Saturday, July 19, 2014

Quiet Neighbor - Eastern Box Turtle

Eastern box turtle, Terrapene carolina, is a good neighbor. 


He keeps a pretty low profile, really. 

He probably arrived here around the same time we did, fourteen or fifteen years ago, but this is the first time we've actually met. 
If he stays away from the roads, he may well be around long after we're gone.

He's not a night owl, but our paths rarely cross under the sizzling summer sun. Today's cooling shower, however, lured him from the shelter of his log in the little creek bottom down the hill. 
He and his kin haunted these hills for many millenia before folks like us arrived, but with our arrival, things changed a bit.

Legend has it that some American Indian tribes favored this ubiquitous "land turtle" for food and a variety of other uses, exploiting it to the point of extirpation in some locales.
Stories from more recent years relate to box turtles' longevity and remarkably small home range of less than 250 meters diameter. 

Tales are told of recording the births of children on the local box turtle's shell, with marks on some individuals spanning three generations. Thankfully, we're not aware of recent reports of this rather barbaric practice, and the only apparent markings on our neighbor's carapace are its own enigmatic gilded birthmarks.

Even more recently, the advent of the automobile and North Carolina's ascent to its status as
"the Good Roads State," has spelled plenty of trouble for these solitary wanderers. Because of their tendency toward very small home territories, they are particulary vulnerable to human development with its accompanying infrastructure of roads and rails.

Today's encounter with our reclusive neighbor occurred within less than a meter of our primary neighborhood thoroughfare, so we gave him a gentle lift across the pavement in the direction he was headed, silently wishing him safe passage should he come back this way again.

Box turtle photos by Hunter Randolph. Thanks, Hunter!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hunter and the Toad in the Road

Spotty summer showers and a rural road at midnight...
there's bound to be a toad in the road.

Wipers squeak shrilly, momentarily dry.
Stop and emerge for a closer look.

Toads to the left. Toads to the right.

And a toad in the middle of the road.

Dry, warty skin. 
Red speckles, brown splotches, cranial crests and parotid glands.

Warts and more warts.
Warts upon warts, and warts within warts. 

Big, bulging eyes, a quizzical look and a tiny little chin.



Hunter and a toad, right in the middle of the road.

How's the weather down there?

A most impressive toad, firmly ensconced in the middle of the road.
A safer spot, perhaps, than any other, 
here upon the pavement in the midnight hour.

Rather relaxed and regal in its bearing, 
this toad in the middle of the road.

It could be any toad on any road, 
this regal little midnight toad;
Tomorrow, who knows?
But here, and now, it's Hunter's toad. 

The warm, wet asphalt loves a toad.

And the feeling is mutual.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mystery in the Ashes

Jay has discovered a mystery in the ashes. 

The sun sails past, imperceptibly fast.

Fueled by the fire of Helios, fern-shaped shadows dance in the dust of the ancients,
and a thousand fresh forms rise from the ashes of last year's dead.

With their earliest words, humans spoke of the power of fire.
Phoenix, consumed by the flame, and reborn from its ashes.
Immortal, or the very epitome of mortal?

Yes, there is a mystery in the ashes.

Long before man wove words into pictures, 
long, long before those words took form on the page,
there lived a longleaf forest in the sandy hills of Caroline. 

And each day, the sun rose high overhead, and the heat of her flames warmed the forested sands, and the pines grew tall and strong.
And in the space beneath those stately pines thrived all manner of living things.
And some days the heavens opened up, and down poured buckets of live-sustaining water.
And the next day, the sun passed high overhead, 
and her life-giving warmth and light descended again.

And once in a while, fire came down with the rain and consumed all but the thick-skinned trees.
And the next day, the sun passed high overhead, and the rains came again.
And the next, and the next and the next.
And the seeds in the sand awoke, and felt the live-giving warmth of the sun 
and all manner of living things thrived again in the land of the longleaf pine. 

 Not just plants, but animals, too, found life and protection in the wide open spaces beneath the mighty pines. 
Among the animals were egg-layers, 
reptiles first, and later the birds, 
depositing their mysteries beneath and upon the sun-baked sands.

Today, Jay discovers anew one such mystery. 
A mystery that is far from new, 
played out upon this forest floor since the early days of the forest, 
ages and ages before a human shadow first cast its pall over this sacred ground. 

Jay's mystery is an ancient story indeed. 
The story of a strong, swift flyer, a predator of insects, 
consuming them on the wing by the hundreds in an evening.
This amazing creature travels to these pine woods each summer from half a world away to breed and rear its young.

Returning for the abundant insects and the safety of the longleaf forest to lay its eggs. 
Not to nest, for this creature needs no nest. Not even a slight depression in the sand.
No, this creature simply lays its eggs on the bare forest floor as it finds it.

As the common nighthawk, Chordeiles minor, attends its eggs, its plumage bears witness to the timeless cycle of fire and renewal in the land of the longleaf pine. 
Over a thousand thousand Carolina summers, the pearly white sand, the gray and black ashes and the reddish brown needles of this timeless place are emblazoned upon its feathered cloak and the precious eggs themselves;
a shield against danger, ensuring the cycle of life continues.    

And should, by happenstance, danger approach too close, mother will lure it away, leaving naught but a mystery behind in the ashes.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Life from the Ashes in the Land of the Longleaf Pine

Independence Day finds us smack dab in the middle of the Carolina Sandhills, standing in the heart of a recently burned stand of mature longleaf pines; the classic pine barrens, if you will. But as open and desolate as the forest understory appears, we soon find it anything but "barren."

All along the sandy ridgeline, tall leafless stalks of kidneyleaf rosinweed, Silphium sp., gently sway above a sparse bed of brownish-orange pine straw, their awkward yellow flowers looking far too small for their impressively large, lobed basal leaves, and gangly stalks, some rising 6 feet or more above the sand.

In the bright sunny patches created by the open canopy,

whorled-leaf coreopsis, Coreopsis major, make their own bold yellow statement.
Also known as great coreopsis, these middling sized members of the aster family have a pair of three lobed leaves arranged opposite each other, giving the appearance of a six-pointed star at regular intervals along their slender, erect stems.

While both white meadow-beauty,  Rhexia mariana var. exalbida,  and Savannah meadow-beauty, Rhexia alifanus, rise from the ashes of this spring's burn,

the tall purplish-pink beauties we first met along the Pender County roadside a few weeks ago dominate this long leaf pine savannah, sparks of bright pink scattered all along the flanks of the sandy hills and persisting right down to the margins of the occasional boggy fern-filled seep. 

Offering its own interpretation of the purplish-pink color theme, the aptly named Sandhill thistle, Cirsium repandum, greets us at every turn from its home in the coarse white sand.

Springs and seeps abound in this part of the wood, forming lush green oases between the sandy ridges. Swallowtails and other insects make their way amidst the verdant herbs and shrubs, already thick in the clear open spaces left by the recent cleansing fire.
This large slender red wasp paused in the warm sunshine before resuming its hunting.

Among the reeds, in the thick layer of organic material accumulated around the seep, lurks an insectivorous purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpuria
This tiny individual is just beginning to emerge from the ashes, and hasn't yet developed the distinctive reddish-purple veins for which it is named.

A few feet higher, where the dense vegetation of the bog begins to thin out a bit, we spot another of North Carolina's native carnivorous plants, the sweet pitcher plant, Sarracenia rubra.

Also known as the redflower pitcher plant, the small trumpet-like containers formed by the leaves of this uncommon pitcher plant are filled with liquid into which the plant secretes digestive enzymes. When unfortunate insects find their way into the liquid, they are digested by the plant to supplement the nutrients obtained from the soil. 

The hood, or lid-like projection at the top of the leaf, may serve to prevent dilution of the digestive fluids by rainwater as well as preventing trapped insects from escaping.

Mingled with the sweet pitcher plants, we discover more purple pitchers, replete with red veins and even a really cool blossom or two.

We traverse the boggy bottom via an old logging road, ankle deep in white sand, 

which is lined with sun-loving flora like these savanna mountain-mint, Pycnanthemum flexuosum, imbibing the invigorating scent of a few crushed leaves as we continue our exploration. 

Our old friend orange milkwort, Polygala lutea, grows in abundance here along the wetland margin, 

and here we find a much larger colony of purple pitcher plants in full bloom, cozying up with the sphagnum moss alongside the dense jungle of ferns and cane and greenbrier and small shrubs around the spring.

The bright red veins highlight the short, stout vessels formed by the rolled leaves of these pitchers, and the ruffled margins of the rim are covered with wiry downward-angled bristles which help prevent captive insects from climbing out of the potent digestive brew within.

All of North Carolina's native carnivorous plants have suffered due to habitat loss and poaching by exotic plant collectors, but these remote Sandhills bogs on protected public lands offer some hope for the future of these remarkable creatures.

As we begin our homeward ascent back up the rolling pine pricked hills where our adventure began, we spy slender ladies tresses, Spiranthes gracilis, another of our native orchids, gracing the slope among the myriad grasses and ferns.

And just a bit further up the slope, we encounter humble butterfly pea, Clitoria mariana, admiring the dancing shadows of the ferns.

Tiny yellow pencil flower, Stylosanthes biflora, another legume with much smaller blossoms than butterfly pea, greets us from the base of burned out stump as we near our starting point. 

Having thoroughly debunked the misnomer of pine "barrens" and immersed ourselves in the unique ecosystem of the longleaf pine barrens, replenished annually by fire, 
we prepare to depart, but the charred debris and ancient sand and freshly fallen straw harbor one last surprise...

Not far from the vacant shell of a large land snail, keen-eyed Jay makes a remarkable find...

a pair of mysterious soot stained eggs perched upon the sand!

We decide to delay our departure in hopes of a glimpse of their absent guardian...

stay tuned.