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.

Turtles as stepping stones

Northern mockingbird IMG_3689©Maria de Bruyn resOne day when I was at a beautiful nature park in the neighboring city of Durham, I was – of course – looking for wildlife. For a while I watched a Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) pecking along the path in a quest for insects. It wasn’t until I got to the pond, however, that a scene unfolded which kept me occupied for a while.


great blue heron IMG_4099©Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_3905©Maria de Bruyn resThe resident great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had stationed him (or her) self at the end of a log on which several pond slider turtles (Trachemys scripta) were basking. He seemed to be staring in their direction, so I wondered if he was considering eating one. After seeing a video of a heron swallowing a groundhog whole, I knew that they can consume quite large meals. After a time, though, it seemed that the bird wasn’t interested in the turtles but in the fish swimming in front of them. After patiently waiting for a time, the heron stabbed and had success!

painted turtle IMG_3815© Maria de Bruyn resThe heron decided to move to a new spot, down near the other end of the log. The sun was bright and the pond was filled with many dozens of turtles enjoying the warmth. Whereas red-eared sliders and painted turtles at Mason Farm Biological Reserve will often plop into the water in haste when they sense people nearby, these turtles didn’t seem to care if they were watched from the pond’s edge. But I did think they would move as the heron neared them.

great blue heron IMG_3987©Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_4142©Maria de Bruyn res


How wrong I was! The turtles saw him coming but they just let the huge bird use their backs as stepping stones!


great blue heron IMG_4160©Maria de Bruyn res   great blue heron IMG_4166©Maria de Bruyn res

great blue heron IMG_4302©Maria de Bruyn res

The bird’s claws completely encircled some turtles as it moved along, occasionally balancing on one leg.

great blue heron IMG_4224©Maria de Bruyn res  painted turtle IMG_4217©Maria de Bruyn 2

I noticed a few turtles with scutes bent up into the air. (Scutes are sections of the carapace.) I began to wonder if this was the result of the heron’s claws snagging on their shells as the bird proceeded.

IMG_3808© Maria de Bruyn 2great blue heron IMG_4297©Maria de Bruyn

If that was true, though, why didn’t the turtles skedaddle out of there when the heron came near? I only saw one turtle plunge into the pond.

great blue heron IMG_4304©Maria de Bruyn respainted turtle IMG_3815© Maria de BruynAt home, I did an Internet search and found out that turtles shed their scutes from time to time and that was apparently what I was seeing. So I learned that turtles shed! Turtles’ shells are extensions of their rib cage and attached to their spine; terrestrial turtles don’t shed but aquatic turtles do shed scutes, which are made of keratin (like the material of horns or fingernails).

5-MdB great blue heron IMG_4339

The heron kept moving along as he wasn’t having much success in the different spots he chose. He did get a couple fish but smaller than his first catch. Eventually, I found that I wasn’t quite as patient as the heron so I finally left after a very entertaining hour of observation. I do so love watching the natural world!