Monday, April 27, 2015

Pink Locust and the Tulip Tree

Between chilly showers on a Sunday afternoon, we spied this lovely tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, with blossoms just beginning to open, so we pulled over to capture the nascent inflorescence for our friends at Hoot Owl Karma. 

Much to our delight, a small colony of pink bristly locust, Robinia hispida, or perhaps a closely related cousin, had set up camp in a bit of a clearing just across the stream from our massive tulip poplar, so we slipped over and paid them a brief visit.

Skipper larvae nibbled on the crisp green leaves, 

while delicate pea-like blossoms danced cheek to rosy cheek with their partners, 

swaying rhythmically as they dangled from bristly stems,

 blushing under a gentle rain of kisses from above. 

Later, the clouds parted, 
just before dusk,

drenching these tulip tree blossoms in the golden light of the setting sun,

illumining the pastels of the petals and their diaphanous, still-unfurling edges

like little faerie lanterns,

or a host of living ornaments, 

illuminated by the spirit of the tree itself, 


celebrating two score such flower-filled springs, 

and craving four score more...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

...Violets Are Blue, or Not?

Exalted in popular culture by the all too familiar lines of the clever Valentine, 

"Roses are red, violets are blue...," 

the humble violet is a stalwart of the woodland margins and rural roadsides of the Tar Heel State this time of year. They are so ubiquitous, in fact, that it is difficult to venture into any natural area in mid- to late-April and not encounter a patch of these lovely blue sprites.

A careful reading of the popular rhyme, however, reveals that the poem refers to violets plural, 
not violet singular, 
thus highlighting a most important truth about this little blue star of the botanical realm...  

According to various sources, North Carolina is home to more than twenty distinct species of violet, all found in the Genus Viola, several of which occur in multiple varieties, and a fair number of which hybridize readily with neighboring species.

Yes. Violets are blue, 
but which violet?

Just this week, within a few miles of home, 
we've encountered Viola affinis, Viola brittoniana, and Viola pedata; 

sand violet, coast violet, and bird-foot violet.

All lovely, all violets, all blue.

Wait, wait, not so fast! 
Hunter says no way this flower is blue...

it's violet!

So which is it, violet, 
blue or violet?

Another of nature's little mysteries, 
waiting for you just outside the door...

Friday, April 24, 2015

Woodland Wildflowers - Pink Lady Slipper Orchids

Cypripedium acaule, a favorite woodland wildflower here at Hoot Owl Karma. 

A late April visitor every year in the pine woods of Harnett County,

and every year we look forward to a brief visit.

They're looking good again this year,

and there's a decent chance you may have a few popping up in the pine woods near you.

Why not take a walk this weekend and see...?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Spotted Turtle and Eastern Hognose Snake - Fellow Travelers

 A warm mid-April shower finds the pinxter-flower, or wild azaleas, Rhododendron periclymenoides, just reaching their peak in Brother Henry's wood,  and they greet us from afar as we cross the sturdy wooden bridge over little rain-swollen Moccasin Creek.

Beneath the stately pines out front, a miniature spotted turtle, Clemmys guttata, makes its way amidst the scattered straw and spent catkins, so recently bereft of their abundant stores of pollen.

Spring is very much in the air these days, for gymnosperms and angiosperms alike, 

but today's gentle rains have shifted our focus from the trees and the pollen-filled skies to the understory and the forest floor and the creatures that happen to be making their way therein... 

with our gaze thus lowered, 
we encounter another strata of flowering plants as well, 
such as these rather rare and rain-drenched coast violets, Viola brittoniana, 
scattered about like so many brilliant amethysts in the sandy path.

Our spotted turtle moves along steadily, 
still quite young, 
sporting just one spot per scute on its carapace, 
with bold golden polka dots marching in pairs right up the back of its neck and head and eyebrows;

foraging here in the straw and the sand, practically in the shadow of the violets,
perchance to find a worm or slug or snail, 
quite the satisfying meal for one of its clan.

Soon it will return to its pool, where it will spend the night in the mud of the shallows, 
secure from harm beneath a dark cloak of still, clean water, in the shadow of the cattails and duckweed.

Spotted turtle is one of the last of its genus, a North Carolina native, less and less common in the face of habitat loss and removal from the wild as a personal pet or for the larger pet trade. 
Automobiles have taken their toll, as have predators such as dogs and raccoons;
and in long-lived species such as this, 
when juveniles like this one won't become sexually mature for another six or seven years, 
the loss of even one mature adult can seriously impact a community's chances of long-term survival. 

We're glad to have met you, little spotted turtle, and may you live long and prosper right here alongside us and the violets on the far western edge of the Carolina coastal plain.

The wild azaleas and the violets must, of course, share the April spotlight and the gentle life-giving rain here in the shadows of the forest understory with the magnificent flowering dogwood.

And at the forest edge, at the very foot of a noble long-leaf pine, we see another most beautiful native creature of the Carolinas, eastern hognose snake, heterodon platirhinos.

The hognose snake, with its characteristic upturned snout, appears in a variety of color phases, quite often clad in simple black or dark gray, with very little in the way of apparent pattern or markings. 

This individual, however, appears to be a brown or even red color phase, 
and it is clearly a creature of the pines, 

sharing the reds, and oranges, and yellows and grays and browns and blacks 
of the straw and the bark and the cone fragments and the hardened amber sap 
of Carolina's majestic longleaf pines.

Although eastern hognose eats a variety of small animals, toads are a definite favorite, 
and its colorful pattern certainly wouldn't hurt its chances of a successful ambush here in the shadow of the pines.

The eastern hognose is renowned for its wide array of defensive postures and tricks, first flattening its head and neck in cobra-like fashion to make itself appear larger, then hissing and puffing in a most threatening way.

If this aggressive display fails to deter a would-be predator, 
the hognose resorts to the opposite extreme, 
often regurgitating its most recent meal of toad before rolling over and pretending to be stinkingly, disgustingly and decidedly unappetizingly dead; 

mouth open, tongue lolling, drooling and persistently rolling itself back onto its back no matter how often it might be righted by a well-meaning handler.

Our encounter today, however, consists merely of respectful observation, 
with none of the histrionics associated with stress or threatening behavior. We've observed many eastern hognose snakes while growing up wild in the Sandhills of North Carolina, but few, if any, have matched the beauty and grace of this individual. 

Days like today remind us to be grateful for the blessing 
of sharing an ecosystem with such awesome creatures, 

fellow travelers all.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

First Snake of Spring

With spring in full bloom, folks in our neck of the woods are hitting the gardens and flower beds pretty hard. And quite often, where rake meets the last leaf of November, and trowel meets last spring's mulch, human meets snake.

In this instance, human was a kind-hearted friend of Brother Henry's, and snake was a very young and beautiful mole king snake.

Curious about the camera, and not at all intimidated by the very large creature behind the lens, this bold young reptile probably hatched late last fall and may have made winter shelter in the very mulch and leaves where its mother laid her eggs last summer. 

The mole king snake is quite secretive and rarely seen abroad, so we consider ourselves lucky that the industrious gardener brought this one to light with her rake.

The snake received a minor wound from the tines of the rake, but appears relatively unfazed by the trauma, and after being relocated to a nearby wooded lot, should live to hunt another day.

We're mighty glad to document another happy ending to an encounter with one of these benign and beneficial creatures; 

glad in the knowledge not only that this remarkable snake is alive and well, 
but that its parents are probably still about and healthy enough to give life to the next generation. 

Perhaps we'll be lucky enough to run into them as well.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nothing Says Spring Quite Like Pollen...

Pollen days are here again, and with them, Spring. 

For nearly two weeks now, the Carolina pines have filled the air with their minuscule grains of golden powder, cloaking much of the state in a thick yellow haze, and coating every exposed surface with a dusting of sulphur yellow.

Mercifully, however, the spring rains have come in abundance as well, clearing the air for a spell with each passing shower, and rinsing leaf and blossom clean in advance of tomorrow's fresh coat of pollen. 

Along with the pollen come other familiar portents of the Southern spring, and our hearts thrill at the sight of them...

Known variously as wild azalea, pinxter flower or pinxter azalea, this lovely native rhododendron brightens many a woodland nook around our area in the early days of April.

Between showers, male northern cardinal's persistent "Purdy! Purdy! Purdy!" rings from his treetop perch;  one voice in a chorus of avian song that accompanies the year's 
first wave of nesting and egg-laying.

And down below, where woodland yields to meadow, clumps of rain- and sun-kissed bluets elicit a smile from every passerby.

Even the humble drainage ditch has its part to play in the springtime drama; 
nursery for amphibian and arthropod alike, 
as green frog basks amidst a gyrating swarm of mosquito larvae.

All the most appealing sights and scents of spring are met in the sweet shrub or spicebush, whose luscious peachy perfume drenches the woodland margins more thoroughly than the afternoon shower just ended.

The iridescent emerald hues of the six-spotted tiger beetle foreshadow the impending miraculous appearance of millions of fresh green leaves in the canopy overhead... 

as the epicure's elusive and enchanting morel mushroom makes 
its annual April appearance in the shadows and decay of the forest floor.

The pollen is here, 

bringing with it 

the hues,

the textures,

the flavors,

 the fragrance,

and the joy...

of Spring.