Friday, May 30, 2014

Carolina Sweet Bay - Spring Sensation

A mid-spring evening in the South affords the senses many a treat. The passage of a weak front has delivered a brief cooling shower, and all looks new and fresh and green. A whippoorwill calls in the distance, and the lightning bugs perform a mesmerizing dance in the grass, while the faint scent of honeysuckle lingers on the breeze. 
Mmm, sweet honeysuckle...Or is it something else? Deliciously sweet, with a hint of vanilla, definitely good enough to eat...

A careful look into the understory of the nearby wood, and the mystery resolves.
Carolina sweet bay, Magnolia virginiana, one of North Carolina's lovely native magnolias, a miniature version of the magnificent and definitively Southern tree, Magnolia grandiflora.

In the fading light of the setting sun, the bold white blossoms fairly glow in the heart of the shadowy grove, and the scent is almost overwhelming. 

To approach too close is to feel an irresistable urge to inhale the flower itself along with the intoxicating fragrance.

According to one source, sweet bay was shipped back home by early European settlers and became established in gardens there as early as the late 1600's. This is not surprising, considering its attractive green foliage (it is an evergreen in the deep south), long-lasting and incredibly fragrant blossoms, and hardy nature.

This specimen is about 12-15 feet tall, growing in dense woods near the margin of a pond, which is fairly typical of the species. The sweet bay at Brother Henry's is of similar size and situated in the bottom not far from the banks of Moccasin Creek, and it is in full bloom as well.

So if you know of a sweet bay in your neighborhood, this week might be a good time to take a stroll outside and enjoy the wonderful sights and scents of North Carolina's mini magnolia, 

Carolina Sweet Bay, Magnolia virginiana.

A Spring Sensation!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Copperhead Road...

We've seen a couple of pictures circulating on Facebook in the past few days purporting to be copperheads, both of which were harmless non-venomous snakes, so when we came upon this copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix, crossing an area road just before noon today, we decided to stop for a few pictures.

A copperhead generally has dark hourglass or dumbbell shaped bands (narrow in the middle of the back, widening on either side) against a lighter background color. The bands typically have bold outlines but lighter interiors. The background coloration on this individual is lighter than some, but the hourglass banding pattern is an excellent example of the typical copperhead pattern.

The common name, copperhead, refers to the coppery coloration on top and to the rear of the snake's head, which is more triangular and angular than most non-venomous lookalikes.

The copperhead also has a narrow, vertically-oriented pupil, which may become more elliptical or even almost round in very low lighting, and a distinctive "pit" or extra opening between the nostril and the eye. This feature is common to all the venomous "pit vipers" in North Carolina, including the eastern cottonmouth and three species of rattlesnake.

Photo session complete, we assisted this healthy 28 inch specimen across the blacktop and into the dense woods on the other side of the road, and we resumed our respective journeys. Perhaps this brief refresher will be helpful for those who are interested in better understanding all wild creatures in hopes of maintaining a healthy ecosystem. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Carolina Cactus - Eastern Prickly Pear

A Memorial Day get-together at Mom and Jim's gave us an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a showy but often overlooked native wildflower of our Sandhills youth, the eastern prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa, or Opuntia compressa, according to some references.

Sipping iced tea on the deck, we spotted this glowing golden flare a good fifty meters away, and immediately wandered over for a closer look. Upon recognizing the source of the glare, a wave of childhood memories came flooding back. The prickly pear was a wild card in our side yard football games growing up, perhaps even more of an annoyance than the sand spurs. 

While this Carolina cactus lacks the more impressive spines of its cousins at the coast or its southwestern relatives, the tiny little clusters of glochids, or fuzzy hair-like prickles, sparsely spaced across the surface of the succulent green pads could be incredibly irritating and difficult to remove if one were unlucky enough to be tackled into one of the many prickly pears inhabiting the fringes of the playing field.

This night, however, our impressions of the prickly pear are all positive, particularly in light of her spectacularly beautiful blossoms. A very hardy plant, it thrives in full sunlight and sandy, well-drained soil, and under the right conditions it can form rather large colonies. 

After blooming, juicy pear-shaped fruit will form and ripen to a beautiful purplish-red by fall, when the "prickly pears" or "indian figs" will be ready for harvest, if not by adventurous foodies, then by all manner of wild animals, including the eastern box turtle, for whom it is a favored delicacy.

As the sun settles for the evening behind the pines, the golden glow mellows to a pale lemon yellow, and we head back up to the house for supper, glad for our brief meander down memory lane, and glad to see from the abundant buds that this Sandhills wildflower show will be playing for a few more weeks at least.

Now showing in your neck of the woods, too... Don't miss it!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Creature from the Parking Lot Lagoon

Who knows what the developers had in mind when they constructed the parking lot lagoon... Erosion control? Irrigation? Wetlands mitigation? 

Perhaps it already existed, a tiny little farm pond or watering hole, far out in the country-become-city that now describes so much of the Raleigh/Durham metropolitan area, and they simply spruced it up with an attractive retaining wall and some flower beds to avoid the hassles of filling it in. 

The tidy little wrought-iron fence, at first glance, appears to be just another decorative item, designed to bring the muddy little water hole into compliance with the appearance clauses in the town's master development plan.

But then the creature appears... 

One moment, the scummy green surface is broken only by the ripples of a few small bream, hoping for a crumb of bread or some stale potato chips from the busy passersby. Eyes wander to the far shore, where a tiny green heron stands motionless in the shallows, nearly invisible among the cattails; the eyes wander back, and there it is! 

Suspended completely motionless at the surface, cloaked in a living garment of furry green moss and algae, unblinking eyes focused intently ahead; 
a visual quandary that prompts the observer to abandon pitiful pen for camera lens, else to utterly fail in conveying this wonderfully terrible sight to the reader...

This amazing creature comes with more than just an algal entourage; a veritable fleet of fish follow where it goes - darting, dipping, nibbling and nipping. One wonders whether this is the safest of vocations, as this ferocious fellow looks more than capable of inhaling a few young sunfish with no effort at all.
One wonders as well whether the neat little fence was erected for more than aesthetics;
perhaps to deter unattended youngsters who might approach the quiet little pond curious and unawares...

Then, as suddenly as it surfaced, the massive mossback turns again to the murky depths from whence it arose.

With surprising speed and grace, enormous head and tail extended arrow straight, the bizarre beast takes flight, leaving most of its piscine followers far behind. 

Time for a couple of quick camera shots as its fearsome feet, claws extended, propel it down and away from prying eyes and lens, ever deeper into the lagoon.

And just as it reaches a depth impenetrable by human eyes, a pause; 
then a turn, and long look from the creature's remarkable eyes, gazing back from its murky milieu. 

Some of the earth's most ancient eyes, those of an old chelonian, 
Chelydra serpentina; 
eyes with a calm and open mien which seems to convey a message of empathy, not fear. 

This world is a place of constant, dramatic change, it's true.
Forty million years, or merely forty, both our kin have been around for plenty.

And now we see fences and retaining walls and acres of smooth fresh asphalt
where once grew naught but trees and fresh green grasses. 

Yet still we live, you and I; still we live.

Then the creature was gone, just like that.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

It's May, By the Way

Hoot Owl Karma is, if nothing else, a celebration of the joy of simply being outside, experiencing the wonders of the natural world, no matter how small the niche or how dramatically altered by human activity...
And in the busy-ness of everyday life, we quite often find ourselves experiencing the out-of-doors framed by an automobile windshield along one of our local highways and byways. 
For the observant traveler, wonders abound.

A black rat snake crosses the blacktop on its morning rounds, then ascends a small cherry tree in a farmhouse yard.

An audience of fleabane offers a standing ovation, upturned faces like so many miniature star-gazing daisies.

Rat snake continues its rounds, perchance to dine on a breakfast of eggs.

May is a fabulous time to be out and about, as wildflowers, both native and introduced, put their best faces forward in the bright spring sunshine. It doesn't take much imagination to appreciate the common name of this patch of Oenothera sp. - Sundrops.

A stalwart along area roadsides this time of year, sundrops are in full bloom by mid-afternoon, while many others in its family, the evening primroses, don't open until dusk is nigh. 

Ragwort is among the earlier blooming asters, soon to be joined in summer by all manner of larger, showier "sunflowers." But in the Carolina May, it's one of the few yellow asters to be found along the way.

This mass of golden sundrops is beginning to crinkle, their brief hour upon the wayside stage nearly at an end.

 Not to worry, traveler, there are thousands more waiting in the wings, determined that their moment on the morrow will be just as glorious.

As this May day moves closer to night, the birds are abroad as well, foraging in the shade for what morsels the freshly plowed earth might yield.

A mourning dove takes flight as the wild turkeys approach, wanderers themselves, long banished from this their native land, but re-established and thriving again, yet another wonder by the way in the midst of May. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Another Storeria - Slithering Slug Eater

The late afternoon hike through the pine barrens of Weymouth Woods is winding down. It's a bit cool this afternoon, but we're not complaining after a couple of unseasonably warm days. Eyes in the treetops, we freeze in mid-stride when Jay shouts, "Snake!"

Looking down, we catch a brief glimpse of a sleek little slitherer in the sand, 
swiftly vacating the vicinity of our feet.

Immediate danger of trampling averted, it comes to a cautious halt, allowing us to better discern who we're dealing with....

With the exception of three irregular rusty brown spots at its neck, and an overall charcoal gray coloration, it is superficially similar to our friend the little brown snake, Storeria dekayi. 
This appears to be another Storeria...

Most likely our old friend Storeria occipitomaculata, redbelly snake, but we should be able to confirm that easily with a closer look.

While the brown snake has a somewhat varied diet of snails, earthworms and slugs, according to Davidson University's excellent website,, the redbelly snake subsists primarily on slugs.

Neither slugs nor earthworms being readily available for a taste test, we opt for a more thorough visual inspection instead.  

Jay gently lifts the little slug eater for a closer look, and the telltale red belly removes any doubts as to its true identity.

After a few more pictures, the intrepid redbelly is back on its way, and we on ours, thrilled once again by the wonders of a walk in Weymouth Woods.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Big Ol' Black Snake

Hoot Owl Karma has encountered many of North Carolina's native snakes over the years and many of those encounters have been chronicled in the pages of this blog. Some of our most memorable snake stories, however, occurred long before blogs (or even the world wide web) existed, and it has been almost that long since we encountered a native reptile of this one's size. 

 As we pulled into the driveway at work on Friday afternoon, a pair of northern mockingbirds was raising Cain in the side yard. Peering around the corner, we quickly spotted the cause of the commotion.

A big ol' black snake. 
Black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta.

The black rat snake is the most commonly encountered native snake from our many years of experience. 
The "chicken snake" of our youth in a rural farming community, it is a constrictor, a voracious predator of rats and mice and the occasional egg or baby bird.

It has adapted relatively well to development and the loss of natural habitat, and is often found in close proximity to human dwellings (and the occupants of those dwellings). 

When the inevitable contact occurs, it is most often the snake that loses out, prompting us to make ourselves available to assist whenever relocation is an acceptable option. In that role, we have removed rat snakes from chicken houses, smokehouses, barns and basements. 
In fact, the largest snake we've ever caught was a black rat snake, an 82 inch beauty we removed from the loft of a barn many years ago, well before the advent of the internet as we know it.

This beautiful creature from Friday afternoon was nearly six feet in length and prowling just a few yards from multiple businesses located within an easy stone's throw of a major four lane highway, prompting us to marvel at the miracle of its longevity and relatively large size.

It displayed a rather distinct pattern of markings which is somewhat unusual in a specimen of its size and age, and we were delighted to find a new home for it in a rural area less than a mile from that old barn where we caught the biggest snake ever way back when...

Thanks to brother Henry and his family for sharing their homestead with our relocated reptile;
it seemed right at home when Cousin Layne relinquished her grip and released it back into the wild. And perhaps someday, when Henry and Glenda's grandkids are playing around in what remains of that old barn, we'll be telling a new story about the largest snake we've ever seen...