Friday, April 29, 2016

Scarlet Kingsnake

Fantastical beasts abound in the wilds of Carolina, 
but you must venture outside to find them!

Outrageously patterned creatures of colors galorious,

defying belief,

even while restoring it.

Yes, there are countless fantabulous creepers and crawlers
more amazing than our minds could ever conjure;

living right where they've always lived...

but you won't find them under the couch or behind the TV;

No, not there.

For surreal as they seem,
these neighbors of ours can only be found
in the world of the really real, 

down on the ground beneath the pines and the oaks and the hickories,
among the moss and the straw and the cones,

and the pathway to that realm begins
just beyond your door!

Scarlet Kingsnake
Lampropeltis elapsoides

Hyberbole aside, an encounter with this remarkable animal is a rare and exciting treat for the dedicated naturalist or the casual observer. Even folks who routinely work in the woods often go a lifetime without a single encounter, so we're mighty thankful to have had the opportunity to meet one in person and share the experience through lens and pen.

The striking pattern of red, white(or yellow), and black stripes exhibited by the Scarlet Kingsnake is an excellent example of the phenomenon of Batesian mimicry in which a harmless animal shares an ecological niche with a venomous or poisonous animal and has evolved an appearance similar to the harmful animal, resulting in protection from a shared predator.

In this instance, the scarlet kingsnake strongly resembles the highly venomous eastern coral snake, whose habits and habitat it shares in southeastern North Carolina. The banding pattern is different enough to allow the careful observer to reliably distinguish between the two, however, and the difference has been incorporated in several memorable rhymes, along the lines of
"Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; Red touch black, friend of Jack."

Interestingly enough, both snakes share their habitat with another harmless mimic, the scarlet snake, which is almost identical to the scarlet kingsnake except that its belly is solid white or pale yellow, while the kingsnake's banded pattern continues onto its underside.

Our native reptiles should be quite active from now until late fall,
so stay tuned for more encounters!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sanford Shorebirds - Kill-deer!!! Kill-deer!!!

When we're lucky enough to slip down to the coast for a few days, 
we love a leisurely stroll on the beach with the shorebirds. 

With cool names like sandpiper, sanderling, willet and oystercatcher, 
and equally intriguing bills and plumage and calls, 

shorebirds offer even the most casual observer a bounty of fascinating 
physical characteristics and behaviors to ponder and appreciate.

Among our favorite shorebirds are the plovers 
(may rhyme with lovers or clovers, depending upon your mood);
and our favorite plover is the ubiquitous killdeer, 
Charadrius vociferous. 

The killdeer is a prototypical shorebird by almost any measure, 
but we love the fact that it is quite common right here in Sanford, 
a hundred miles or more from the nearest seashore!

Like the whip-poor-will and chuck-wills-widow, the killdeer name is onomatopoeic, 
as anyone who's ever heard the shrill and repeating "Kill-deeeer" or "Kill-deeee" on a late spring afternoon can attest.

We were not surprised when we heard the familiar piercing call during a recent stroll through 
Historic Downtown Sanford, and we quickly spotted the caller wheeling swiftly overhead. 
Seconds later, its mate began to vocalize from the gravel railroad bed, 
just a few short yards from where we stood.

And then the show began in earnest...
The ingenious bird feigned injury, dropping one wing to the ground 
and dragging it helplessly as it hobbled and fluttered slowly down the tracks. 

It was immediately clear that the bird was luring us away from its precious nest, 
and we froze lest we inadvertently trample it. 
Here is the terrain that confronted us...

and here from a different angle.

After several anxious moments, 
distress calls echoing from the nearby walls,

our straining eyes resolved the puzzle, and cleared the way for our escape.

Yes, Sanford has some shorebirds.

Beautiful, passionate, clamorous birds.

Clever, resourceful, amorous birds.

And if tonight's adventure is any indication, 
they'll be around for a good long time,

here on Sanford's rocky shores...

Kill-Deeeer!  Kill-Deeeeer!

Thanks to Julie for sharing her fabulous photos!

Yellow Bladderwort a.k.a. Golden-Crowned Flesh-Eating Water-Walker

The sudden April shower is light, but steady,
tickling the surface just enough to muddle our reflection
as we peer out at the fascinating flotilla of flora before us...

stalks mostly erect, some drooping just a bit beneath the accumulated weight
of the raindrops on their shapely golden blossoms, 

we think we've seen these remarkable creatures once before, 
farther east, 
sharing the domain of other carnivorous plants like the venus flytrap and sundew.

If we are correct, 
then these are a species of bladderwort, 
carnivorous plants which utilize miniature bladder-like organs on their "roots" 
to engulf tiny arthropods and extract nutrients land-dwelling plants might obtain from the soil.

in the nearly dry trickle of a stream just behind the beaver dam,
a few dozen hardy souls are mimicking their terrestrial kin,
modified basal rosette of "leaves" resting directly on the saturated soil.

While out on the pond, 
the rest of the colony seems to revel in their collective uniqueness,

perched solidly near the pond's liquid surface,

blissfully unaware of the oddity of their appearance

in the eyes of their now sodden earthbound observers, 
absorbed as we are in our watching 
of these golden-crowned flesh-eating water walkers.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Bivouac and the Bard

A walk along the woods edge in April is a wonderful experience for the wanderer. 
Spring has transformed winter's dreary tangle of bare vines and branches into a marvelous mosaic of myriad leaf shapes and sizes in almost every shade of green, setting the stage for nature's next act. 

Dominating this scene are the vines, 
tendrils clinging, shoots advancing,
climbing, clawing, clambering,
sunlight drawing them nigh,
where buds erupt and blossoms open and pollinators abide!

 Oh, Pollinators! 
Sweat bees and bumblebees and carpenter bees and wasps and the humble honeybee...

Without the bees, there are no fruit. 
And without the fruit, there are no seeds. 
And without the seeds, there are no plants.
And without the plants, there are no woods' edges to wander...

And with no woods' edges to wander, there are no wanderers.

Today, along this woods edge, 
the bees and wanderers are one. 

A rare and precious sight, this bivouac of bees.
Wandering in search of a proper hive, 
scouts on the move, 
the queen and her thousands of followers awaiting their consensus before settling anew.

This year, with the wanderers' help,
there will be blackberries and muscadines aplenty on the edge of the wood. 

Next year and the next and the next?

That depends.

Perhaps the Bard posed The Question best, some four centuries back,

"To bee, or not to be..."

and still we wander, 
and await the answer yet.

Thanks to Brother Henry for the bivouac photos!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Trees for North Carolina" - Celebrating Earth Day 2016

"Trees for the Earth" is the theme of Earth Day, 2016.

In keeping with that theme, we're reflecting on a few of the beautiful native 
North Carolina trees we've encountered so far this spring.

Eastern Yellow Poplar; Tulip Tree
Liriodendron tulipifera

The tulip trees are at the height of their blooming in central Carolina right now, so this would be a great time to treat yourself to a walk in the woods and better acquaint yourself with this forest giant.

Black Cherry; Wild Cherry
Prunus serotina

This famous NC native is perhaps best known for its valuable reddish wood, prized for furniture-making, but we love the profusion of white blossoms in spring and sweet/tart summertime fruit of the growing trees!

Sassafras albidum

Sassafras has finished its blooming, and is putting forth its distinctive leaves, which appear in three different forms, often on the same tree.

Sassafras' fragrant roots and leaves have been famously utilized for root beer, file powder (the thickening agent most famous for its use in Cajun gumbos), and a wide range of other herbal concoctions, including the home-brewed sassafras tea of our childhood. Here at Hoot Owl Karma we also celebrate its role as the host plant for Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars. 

American Sweetgum
Liquidambar styraciflua

We recently devoted another post to this stalwart of the southern forest, and although the mature "gumballs" can be a bit irritating underfoot, we admire her majestic stature wherever she grows - in the city park, along the woodland trail, at the margin of the farmer's field or deep in along the banks of the Deep River. Her distinctive blossoms are things of beauty and her star-shaped leaves brighten the tree line spring, summer and fall.

Eastern Redbud
Cercis canadensis

This native flowering tree lends bold and welcome color to the roadside and forest understory during the early spring, and we particularly admire its unique and unorthodox habit of setting flower buds directly on the mature trunk of the tree. How cool is that?!

Black Locust
Robinia pseudoacacia

Black locust's bounty of ivory blossoms are a welcome sight in April across the width and breadth of North Carolina. Native to the mountains of our state, they have become naturalized elsewhere and now brighten roadsides and waste places throughout. Black locust wood has long been used to fashion fenceposts due to its extraordinary durability and resistance to rot. 

Like the redbud tree, black locust is a legume from the family Fabaceae, which becomes more apparent as their bean-like seed pods develop later in the year. 

Longleaf Pine
Pinus palustris

As daylight recedes on the eve of Earth Day here in the heart of North Carolina, we encounter a stand of recently planted longleaf pines, evidence of at least one landowner's commitment to ensuring North Carolina remains "The Land of the Longleaf Pine".

So Happy Earth Day from Hoot Owl Karma;
why not celebrate by planting a favorite native tree this weekend?!

A Lone Luna...

On a warm spring day, the luna moth emerges from its cramped winter quarters, 
a small silken cocoon, and immediately begins to "inflate" its wings. 
The wings will take a few hours to fill with fluid and assume flying shape.

Once ready for flight, there are few creatures more alluring 
than this delicate denizen of darkest night.

Her grace and beauty are other-worldly,
as if she were an emissary from the goddess Luna herself,
drifting like a solitary moonbeam across thousands of miles of darkness
to enliven our humdrum existence
with a measure of mellowest moonshine.

Luna, like her other Saturniid kin, has no functional mouthparts;
eating is for the caterpillars.

Her brief, brief life is for mating,
or for naught...

Not yet fully inflated, and still damp from the morning's light rain, 
the diaphanous green wings will be ready by nightfall.

And then,

and pheremones,
and perhaps a rendezvous...

Luna moths were almost nightly companions in the summers of our youth. 
Drawn to the lights in the churchyard, and at the schoolhouse ,
and at the ball field and over at Beck and Dan'l's house,
they swooped and flapped and danced their way into the heart and the imagination.

Today their numbers are in steep decline throughout their historical range. 

Here's hoping that tonight this lone luna does not alone remain...

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Wild Iris Are Blooming - Iris verna

At long last, the scraggly old oak has given up the ghost, 
and the sugary white sand at its foot is almost completely obscured beneath the layer of
lichen-encrusted twigs and branches brought down by the winds of March. 

The same stiff breeze that brought low the limbs has gathered the brittle brown leaves of several years past, assembling a montage of earth tones and dry, crumbling textures
from what was once verdant and alive.

A rather desolate scene it would be,
were it not for the iris...

Iris verna.

Dwarf iris, Dwarf wild iris, or Violet iris;
by any name you choose,
you won't forget her soon,

and here in the poor sandy soil beneath the long leaf pine and the hickory and the old dead oak,

it just wouldn't be Spring without her!

I can still remember the thrill I felt as a nine year old boy, 
my breath catching at the first flash of purple here under the oak,

then racing up to the house to report that the wild iris were blooming, 

knowing that Mama and Jim and my siblings would all be as excited as I at the annual arrival of these little woodland sprites, 

so splendidly clad in their royal hues of purple and gold.

We knew all the spots where they had been known to appear, 
but this location and one other behind the house 
among the wire grass and the turkey oaks 
were always worth watching, 
and the most reliable by far. 

And for some reason, as a young boy, 
I took great pride in being the first to report their arrival. 

Silly, perhaps, but true.

I suspect now that the exhilaration of discovery was to a large degree relief;

that the busy-ness of our lives, 
even then, 
some four decades ago, 

had not progressed to the point that we would completely overlook 
such a significant marker of Spring;

for their stay is so brief, and their arrival time so fickle,
that a single week without vigilance 
could doom us to a two year wait between sightings!  

I swear I felt that same old thrill on Saturday when Papa Jim called with the news...

"Jimmy," he began, 
"I just drove the jeep down to the end of the yard, and the old wild iris are blooming..."

When I arrived, late Sunday afternoon, 
there were thirteen
glorious wild iris blossoms 
smiling from the shade of the old dead oak,  

and as I knelt stiff-kneed in the sand,

my little-boy heart sang out,

"The Wild Iris are blooming!"