Monday, April 20, 2015

Spotted Turtle and Eastern Hognose Snake - Fellow Travelers

 A warm mid-April shower finds the pinxter-flower, or wild azaleas, Rhododendron periclymenoides, just reaching their peak in Brother Henry's wood,  and they greet us from afar as we cross the sturdy wooden bridge over little rain-swollen Moccasin Creek.

Beneath the stately pines out front, a miniature spotted turtle, Clemmys guttata, makes its way amidst the scattered straw and spent catkins, so recently bereft of their abundant stores of pollen.

Spring is very much in the air these days, for gymnosperms and angiosperms alike, 

but today's gentle rains have shifted our focus from the trees and the pollen-filled skies to the understory and the forest floor and the creatures that happen to be making their way therein... 

with our gaze thus lowered, 
we encounter another strata of flowering plants as well, 
such as these rain-drenched violets, 
scattered about like so many brilliant amethysts in the sandy path.

Our spotted turtle moves along steadily, 
still quite young, 
sporting just one spot per scute on its carapace, 
with bold golden polka dots marching in pairs right up the back of its neck and head and eyebrows;

foraging here in the straw and the sand, practically in the shadow of the violets,
perchance to find a worm or slug or snail, 
quite the satisfying meal for one of its clan.

Soon it will return to its pool, where it will spend the night in the mud of the shallows, 
secure from harm beneath a dark cloak of still, clean water, in the shadow of the cattails and duckweed.

Spotted turtle is one of the last of its genus, a North Carolina native, less and less common in the face of habitat loss and removal from the wild as a personal pet or for the larger pet trade. 
Automobiles have taken their toll, as have predators such as dogs and raccoons;
and in long-lived species such as this, 
when juveniles like this one won't become sexually mature for another six or seven years, 
the loss of even one mature adult can seriously impact a community's chances of long-term survival. 

We're glad to have met you, little spotted turtle, and may you live long and prosper right here alongside us and the violets on the far western edge of the Carolina coastal plain.

The wild azaleas and the violets must, of course, share the April spotlight and the gentle life-giving rain here in the shadows of the forest understory with the magnificent flowering dogwood.

And at the forest edge, at the very foot of a noble long-leaf pine, we see another most beautiful native creature of the Carolinas, eastern hognose snake, heterodon platirhinos.

The hognose snake, with its characteristic upturned snout, appears in a variety of color phases, quite often clad in simple black or dark gray, with very little in the way of apparent pattern or markings. 

This individual, however, appears to be a brown or even red color phase, 
and it is clearly a creature of the pines, 

sharing the reds, and oranges, and yellows and grays and browns and blacks 
of the straw and the bark and the cone fragments and the hardened amber sap 
of Carolina's majestic longleaf pines.

Although eastern hognose eats a variety of small animals, toads are a definite favorite, 
and its colorful pattern certainly wouldn't hurt its chances of a successful ambush here in the shadow of the pines.

The eastern hognose is renowned for its wide array of defensive postures and tricks, first flattening its head and neck in cobra-like fashion to make itself appear larger, then hissing and puffing in a most threatening way.

If this aggressive display fails to deter a would-be predator, 
the hognose resorts to the opposite extreme, 
often regurgitating its most recent meal of toad before rolling over and pretending to be stinkingly, disgustingly and decidedly unappetizingly dead; 

mouth open, tongue lolling, drooling and persistently rolling itself back onto its back no matter how often it might be righted by a well-meaning handler.

Our encounter today, however, consists merely of respectful observation, 
with none of the histrionics associated with stress or threatening behavior. We've observed many eastern hognose snakes while growing up wild in the Sandhills of North Carolina, but few, if any, have matched the beauty and grace of this individual. 

Days like today remind us to be grateful for the blessing 
of sharing an ecosystem with such awesome creatures, 

fellow travelers all.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

First Snake of Spring

With spring in full bloom, folks in our neck of the woods are hitting the gardens and flower beds pretty hard. And quite often, where rake meets the last leaf of November, and trowel meets last spring's mulch, human meets snake.

In this instance, human was a kind-hearted friend of Brother Henry's, and snake was a very young and beautiful mole king snake.

Curious about the camera, and not at all intimidated by the very large creature behind the lens, this bold young reptile probably hatched late last fall and may have made winter shelter in the very mulch and leaves where its mother laid her eggs last summer. 

The mole king snake is quite secretive and rarely seen abroad, so we consider ourselves lucky that the industrious gardener brought this one to light with her rake.

The snake received a minor wound from the tines of the rake, but appears relatively unfazed by the trauma, and after being relocated to a nearby wooded lot, should live to hunt another day.

We're mighty glad to document another happy ending to an encounter with one of these benign and beneficial creatures; 

glad in the knowledge not only that this remarkable snake is alive and well, 
but that its parents are probably still about and healthy enough to give life to the next generation. 

Perhaps we'll be lucky enough to run into them as well.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nothing Says Spring Quite Like Pollen...

Pollen days are here again, and with them, Spring. 

For nearly two weeks now, the Carolina pines have filled the air with their minuscule grains of golden powder, cloaking much of the state in a thick yellow haze, and coating every exposed surface with a dusting of sulphur yellow.

Mercifully, however, the spring rains have come in abundance as well, clearing the air for a spell with each passing shower, and rinsing leaf and blossom clean in advance of tomorrow's fresh coat of pollen. 

Along with the pollen come other familiar portents of the Southern spring, and our hearts thrill at the sight of them...

Known variously as wild azalea, pinxter flower or pinxter azalea, this lovely native rhododendron brightens many a woodland nook around our area in the early days of April.

Between showers, male northern cardinal's persistent "Purdy! Purdy! Purdy!" rings from his treetop perch;  one voice in a chorus of avian song that accompanies the year's 
first wave of nesting and egg-laying.

And down below, where woodland yields to meadow, clumps of rain- and sun-kissed bluets elicit a smile from every passerby.

Even the humble drainage ditch has its part to play in the springtime drama; 
nursery for amphibian and arthropod alike, 
as green frog basks amidst a gyrating swarm of mosquito larvae.

All the most appealing sights and scents of spring are met in the sweet shrub or spicebush, whose luscious peachy perfume drenches the woodland margins more thoroughly than the afternoon shower just ended.

The iridescent emerald hues of the six-spotted tiger beetle foreshadow the impending miraculous appearance of millions of fresh green leaves in the canopy overhead... 

as the epicure's elusive and enchanting morel mushroom makes 
its annual April appearance in the shadows and decay of the forest floor.

The pollen is here, 

bringing with it 

the hues,

the textures,

the flavors,

 the fragrance,

and the joy...

of Spring.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

One Good Tern...

For the second Sunday running, we found ourselves enjoying a stroll along the beaches of the Crystal Coast of North Carolina. 
This week found us at the opposite end of the island from where we encountered last week's lonely loon, and the shores were much less lonely here at Fort Macon State Park, playing host to a sizable gathering of seabirds. 

While we are somewhat familiar with North Carolina's sea and shorebirds, we're certainly not experts, and any trip to the coast is likely to set us thumbing through the "bird books" for a little help. On this particular afternoon, we encountered a mixed flock gathered to face the stiff coastal breeze, and we recognized its members immediately as terns, but we needed a little help to sort them all out. Turns out they were predominately royal terns in full breeding plumage, 
but a common tern or two and a pair of sandwich terns were also in attendance.

The crew made sport of holding their ground until an approaching beachcomber got too close for comfort, then taking to the air one-by-one in quite a casual and unhurried fashion.

The royal terns sported striking orange bills with black legs and a ruffled black crest, 

while the sandwich terns were a good bit smaller, with yellow-tipped black bills.

After all were airborne, they played follow the leader just above the waves 
on their way to establishing a new beachhead a bit farther along the island.

There were a fair number of gulls around as well, 
and this laughing gull seemed entirely unmoved by all the commotion,

even as the terns took up a new position a few meters down the beach.

The royal terns are large and impressive birds, second in size only to the Caspian among the terns, easily standing shoulder to shoulder with the medium-sized gulls nearby.

The contrast of bold black and white breeding plumage with bright orange bills 

gives these strikingly beautiful creatures an almost comical air, 

as their steadfast stares pierce the brisk breeze.

With their peculiarly low-slung and elongated pose, 
the clever birds almost manage to convince the photographer that the camera lens has somehow distorted the finished image.

As usual, nature has rewarded the hardy wanderers with a delightful and entirely unexpected sensory feast;

prompting us to ponder whether perhaps we can find an excuse to head this way again next weekend... 

After all, as the old saying goes, one good tern deserves another.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Alone with a Loon at Bogue Lagoon

It's breezy and bright and just a little bit chilly as we stand on the Point at Emerald Isle and gaze to the west across Bogue Inlet at the sand and shrubs of Bear Island, home to Hammocks Beach State Park and more than a few Hoot Owl Karma encounters.

Tide's coming in, and the porpoises are playing just a few meters out along the edge of the channel. 

As we follow the shore away from the surf and toward the sound, the late afternoon glare plays tricks on our eyes;
shadows rise and fall with the waves, taking on a life of their own
as they drift among the glittering specks of sun and foam.

But just there, beyond the next little wave, appears a living shadow; 

dark head bowed t'ward the shimmering surface, eyes intent on the depths below, 

until our lone traveler vanishes as suddenly as he appeared. 

Moments pass, then more and a few more still... 
A full minute elapses, and then...

Up periscope!

Still partially submerged, cruising submarine style, 
surveying the surface with head and eyes and bill barely above water, 
the identity of our water-bound wanderer becomes apparent.

A lonely loon, perhaps pausing for a meal on the long return journey to its breeding grounds in the far north, or maybe a young bird residing here for a longer spell. 

Right on cue, it dives again, spending another minute or so below the surface,

before bursting dramatically onto the scene again, 
directly in line with the incoming rays of the slowly setting sun.

We amble along, and he swims along beside, 

keeping the sun in our eyes and giving the camera's light sensor fits...

and then, a slight curve in the shoreline, 
and with it a brief respite from the cloaking effects of the sun's brilliant rays. 

Our companion's handsome garb emerges in all its black and white brilliance, 
adorned with tiny globular prisms of glistening brine, 
a delight to both eyes and lens, 
and then...

back to the shadows again.

We sit on the sand and wonder, 
as bird and porpoises cavort in their life-filled lagoon, 
how very awkward must we appear,
high and dry and lonely upon the shore.