuga reptans). We had already seen plenty of Japanese wisteria, mahonia, privet and autumn olive and agreed that another volunteer day to weed out some invasives would be a good contribution to the preserve. But that is for the future – right now, we are happy to think back to our surprise spottings!

April’s fool – this is NOT a flower!

 

shagbark hickory I77A7704© Maria de Bruyn resDuring North Carolina’s early spring weeks, visitors to wooded areas may be delighted by newly emerging shagbark hickory saplings (Carya ovata).

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The slender young trees show off their new leaves at the ends of branching twigs, creating lovely patterns against the sky and other foliage. Eventually, they may reach a height of some 100 feet (30 meters) and, if not felled by storms, floods or other means, they may get as old as 350 years.

When I first saw these little beauties, I thought that they had wonderful spring flowers in hues of orange, rose and yellow. The “flowers” were at the base of clusters of pinnate leaves and they were often quite lovely.

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It turns out that I had been fooled not only on April 1st, but the whole spring season in past years. Only recently did I find out that the shagbarks don’t have spring flowers at all – the curling petals are actually the scales of the buds from which the leaves emerge! The male and female flowers appear in late summer and early fall.

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When the shagbark reaches the age of about 10 years, it begins to produce hickory nuts, reaching its full nut-bearing potential around the age of 40 and continuing to produce until about 100 years. The nuts are eaten by many species, including humans, squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, black bears, mice, foxes and birds.

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The shaggy bark, found in mature but not young trees, is used to help flavor syrups. I must admit that these trees attract my attention much more in the spring than other times of year – those flower-like bud scales are gorgeous!