Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Magicicada, Cicada Magic

News media have been abuzz recently in anticipation of a massive emergence of periodical cicadas in the Northeastern United States. Brood II, as it is known by scientists and cicada enthusiasts, is one of a dozen remaining brood cycles of 17 year cicadas. Each of the known broods emerge with great predictability and in mind-boggling numbers in mid-spring in eastern North America.

Although Brood II will emerge a little to our north and west in North Carolina, Hoot Owl Karma encountered a few hundred thousand or so members of Brood XIX, one of the three remaining broods of 13 year cicadas, back in May of 2011. For those of you who missed out, here's a brief look back...

After 13 years below ground, tapping tree roots for nourishment, the nymphs emerge by the billions and head for the treetops to molt.

Four exoskeletons on a single leaf may seem a bit much, but the emergence at this site wasn't nearly as dense as in other places. Scientists estimate as many as 1.5 million cicadas per acre in some areas.

While the red eyes lend these bugs a rather fearsome facade, they possess no stingers or teeth or other defensive apparatus, relying instead on sheer numbers to overwhelm potential predators, so that any given individual has a relatively good chance of surviving to reproduce.

There were four different species of the genus Magicicada in Brood XIX, and Brood II will consist of three different species. We're still learning to distinguish them, but hopefully these pictures have given you idea of what to watch for if you're in the range of this year's emergence.

 If not, no worries. Just close your eyes and listen for the sound of a million or so males vibrating their tymbals simultaneously in hopes of attracting a mate from amongst the millions of silent females in the teeming treetops. Cicada magic, that's amore!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pinewoods Magic - Moccasin Flower

Not far from Hoot Owl central, here in the heart of Carolina, a large stand of towering loblolly pines borders the two-lane rural byway leading back to my beginnings as a naturalist in the Sandhills. An almost pure stand of loblolly, with a veritable carpet of reddish orange straw blanketing the sandy soil beneath, not unlike the scenery you might encounter on any of hundreds of rural highways in the American Southeast, and only a week or so removed from its role in broadcasting its share of a few million tons of bright yellow pine pollen throughout our region.

A few years back, one of my secret sources of nature knowledge encouraged me to have a short walk in those woods along about the first of May. Having spent hundreds of hours wandering woods like these as a child, I wasn't expecting much in the way of surprises. But these woods, like all of nature, have a way of exceeding expectations...

Two steps into the forest, a mere forty feet from the busy by-way, the magic begins. Bright green basal leaves thrust forth from six decades' accumulation of decaying straw, bizarre bowing blossoms on hirsute stalks bear witness to nature's ingenuity. These creatures were born here, in this precise spot; they belong here, to this place, the magical pinewoods of Carolina.

I wander farther afield, probing the boundaries of this remarkable space; in clumps, and singly, these magnificent native flora abound in an area no larger than the footprint of a modest house. In a tiny little corner of the forest, where who-knows-what critical environmental factors exist, these glorious little sprites spring forth to dance in sun-dappled silence for but a few brief passages of the golden orb, and then they are gone. 

Why do such mysteries exist?

Why here, and why now?

Are they here for me, or am I intruding on a show intended for some other; or perhaps, intruding on lives that wish not to be disturbed? 

The wonderful magic of the pinewoods is palpable, and I am humbled in the presence of such indescribable beauty and biological complexity.

I am grateful that I exist in a world filled with such wonders.

What can I learn from them, from how they live and grow?

I leave the pinewoods with more questions than answers, 

humbled, inspired and grateful.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fellow Watchers, Fellow Mortals

Early last week, on a bluff above the Deep River, I spied a bumblebee. It was busily nectaring at the painted buckeyes growing thick in the understory. All around and above, the riparian forest rose to the sky, centuries old tulip poplars, ash and sweet gums sheltering the shrubs below. 

Completely absorbed in my task of comparing the large-hairy-all-over-with-a-broad-yellow-band-on-its-abdomen bumblebee with the large-shiny-hairless-black-abdomen-and-white-dotted-head of the carpenter bee, my eyes absently wandered up the trunk of the massive tulip tree on which I leaned and met the eyes of another...

What wonders have you seen, wise old watcher in the woods? 
Fellow watcher, what yarns could you spin?
Timeless tales; tales of bees and flowers, tales of rivers and trees, tales of mice and men? 

The immortal Scottish poet once pondered the plight of a mouse and a man...

"I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An fellow-mortal!"
-Robert Burns, "To A Mouse" 1875

As  I anticipate your imminent departure, fellow watcher, the poet's lament is mine.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Blind Eyes and Redbellies

A quick hike before Hunter's soccer match in Chapel Hill yields an interesting encounter with a languidly lounging reptilian. Distracted by the abundant painted buckeye blossoms, walker one and walker two nearly tread on the unmoving and unmoved sunbather, until Jay casually asks if we saw the snake.

In spite of its relatively large girth and nearly three foot length, this snake's dull brown dorsum and utter stillness would have allowed it to go completely unnoticed by the hike's blind-eyed leaders. But thanks to Jay's young and curious eyes, we recognized our friend the redbelly water snake, lying in the leaves just a few feet from the trailside stream.

A closer look reveals the reason for its languor, and the unusually dull dorsum...the snake appears to be molting, or shedding its skin. Turns out the hikers aren't the only blind-eyed creatures on the trail today! As you can see from the picture above, the specialized "eye cap" or ocular scale which covers the eye of snakes, has loosened and is beginning to peel away, along with the rest of the skin on its head, rendering this individual temporarily blind. We quietly left this fellow to finish shucking his worn-out dermis, and later located a few pictures of his Lee county kin with a bit fresher skin.

The redbelly water snake is North Carolina's version of the plainbelly water snake found throughout the southern U.S. In other regions, the belly is a pale yellow or almost white, but consistently lacks any markings, hence plainbelly.

This one was encountered in late April last year in Lee County's San-Lee Park, and it took a moment to calmly check us out before returning to the waters of the nearby lake. These snakes are not aggressive, but if handled or harassed, they will strike and/or bite repeatedly and release an extremely foul-smelling musk to discourage predators.

After testing the air with its tongue and apparently finding our presence distasteful, this impressive specimen casually moved on to a better spot at the water's edge.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Amphibian Awareness - Sensitive Skin

Yesterday's spadefoot toad inspired some interesting reactions from folks, one of whom wondered at the rather unhealthy looking water in which the toads were carousing. This comment raised an important point regarding amphibian physiology and their highly specialized skin. So here's a few more thoughts and photos from Hoot Owl Karma's rainy night rambling.

Amphibians have adapted to life on the margins of aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and because individuals will likely spend part of their life cycle in each of these very different environments, they have a remarkable skin. Both water and oxygen diffuse freely through the skin, allowing the animal to "breath," or effectively carry on respiration in either environment. In order to facilitate this remarkable process, amphibians must maintain sufficiently moist skin; mucous glands in the skin help by secreting a protective mucous coating (hence the frog's "slimy" reputation).

Sitting roughly six inches tall, this bullfrog dwarfed the other amphibians that were out enjoying the storm.

Their wonderfully adapted skin, combined with access to clean, moist environments, allow amphibians to lead a healthy "double life" in a semi-aquatic environment. Because of their dependence on water for survival, ecologists and environmental scientists believe amphibians are critical "indicator species" with regards to water quality.

Unfortunately, as highlighted in a National Geographic article from 2010 posted at their website,
" Nearly 1 in 3 of the 5,743 described amphibian species are in decline, according to survey results released last month. At least nine species have disappeared since 1980."

Research to better understand the causes of this global phenomenon are underway around the world, but in the meantime, there is a clear imperative to do what we can to protect and improve the quality of the earth's water for all creatures, great and small.

Meanwhile, back in North Carolina, when Hoot Owl Karma returned home, this pickerel frog waited to welcome us in the driveway.

If you are interested in learning more about these amazing creatures and their place in our ecosystem globally and right here at home in North Carolina, you might want to check out the Amphibian Awareness Day at the NC Zoo next weekend (April 27th). 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

April Showers Bring May Tadpoles...

Back in late February, Hunter encountered an Eastern Spadefoot Toad crossing a rural Sandhills byway. It appeared to have just emerged from a muddy winter hideaway, probably drawn forth a bit prematurely by the unseasonably warm, wet weather. On that occasion, we neither saw nor heard any more of its kin in the immediate vicinity. 
Fast forward to last night. Mid-April, 3 hours of steady evening showers and thunderstorms. Temperatures around 68 degrees (F). The same stretch of rural blacktop. 
There, on the warm, wet pavement, no less than three eastern spadefoot toads in a ten foot expanse. Slow the car, listen. From the dark ditches comes a discordant din of nasal "wanks" as dozens of spadefoots congregate in the warm rainwater.

 As we discovered in February, the spadefoot derives its name from specially adapted pads on its hind feet which allow it to burrow rapidly into the sandy soil of its preferred lowland habitat. Tonight however, the lonely subterranean dens have been abandoned for the communal breeding pond provided by the evening's heavy downpour.

Driven by instincts eons in the making, and guided by the calls of the males, the sandhills spadefoots gather to perpetuate their species. Dozens are here already, with others arriving by the moment.

The warm water is cloudy with pollen and adrift with debris brought down by the gusty winds of the storm, but the toads aren't complaining. Spadefoots are thought to skip some breeding years entirely, if the April rains don't come timely and in sufficient quantities, so tonight's event is not to be missed, lest no similar opportunity present itself this year. 

Because of the ephemeral nature of the breeding pools, the eggs and tadpoles will mature rapidly, and the next generation should be afoot in less than a month.

 The utter darkness, the chaos of the storm and the incessant calls of the males, repeated urgently  with intervals of a couple of seconds or so, add layers to the experience which are simply impossible to convey with photographs alone. Here's a tiny snippet (the boys promise to teach me to use the iPhone properly before next time)! 

The male pictured below seems intent upon unseating his rival, already grappling with a female in the lower right of the picture, with the sheer volume of his calls.

His white throat balloons dramatically as he channels nature's call and strives for the opportunity to perpetuate his genetic line.

All around the pool, the same scene plays out, as more players enter the stage from every direction.

Sheltered in our homes, glued to the screen, we hang on the words of the forecasters, hopeful that the storm will quickly pass and spare us. Outside, in the pouring rain and driving winds, amidst the swirling waters of the debris-laden ditches, the eastern spadefoots embrace the moment.

And life goes on...

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Awakening - Pocohiquara

Just last week, the bare bark of winter disappeared behind a veil of yellow pollen, and re-emerged this week clad in the fresh green raiment of spring. While marveling at the pace of this dramatic transformation, Hoot Owl Karma encountered a young hickory just beginning to don the green. 

 For many centuries, the Algonquin peoples of North America prepared a variety of foods with Pocohiquara, a milky drink made from the nuts of these versatile trees. Early European settlers heard the word pohickery and soon shortened it the familiar hickory of today. 

Impressive terminal leaf buds adorn the barren branches like a preening flock of otherworldly larks. Animated by the warm rays of the sun, the lithe green leaves and their sturdy petioles ever-so-slowly disrobe, first shedding winter's coarse cloak, then gently casting aside the diaphanous inner bud scales, exposing their tender green fronds to the fullness of April's bright sunshine; boldly taking their place as this sapling's photosynthetic dynamos, doing their small part to preserve ancient pocohiquara's place in the forest of tomorrow.


imperceptible motion...

irrepressible stillness...

paradoxical mysteries of the forest alive.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Eastern Glass Lizard (Fragile, Handle with Care)

Reptiles have long heeded the call of the sun. As solar heat permeates whatever winter shelter they have devised, their bodies respond, urging them forth into the live-giving warmth. Lizards are no exception.

That's right, lizard.  The eastern glass lizard is one of three legless lizards found in North Carolina, and can attain a length of over three feet. When Hoot Owl Karma encountered this beautiful specimen in the dunes at Ft. Macon State Park, we quickly relocated it away from the trail for fear that another passerby might mistake it for a snake and harm it.

The next day, we traveled by ferry to Bear Island (Hammocks Beach State Park), and as luck would have it, we spied another impressive adult basking in a spot of sunlight. Remarkably, in spite of their name, neither of these adults had broken their "glass" tails at the time of our encounters. 

As you may have surmised by now, the glass lizard "breaks" its long tail (which accounts for over two thirds of its total body length) by thrashing wildly about when handled. The separated tail continues to thrash about after breaking, distracting predators so that the lizard may slip away unharmed. It will later regenerate its tail. 

Like many of North Carolina's amazing native flora and fauna, loss of habitat has affected the eastern glass lizard. However, it is still locally common in undeveloped areas such as Hammocks Beach. If you keep your eyes open, you might catch a glimpse of one of these cool critters on your next trip down east. Just remember, Fragile - Handle with Care!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dwarf Wild Iris, Spring is Here!

Growing up wild in the Sandhills of North Carolina, nature marked the passage of my days almost as well as the Johnsonville Ruritan Club's birthday calendar which hung inside the kitchen cabinet beside the stove. 

And the wild iris was my favorite springtime marker.  

Just beyond the limits of the mowed yard, on the margin of a small copse of trees, consisting as best I can recall of one magnificent longleaf pine, a hickory or two, a couple of scrub oaks and a small blackgum tree, there was a small community of six or eight tiny iris plants. Their leaves were present nearly year-round, but only in the early spring, usually around Easter, did the blossoms appear. 

And oh, what blossoms!

Dwarf wild iris, dwarf violet iris or vernal iris; by any name, its emergence from the sandy soil of the southern pines is a magical springtime treat, and undeniable evidence of spring's arrival.

This particular individual resides at the margin of the woods near my brother's home in Harnett county, just a couple of miles from those bold little bloomers that announced the springs of my childhood.

On a trip to the NC mountains last spring, I was delighted to discover an upland community of dwarf irises which are very similar in appearance to my old friends from the Sandhills. Spreading by way of rhizomes, the miniature montane iris formed much denser colonies than those I encountered in my youth.

The blossoms showed some slight variation as well, but these diminutive heralds trumpeted the same glad tidings as their lowland brethren had throughout the years of my childhood...

The long, cold nights of winter have passed, and still we live! Witness the glory of spring's rebirth! Spring is here! Rejoice!