Tuesday, October 29, 2013

October Dawn

October dawn sends frost scurrying for the safety of shadows.

Bereft of leaves, branches jealously cling to seed-laden orbs.

Accipiter ascends the blue, blue sky.

Shrill cries echo in the chill, dry air.

Far below, tiny limbs tremble in the frosty shadows.

Ascent resumes. Safe for now.
Rigid red shoulders sail on upon the frigid blue sea.

October's tree bound persimmons? 
Beautiful but bittersweet. 
Kissed by the frost and fallen? 
Ambrosia, with seeds.

From deep in its hollow, possum ponders the plenitude, and patiently awaits the windfall. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Woodchuck Spotting...

Dad is the primary driver for Randolph family excursions; in this capacity, he also doubles as Chief Spotter of Wildlife. 
While the rest of the clan shares Dad's passion for North Carolina wildlife, they don't necessarily prioritize wildlife spotting over other worthwhile traveling pastimes like reading, texting, listening to music or grading papers. 

As a result of these divergent interests and the associated delays in response time, wild critters spotted by Dad sometimes go unseen by others in the vehicle. This is generally not a big deal, particularly if the creature in question is relatively common, like a white tailed deer or red tailed hawk. It is a bit more disappointing and frustrating for the Chief Spotter, however, when the creature is question is somewhat uncommon. 

Take, for example, the woodchuck, a.k.a. groundhog, a.k.a. gopher, a.k.a. whistlepig. North Carolina's largest member of the squirrel family, the woodchuck is not at all common around our home, although it is locally common in areas to our north and west. On trips to the NC mountains or northward into Virginia, Dad will frequently spot woodchucks feeding on the lush green grass of a rural ditch bank or sunning in a pasture along the Interstate. 

Almost without fail, however, the Chief Spotter's excited cry of "woodchuck!" is met by a delayed chorus of "Where, where?!", "Which way?!", or simply "I didn't see it!" 
So consistent is Dad's track record of un-corroborated woodchuck sightings, that his children often mock him with random shouts of "Groundhog!", even on brief trips to the grocery store and back.

Last Friday, Dad experienced another solo woodchuck sighting; while delivering payrolls within the Sanford city limits, no less. He excitedly shared the news of this rare occurrence with his family, only to be greeted with universal skepticism and a muttered, "Prob'ly just a 'possum..."

Desperate for redemption, he conveniently chose a homeward route on Saturday which coincided with the last known location of Friday's wayfaring woodchuck. Et voila! The woodchuck! 
Thanks to Hunter for his alert response and swift camera work, otherwise this might have been just another case of...

Where, where?! I didn't see it!

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Amazing Cryopillar - Caterpillar Cryogenics

Wednesday in late October. Quiet country byway. 
First of two cold fronts pushing through central Carolina, pine straw and poplar leaves ride the chilly breeze; jackets optional, but recommended. 
Tomorrow will be colder, and Saturday morning will likely bring fall's first freeze. 
Suddenly, the lanes are alive with fuzzy crawlers! 
A quick evasive maneuver, a swift swerve left, then right; we cautiously emerge for a closer look.

A glance confirms our suspicions. Today we share the sun-warmed asphalt with dozens of America's most famous cold weather caterpillars... 
Woollybears are on the move!

Feted in October from Banner Elk, NC and Beattyville, KY in the South, to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and beyond, the Woolly Worm is celebrated for its legendary power to predict the severity of impending winter.

Beautiful creatures, generally sporting a broad reddish-brown mid-section bordered by black on either end, the number of black segments is associated in popular lore with the number of cold weeks of winter. More black, more cold weeks. More brown, more mild weeks. Thus, the broader the brown band, the milder the winter, or so they say. 

Nabbing a couple of particularly swift and handsome crawlers for a closer look, we were surprised to find that they immediately curled their bodies tightly end to end and "played dead." No amount of pleading or coaxing could convince them to relax their posture and submit to an exam.

Only after we entirely vacated the vicinity did one brave soul uncurl and bolt for the safety of cover. Unfortunately, as soon as we swooped in again, it resumed its defensive pose. This game continued for a while before we gave up and turned to our field guides for more on the natural history of our woolly friends, larva of the Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella.

According to multiple sources, these amazing creatures hatch later than many other moth larvae, and often over-winter in the larval stage (as caterpillars!)These cool critters possess a natural anti-freeze (cryoprotectant) which protects their tissues from damage by the cold.
 In our region, they may simply hunker down under the insulation of leaf litter during the coldest periods of winter, then emerge to eat and complete their life cycle in a few months. In arctic regions, however, the caterpillar's bodily functions cease completely and its body actually freezes. With the spring thaw, it defrosts and resumes eating, but with such brief summers, it may require several years to mature to the point of pupating.
So as you wander the wilds of Carolina this brisk and breezy weekend, keep an eye on the ground for these crazy cryopillars. Touch them if you like, just don't be offended if they give you a cold shoulder rather than a warm and fuzzy reception.

Friday, October 18, 2013


Autumn's a season of seeds.
Seeds in the fields, seeds in the trees, and seeds on the roadside seeking a ride.

Beggar lice, tickseed, cocklebur, sandspur, devil's toothpick and Spanish needle;
just a few of the plants looking for a lift from the animal kingdom.

Long before the days of corduroy pants and tall cotton socks, every manner of animal pelt provided the perfect vehicle for the seeds of these hitchhiking plants.

On a cloudy afternoon in the heart of Carolina, a simple, innocuous yellow blossom gives little hint of what else is waiting in this dense roadside colony of Bidens bipinnata.

The center of each dainty, disheveled flowerhead boasts a couple dozen diminutive disk flowers, each of which will birth a single spiny Spanish needle.

An elegantly simple solution for seed dispersal: the mature seeds wait patiently with outstretched hands for an hirsute traveler to sidle by; in an instant, tiny grasping fingers latch on , and the dead and brittle flower head gladly releases its grip.

A tiny packet of genetic material hopefully sets forth, perchance to fall on fertile ground, free of its parent's shadow, where it might establish a new colony of lovely little golden asters. 

Safe travels...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Somewhere aloft abides a shadow. 
Thread maker, wire stringer, silk slinger.

Clouds obscure the sun.
Shadow advances, destination unknown.

Air bender, shape shifter, eight armed wonder.
Shadow hunter, silently scaling the great gray yonder.

 Stealthy flyer, ultimate predator.
Skywalker eats wings for breakfast.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Weymouth - Woods of Wonder

An excursion to Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve always comes with a few surprises (like our recent encounter with a cottonmouth), but it never disappoints. 
Saturday morning was no exception.  
A state park ranger met us at the entrance to inquire as to the purpose of our visit. 
Apparently the trails would be busier than usual due to a meet up of very committed runners hosted by the Southern Pines Ultra Running Club who'd be knocking out 10, 25 and 50K runs throughout the course of the day. Upon learning that we were not here to run, she kindly directed us to a parking area reserved for hikers, and gave us some guidance regarding the lesser traveled trails.

Before we even departed the parking lot, we were star-struck by a profusion of purplish-pink blossoms. 
In the recently burned and wide-open understory, legions of Carphephorus bellidifolius, or sandy-woods chaffheadboldly illuminated the bed of brick-red needles beneath a canopy of impressive long leaf pines. Members of the aster family, but lacking the petal-like ray flowers, chaffhead boasts an enticing cluster of rose-pink trumpets with star-shaped rims that pollinators find virtually irresistible.

In the wet bottom dividing one sandy ridge from the next, a stand of mature yellow poplars were beginning to sport their fall colors, and a large and untidy "nest" of leaves and branches hinted at the presence of eastern fox squirrels, a native species which has become increasingly vulnerable in North Carolina due to habitat loss and degradation. Weymouth's woods are a perfect refuge for Sciurius niger, offering a healthy mix of long leaf pines with an abundance of the sizable seed-filled cones they favor, as well as poplars and other bottomland hardwoods with plenty of hollows and high branches suitable for nesting and safe haven from predators. 

Purple was by far the dominant garb among the flora we encountered, as we glimpsed several smaller species of purple aster than those we met last week in addition to the ubiquitous chaffhead. This lovely had the look of flaxleaf aster, but we'll leave it at aster until we can get a definitive ID from the experts. And although morning temps were in the low sixties fahrenheit, a few intrepid pollinators were making their rounds in advance of even colder temps to come...

More signs of fox squirrel. Eight inch long leaf pine cones completely bereft of their scales and seeds litter the trail as we proceed, igniting hopes of an encounter with the elusive eater itself.

Chaffhead was almost as abundant as the long leaf pines, providing ample opportunities for the camera and our curious eyes. Here's a better look at the classic tubular aster disk flowers, looking quite star-like with their five-pointed openings.

Wait, was that a falling pine cone scale? Look there, high in the tree, could it be? 
Fox Squirrel!
Another wonder from Weymouth's woods.

More of the sandy-woods chaffhead...

Just as a few pollinators were busily battling the chill, pollinator predators were still on the prowl. Or, in the case of this funnel web spider, still lurking motionless in the mouth of its lair, betrayed to our roving eyes by droplets of last night's drizzle.

More purple, or lavender, or lilac asters, perhaps flaxleaf. 

Liatris, or blazing star. Again unsure of species, but yet another aster. It, like chaffhead, lacks the ray flowers.

Seemingly every twist and turn in the trail brings glimpses of purple-colored members of Family Asteraceae, and neither we nor the camera are complaining.

Liatris sp., up close and personal. Twenty or so North American species, common names include blazing star or gayfeather. 

Looking skyward, we see the gnarled crown of a venerable old long leaf, twisted and bent in its youth by an ice storm or hurricane, perhaps; undaunted, it rules this sandy ridge line with hunch-backed grandeur, a broad-shouldered titan among giants.

This relative youngster met a different fate, its lifeless trunk finally yielding to the periodic fires which eliminate the competing hardwoods from this pure stand of fire-resistant pines and maintain the increasingly rare and unique "pine barrens" ecosystem which once dominated the Sandhills and much of the Carolina coastal plains.

As our eyes return to the forest floor, we spy a young long leaf pine, barely out of the grass stage, overtaking the dead and burned trunk of a young oak which succumbed to the most recent fire.

Another purple aster peers forth from its sandy roots among the green blades of wiregrass and the reds, browns and golds of the fallen long leaf needles.

And just next door, this little golden aster gives purple a brief respite as it gleams in the needle-strewn sand.

These little brown mushrooms find life in the midst of death and decay, as the humble, rotting, woodpecker-riddled flesh of a former forest giant nourishes new life with its corpse.

And still more purple flowers, wet with the life-giving rain.

Lovely autumn color creeping in; look, but leaves of three, let it be. Please don't pick this poison for your autumn leaf collection!

And yet another variety of purple aster, this time smaller still, and in lovely clusters of palest lilac.

Wandering with eyes too intently focused on the flora of the forest floor can lead to unpleasant surprises, and the Weymouth woods are not free of hazards such as these...

Crisis averted, thanks to the slightest hint of a silken thread brushing the forehead just before contact... then eyes back on the ground just in time for the Indian pipes, relative of the rhodedendron and blueberry, but totally lacking chlorophyll. Like its more colorful cousins, however, it is still attractive to nectar lovers such as this hover fly. 

Weymouth has blessed us with many wonders today, and as we prepare to part, she gives us a glimpse of another, a sap-covered nest tree of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally listed endangered species. Whether this tree is an active nest site or not, it's good to know that these rare birds are still active in the area.

Another orb weaver scurries past, just overhead, and we head back to the parking area, weary but wonder-filled, armed with questions aplenty about the day's encounters.

Another clump of Indian pipes, just yards from the car...

and one last glance at the chaffhead before parting. Another wonder-full morning at Weymouth,

just about enough to last until we meet again.