Sunday, January 27, 2013

Black Vultures and the Circle of Life

A wake of black vultures assembled near the carcass of a white-tailed deer presumably killed in a collision with an automobile. Not an uncommon sight in central Carolina. Black vultures are much more gregarious than their kin, the turkey vulture, and often gather in impressive numbers around a food source.

Although slightly smaller than the turkey vulture, the black vulture is still an imposing figure, standing nearly two feet tall, with a wingspan approaching five feet. The black vulture hunts primarily by sight, but the turkey vulture has a much more refined sense of smell, and may detect the smell of decaying flesh within as little as twelve hours of death. In some cases, black vultures will monitor a solitary turkey vulture from above, only to swoop down en masse and aggressively drive it away from its meal. 

While "buzzards"(as they are colloquially known in much of the southeastern U.S.) are often reviled as gross or filthy because of their association with carrion, vultures have traditionally been revered in some parts of the world for their role in disposing of the dead. In Tibet, for instance, the Buddhist "sky burial" relied on vultures to consume the empty vessel of a departed soul. 

Vultures play a valuable role in our ecosystem by recycling the flesh of dead animals. Roadkill is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but many wild and domestic animals die each day of disease or natural causes. The black vulture's stomach acid is believed to destroy many, if not all, bacteria and other disease pathogens in the flesh it consumes, allowing it to eat with impunity. 

These vultures watch alertly for predators while their comrades earnestly attend to the business of eating. This behavior is common among black vultures and allows the feeding birds to focus on the task at hand without distraction, resulting in much more efficient consumption. Fascinating creatures, these black-clad clean up artists, essential players in the circle of life.

Friday, January 25, 2013

In the Dead of Winter...Winter Green

As wintry as it gets in these parts. Highs in the twenties (F) with a steady freezing drizzle. Great time for a walk.

Skies are bleak, leafless limbs succumb to winter's icy grip. Gum ball hangs by a thread, clinging to her lofty perch, delaying the inevitable... 

Sleet and freezing rain pelt the forest edge. The ghosts of autumn shrink from Winter's frigid gaze.

Faces downcast, their pallid forms blur beneath the glaze.

Once lithe and graceful, brittle stems creak and bend; is this the end?

Silently, the tight pink bud gives answer, as last year's fruit gape into emptiness.

At her feet, sweet gums future wait patiently for the bitter cold to recede.

Bed of worms? Den of serpents? Unnatural relic. Not green.


A single green leaf, in the dead of winter, by the brief light of day, conspires with the elements to bring forth summer's orchid. Crane-fly orchid.

Winter Green! Spotted wintergreen, or pipsissewa.

More winter green, Heartleaf or Wild Ginger.

Green with hint of red, smilax, greenbrier, catbrier, cat greenbrier...

Moving up from the forest floor, some of winter's most common greens... 

The forest gloom yields to the gleaming green leaves glistening beneath their still-hardening shells.

Blemishes diminish 'neath winter's spell 

As margins soften, shadows darken

Freckles, scars and veins vanish in the glaze

Flowing, slowing, ceasing...


And, everywhere, the pointy green leaves with red accents.

Hooray for holly wood. 

Winter green...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Now Where Did I Put That Acorn...?

Eastern Gray Squirrel is as common as can be in our neck of the woods. On a sunny winter day like today, as many as eight or ten are active within view of the back door. As a scatter hoarder, it plays an important role in seed dispersal. Early each spring, dozens of miniature oak trees spring forth from our yard thanks to the squirrels' habit of stashing surplus acorns singly in the loose soil all around the yard during the fall. 

The memory required of a scatter hoarder is prodigious, and fortunately these guys have it, else we'd have thousands, not dozens, of small oak trees to pluck from the lawn each spring.

Squirrels and other rodents are not alone in hoarding or caching food for later use. A few months back, Hoot Owl Karma encountered another animal which engages in hoarding behavior, the loggerhead shrike.  This morning, while peering into the upper branches of a dogwood, we spied evidence of just this sort of avian caching.

No idea how long this lone hopper has been stored in the birds' open air larder, but upon close inspection, it appears to be holding up just fine until the industrious feathered impaler returns for its meal.

Wonder if there are rules regarding stealing another's stash...?

Friday, January 18, 2013

I'm Melting! I'm Melting!

When the boys hit the hay late last night, snowflakes were falling-
 And designs they were drawing for the coolest snowman yet.

Eight hours later...

Gone! All gone! Another near miss. Such is life along the fall line in central North Carolina. Seems the cold air mass and the moist air mass can never quite get their act together when it counts!

Like last year's snowman on the day after, the boy's hopes have melted away. But they will return, buoyed by next week's forecast of highs in the thirties (F). And the cycle continues...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Let It Snow...Winter Magic

Just hours after the warmest winter weekend in recent memory, forecasters began predicting frozen precipitation here in the heart of Carolina, prompting Hoot Owl Karma to tap the archives for scenes from winters past. 

On a normal day, this is the road to school; on a snow day this is the road to Wonderland...

Carolina's towering pines become icy sentinels, quietly complicit in the mysteries unfolding beneath their bended boughs...

In the silence of the wood, leafless, lifeless limbs erupt with sparkling blossoms beneath the magic powder...

Each icy flake a masterpiece, nature releases a million miniature designs at once; blanketing the brittle branches. Gently, gradually, the branches blossom. Many an astonished winter traveler has nodded assent at the aptly named Witch Hazel when confronted by such an incongruous sight. 

Magic?  I wonder.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Seeds of Spring Along the Eno

January 13th, 2013. Second consecutive day with high temps some 25 degrees F above normal. The seeds of autumn not yet fully dispersed, but mid-winter in the Carolinas today feels like late spring. 

The river beckons. Eno River, just minutes from Interstate 85 in Durham County. The cool water looks inviting on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon.

Watching the fish feast on an early hatch of tiny flying insects, Jay spies another early emerger...

An ectothermic reptile such as this little brown snake is rarely seen abroad in mid-winter.

Although not aquatic, this fellow doesn't hesitate to take to the currents for safety.

Returning to the warm rocks in a safer spot...

A glance upstream reveals more reptiles basking in the premature spring.

Though there seems to be plenty of room, these turtles appear to fancy the same spot of sun.

This little slider appears frozen in motion alongside the gently flowing waters. In reality, all limbs are fully extended to maximize his exposure to the sun's warm rays. The hitch-hiking snail's just along for the ride.

This large garter snake seems completely oblivious to the camera; the sun is a powerful elixir.

Over the swaying bridge and homeward bound, the visitors leave the river dwellers to revel in a few more hours of Spring.

And somewhere below, the seeds are a few hours closer to unfurling this year's vine...

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mockingbird Song

The Northern Mockingbird is a year-round resident throughout the US. Mimus polyglottos famously mimics the sounds of others; countless birds, of course, but frogs, dogs, people and even machines often pepper the repertoire as well. 

Thorns are no deterrent on a chilly January morn, as an abundance of ruby-hued winter fruit garner the attention of this ubiquitous suburban resident. But an intruder competes for her attention this morning.

Harper Lee's classic symbol of innocence rarely offends, except perhaps when a hopeful bachelor croons incessantly outside the window in the wee morning hours of springtime. 

But spring this isn't, and sing she doesn't, for the moment.

Eyes meet in silent contemplation. Just a glance. Then a pause... the gaze lingers.

A few earnest notes, and the spell is broken.

A nod. A parting glance. 

Sweet melody; but I couldn't quite make out the lyrics.