Saturday, August 31, 2013

Reflecting on the Outside

Last night as I relaxed at Hailey and Leah's birthday party and enjoyed Ed's great eats and Emily's hospitality while fellowshipping with family, my eyes drifted to the large picture window framing the dark outside.

Fortunately, it was a yawn, not a snarl, and the watcher was Ginger, a feline of generally good intentions, involuntarily expressing the ennui of being left outside at the height of the evening's festivities.

Reflecting on Ginger's plight, I realized she had most likely appealed to her least sympathetic guest. 

Hoot owl karma happens out there. Away from the protective cover of air-conditioned, hermetically-sealed suburban dwellings and vehicles constructed likewise. 

How would it be to be a cat, I wondered, free to roam and stalk and eat and play and discover and live in the wild out-of-doors all night? 

Hot and muggy with lots of mosquito bites tonight, I reckoned.

As I sipped my coffee this morning from a favorite pottery mug, I glanced outside. Seuss, mild-mannered lord of the Randolph's realm, peered serenely back from high atop his throne, relishing the fresh, crisp morning air.

How would it be to be a cat, I wondered, free to roam and stalk and eat and play and discover and live in the wild out-of-doors all day?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Fall Photos...

After a very mild summer here in the heart of Carolina, the eve of September finds us in the midst of one of our longest stretches of summer temps all year. 
So even as our thoughts turn to traditional fall activities like football and the county fair, we're struggling to get in the mood as we wipe the sweat from our brow. 

Over the next few days, we'll be picking a few of our favorites photos from the year just past, and enlarge them for display at the Lee County agricultural fair. Thanks in part to Hoot Owl Karma, we'll have a larger assortment to choose from than ever before.

Last year, Jay's entry, Pitcher Plant, received Best in Show recognition, so he has set a high standard for the rest of us. 

The process of selecting this year's entries to will be a labor of love and lots of fun, and we may re-share a few with you along the way.

At the moment, I'm leaning towards those with lots of fall color and cooler temps...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Orange Striped Oakworms

Caterpillar season is in full swing. It was just about this time last year that Hoot Owl Karma brought you one of our all-time favorites, the Hickory Horned Devil Henry found hanging out near his house.
A brief drive through the Centennial Campus at NC State University Sunday afternoon led to an encounter with more cool caterpillars. 

Late summer is crunch time for caterpillars, and the sight of a young willow oak almost completely stripped of greenery alongside the main campus thoroughfare demanded further investigation. Jay and Hunter quickly solved the mystery. 

A plethora of somewhat scary-looking orange striped oakworms were in major defoliation mode.  Although they left virtually no leaves on this tree, the damage occurs late enough in the season that there should be no permanent harm to the tree.

 A quick glance at the nearby trees revealed that most of the major damage in this area is currently confined to a single tree.

A closer look, however, reveals that a few large caterpillars have moved on to the neighboring trees, presumably to escape the crowds and bustle of the "nursery" tree where hundreds of recently-hatched eggs are quickly becoming fully-fledged caterpillars.

In spite of its fearsome appearance, the oakworm is quite harmless to humans. The "spines" and "horns" are merely fleshy protuberances, and do not sting or prick. 

The orange striped oakworm generally only has one generation per year.  It will feast on oak leaves for a few weeks, then overwinter as a pupa before emerging in mid-summer as a handsome, medium-sized orange saturniid moth to mate and lay eggs of its own.

Perhaps we'll drive through this neighborhood again next week and see how things are progressing...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hoot Owl Sighting

Julie and I shared last night's journey home with a hoot owl. It stood stolidly in the grass by the roadside, seemingly oblivious to the steady line of traffic whizzing past. Apparently lost in thought, it held its ground long enough for us to reverse course and return with camera in hand. Owls are not particularly fast fliers, but this one had a pretty quick take-off...

Great horned, owl of crepuscular habit, most likely had paused to listen for prey in the tall grass at twilight. Rabbit or rat or vole, the pursued was granted temporary respite as our imminent approach prompted hoot owl to seek a safer perch. 

Immediately regretting our thoughtless interference with its pursuit of sustenance, we moved on, leaving owl to shake off her mold annoyance and return to the hunt. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

Eastern box turtle has been making its way about the Carolina heartland since before the dawn of man. 

This narrow stretch of asphalt first appeared on the landscape less than a century ago.

I've been traveling a new delivery route into eastern Chatham county for only a few weeks now, but each trip so far has included an encounter with eastern box turtle.

Along about eleven, as I wend my way along the narrow and curvy yellow and white-striped ribbons of carefully engineered and constructed right-of-way, eastern box turtle travels steadfastly along the ancient routes of its tribe. 

As we travel our disparate paths in pursuit of sustenance, chance brings us together for one brief moment.

A momentary pause on both our parts.

An assist across the sun-baked hardpan, and our journeys resume. 

A tragedy averted perhaps, a lesson remembered for sure.

Why did the turtle cross the road?  Because I put it there...

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Tale of Two Clematis

While walking the Endor Trail through the heart of West Sanford with Julie this week, our olfactory senses were overwhelmed by the incredibly sweet scent of clematis blossoms in the late evening air.

This post began as a celebration of the wild clematis, a.k.a. virgins bower, Clematis virginiana, a common native NC wildflower which can be seen in abundance alongside roadways and field margins this time each year. The masses of small white flowers are unmistakable and hard to miss, since they seem to have found a foothold in almost every suitable site in recent years.

The distinctive blossoms are so striking, we decided to share photos from every angle, from both near and far. It was in selecting the best angle for one of the "near" shots, that the problem became apparent.

This lovely native which had literally smothered many of the other plants in its domain with its sweetly perfumed embrace, was not Clematis virginiana! It was, rather, one of those pesky naturalized aliens we were discussing just yesterday. Clematis terniflora, sweet autumn clematis, native to Asia, brought here as a garden plant, escaped and naturalized in many areas, and displaying all the characteristics here of an invasive species. In fact, it seems well on its way to dominating this particular stretch of stream bank.

It was an honest mistake. The vines' most showy feature, their blossoms, are very similar in appearance. The leaves, however, are a different story. The virgin's bower, native to western NC and naturalized in much of the piedmont, has a trifoliate leaf structure with distinctly toothed leaf edges. Our deliciously scented interloper has smooth edged leaves which can be distinguished at a glance from the native species.
Boy was I bummed! In an instant, my beautiful native had morphed into a despicable intruder, and my celebration was ruined.

Then I spotted this solitary potter wasp, Monobia quadridens, busily feeding from the fragrant snow capped mountains of greenery, the veritable nectar fountains of the clematis vine. Perspective returned.

I decided to continue my documentation, albeit with a slightly different slant. The "invader" became just another contributor to diverse plant population along the creek. In places, this orange jewel-weed was almost as abundant as the clematis, and the blackberry briars left plenty of evidence on my bare legs of their relative abundance as well.

While our native Clematis likes a sunny locale, C. terniflora appeared to be thriving in both the sun and shade, a definite advantage along some of the twists and turns of the creek.

In many places, it was difficult to discern the foliage associated with the vine because of the many other weeds competing to thrust their leaves into the light.

And, wow, the blossoms are as beautiful as they are fragrant and abundant.

As the sun sank low in the west, I was left to ponder anew this notion of native vs. alien, and consider again the place in our ecosystem of this vivacious vine alongside such problematic southern icons as kudzu and Chinese privet.

Virtually everyone that passed us on the trail commented on how lovely the flowers were. One noted how lucky we were that the "honeysuckle" was still blooming! (They were most likely referring to another famous sweet-scented invasive, Japanese honeysuckle.)

This web of life is becoming rather more tangled as I type.

But no less fascinating, engaging and intriguing...

and arguably ever more beautiful.

Plenty of questions to sleep on tonight.

Wait! Is that a giant pig up there devouring the sun?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Marshmallow IS the New Hibiscus

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Hoot Owl Karma is enhancing my own knowledge of our natural world. Every walk to the mailbox, every payroll delivery run and every trip to the grocery store, not to mention nature hikes and trips to the coast and mountains, is an opportunity to learn something new about our natural environment. Hoot Owl Karma has helped me hone my senses and "tune in" more effectively to the world of nature that surrounds us.

One of the first questions I typically ask upon encountering a new plant or animal, or taking a closer look at familiar ones, is whether it is "native" or "alien." Perhaps it doesn't really matter, but I must confess that I invariably feel a twinge of regret when I determine that an otherwise appealing subject is an "alien;" as though it were now somehow less worthy of appreciation or further study.

For the past month or so, I have noticed the plants I call marshmallows, or wild hibiscus, blooming throughout our area. These plants look very similar to the cultivated hibiscus so popular with gardeners and landscapers, and there was once a time when I dismissed the "wild" hibiscus as mere naturalized escapees from our southern gardens, most likely native to the tropics.

Yesterday I finally took a moment to photograph a group growing in the wet but sunny intersection of a wastewater easement and a utility line easement along my daily route to the post office. Much of the area had fallen into shadow, and many of the blossoms were closed, but I snapped a few shots anyway.

Upon closer inspection, the flowers and buds and leaves so closely resembled the garden hibiscus, that I began to wonder if someone had planted these here along the power lines as part of a beautification project.

When I returned home after work and attempted to identify my wild hibiscus to species, I was intrigued to find that the ubiquitous marshmallow or wild hibiscus is not, nor was it ever an introduced garden plant. On the contrary, most of the popular cultivated hibiscus varieties in our region were originally one of the wild hibiscus species. There are several species of wild hibiscus native to the southeastern U.S., all of which have been cultivated and selectively bred for decades to produce the hibiscus varieties so popular in our southern gardens. 

The resemblance between wild and domestic is remarkable, as evidenced by these cultivated plants with huge red "dinner plate" blossoms planted in front of the high school where Julie teaches and the boys attend. We'll spend some more time with this notion of "native" and what it means in the broader context of conservation in future posts. 

But for now, we're going to read a bit more about the native hibiscus of the southeast and try to bring you a specific identification for both the wild and domestic hibiscus featured in this post. Until then, perhaps you can enjoy them simply as beautiful flowers.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Walk by the Pond...

The pond margin is an ever-changing place. A few weeks back, the butterfly larva were feasting on mock bishop's weed, of which only a few brittle brown stalks now remain. The early summer weeds have been almost entirely supplanted by a late summer brood. And along with the new host plants, there are new caterpillars... Here's a quick photographic journal of last night's walk.

There'll be maypops aplenty come September...

These two sphinx moth larva were both approaching four inches in length; should be pupating soon.

The dimming light triggered my camera's flash, so the colors have been altered just a bit, but this younger banded sphinx caterpillar is certainly one of the most colorful we've encountered.

There were an abundance of other caterpillars, some of which we've yet to ID. Any ideas?

A smaller sphinx caterpillar is almost finished with this leaf. But not quite ready to move on....

We're still working on an ID for this little cutie as well; leaning right now toward the water or willow primroses in the Ludwigia genus, but we'd welcome your thoughts. A couple  of things are certain, it has invasive tendencies (based on its abundance here), and the caterpillars love it!

The flash gives an idea of just how sunny a disposition these little gems typically have.

Another small sphinx caterpillar, perhaps contemplating a taste test.

These groundcherries seem to like this spot quite a lot, covered with blossoms and charming little "Chinese lantern" seed pods galore.

The entire northern bank of the pond is occupied by these weeds in the nightshade family, the unripe fruit of which can be quite poisonous. 

We've nearly completed our circuit when we spy these striking beauties growing at the very margin of the water.

Meadow beauties, to be more precise, although we're not inclined to allow the difference between the Virginia meadow beauty and the pale meadow beauty to trouble us much on such a fine evening for walking as this. 

Hope you can find the time for your own pond walk in the very near future... Enjoy!