Museum Blogs

Subscribe to Museum Blogs feed Museum Blogs
Updated: 32 min 59 sec ago

Winterberry (What Time is it in Nature)

December 19, 2014 - 11:59am

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former intern at Prairie Ridge! Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and is minoring in Environmental Toxicology.

The leaves have nearly all fallen here at Prairie Ridge and although winter is soon upon us, there is still much to see! Amongst the frosty backdrop of the prairie nothing stands out more than the festive scarlet red fruit of the Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).

Winterberry shrub and closeup of berries

Winterberry (also known as Black Alder, False Alder, Canada Holly, and Fever Bush) is a slow-growing holly that can reach 15 feet in height. The plant exhibits shiny, dark green, football-shaped leaves about 2-4 inches in length with serrated edges. After the leaves have emerged in the spring, very small greenish to creamy-white flowers will bloom between April and July. The leaves turn yellow in the fall, though this unique form of holly is deciduous and will lose it’s leaves by mid-October. When this occurs, the showy red berries stand out prominently among the bare branches. The small, round berries are about 1/4 inch in diameter, usually occur in pairs, and contain 3-5 small seeds. They start off green and mature to an orange or vibrant red in late August to early September, but will remain on the plant well into the winter. Like most hollies, Winterberry is dioecious, which means that there are separate male and female plants. In order to have successful pollination and bear fruit you must have at least one male plant for every three to five female plants. Male and female plants must be carefully paired up or there may be little to no fruit production.

Winterberry is native to eastern North America and parts of Canada. The plant does best in moist, acidic soils in full sun and can tolerate poor drainage. Ideal locations occur near swamps, streams, river banks, lakes, or ponds, though this plant can handle partial shade and dry, non-alkaline soils as well. The Winterberry has relatively few pests and only minor issues with leaf spots and powdery mildew. In their natural environment, the plants reproduce by seeds or suckers, but most cultivars are propagated by rooted stem cuttings and can be found in your local nursery. Just be sure to get both male and female plants if you want them to produce fruit!

Native Americans historically used Winterberry as a medicine (hence the common name Fever Bush) and the bark has been used to heal cuts and bruises, though Winterberry fruits are poisonous to humans. The berries are, however, as an essential winter food source for small mammals and nearly 50 documented species of birds, including Eastern Bluebirds, Wild Turkeys, and quail. Winterberry also provides nesting sites, cover for wildlife, nectar for insects, and acts as a larval host plant for the Henry’s Elfin Butterfly.

Even during the brisk days of winter, there is still plenty to see here at Prairie Ridge. During your next visit, bring a mug of hot chocolate or warm apple cider to enjoy while meandering through the arboretum.  You won’t want to miss the spectacular crimson fruit of the Winterberries and the plethora of birds they attract!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


Part II- Ten New Diamonds from NC

December 15, 2014 - 10:32am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

This octahedral diamond cyrstal looks like it has been faceted. These are all growth textures on the triangular crystal faces. Also, this is my favorite picture.

This octahedral diamond cyrstal looks like it has been faceted. These are all growth textures on the triangular crystal faces. Also, this is my favorite picture.

One of the comments on the earlier blog post came from Richard Jacquot:

rick@wncrocks.com commented …In an article published with Ed Speer in Volume 1, Issue 2 of American Rockhound magazine in June, 2014, we discussed 15 diamonds that were found in Reedy Creek in Mecklenburg County. These diamonds were found by a gold prospector and sold to a reputable local mineral dealer. They were then sold to various collectors. This was around 1999. The diamonds averaged .5 carat and 1-2mm. The diamonds have been tested and there is no reason not to believe that the prospector found these, in fact, the story is very similar to this one. So what is the criteria for getting them authenticated?

To bring everyone else up…

View original 828 more words


Seeds (What Time is it in Nature)

December 13, 2014 - 4:09pm

Most of the leaves have fallen from the Prairie Ridge trees at this point and have entered their comparatively dull, leafless stage for the winter. While you might not get to see many leaves on the trees for a while, there are still interesting things going on with a lot of the plants! Many trees produce their seeds in the summer and release them in the fall, so there are seeds everywhere. Looking for seeds can be a great way to see a lot of the interesting shapes and textures that allow our trees to reproduce. Today, let’s take a look at some of the many types of seeds you can find on the grounds!

There are several different styles of tree seeds in the world, but one of the styles that lots of people are familiar with are the samaras. You may have called these “helicopter seeds” or something similar at some point in your life. Trees in the maple group are the best known samara seed bearing trees, including this Box Elder:

Box elder seed

Samaras flutter down slowly from the trees when they fall off, spinning as they go. Winds can blow them a little way so that the trees can spread, but others fall near the parent tree. Many of these will eventually grow new trees where they fall.

Some seeds are kept safe inside a sort of protective case. You are probably familiar with at least one type of tree with this system, such as this pines:

Pine cone

Pine cones start off as compact, dense cones with the seeds developing safely inside. When the seeds have matured and are ready to germinate, the cones begin to expand and the cone scales spread apart, exposing the seeds in the center to the environment. The seeds either fall out of the cones or are moved around by animals, such as squirrels, that gather the seeds from the cones and bury them in other locations. However, pine trees aren’t the only types of trees that keep their seeds hidden inside a sort of case. You may be familiar with these:

sweetgum ball

Sweetgums develop many large green, spiky fruits in the summer and the seeds develop inside. In the fall, the fruits dry out and small holes appear along the surface that allow the seeds to fall from the pods. While you may have a hard time finding the actual seeds of the Sweetgum, you can certainly find a lot of the seed pods, the “gum balls,” along the Prairie Ridge Forest Trail.

Some seeds grow in very dense clusters that either open or break apart to release the individual seeds they contain. The Tulip Poplar has an interesting structure:

Tulip poplar seeds

The fruits grow high up in the trees in the summer in dense, compact clusters. Each fruit contains many seeds, packed together tightly within the fruit. When the seeds mature and the fruit begins to dry out, the seeds begin to spread apart, forming the sort of flower-shaped clusters you can see in the photo. The long, slender individual seeds (the “petals” in the photo above) eventually dislodged themselves from the base of the fruit and fall to the ground.

Many of the seeds we’ve looked at already fall from the tree and, if all goes well and the seed isn’t eaten by something, will grow where it falls. Other trees and shrubs depend on animals (often birds or mammals) to disperse their seeds so that the seeds don’t all grow in one place. Many of these trees offer the animals they depend on for dispersal a tasty treat, a fruit, in exchange for moving their seeds to another location. One example is this Viburnum species:

Viburnum berries

As the fruit passes through the animal’s digestive system, the edible parts are digested and absorbed by the animal and the inedible parts, including the seeds, are expelled in the animal’s droppings. Typically the seeds are moved some distance from the parent tree so that the tree or shrub is able to spread its offspring to new areas. There are lots of fruits still visible on the Prairie Ridge grounds, including American Beautyberry, American Holly, Poison Ivy, Persimmon, and the subject of next week’s What Time is it in Nature, Winterberry.

The Prairie Ridge Forest Trail is a great place to look for seeds at this time of year! You may see seeds on the black top along the paved portion of the trail, but if you take a moment to look you’ll see seeds littered everywhere under the trees. I encourage you to pick up a samara, toss it in the air, and watch it “helicopter” back down to the grounds or shake a few gum balls to see if there are any seeds still inside. Wander down to the shrubs near the bird feeders and you’ll see dozens of bird species feasting on Viburnum and American Beautyberry berries. You may even see a squirrel gathering seeds and burying them in the ground, saving them for later in the winter when other food sources become scarce. There are many interesting seed textures and shapes, so be sure to look out for some on your next visit!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)


Giant Leopard Moth (What Time is it in Nature)

December 6, 2014 - 11:01pm

Fall is a great time to see all manner of fuzzy caterpillars!  Though there are a lot fewer out at Prairie Ridge this year compared to the last few years, there are still plenty out and about on the grounds.  We recently came across one of the largest of the fuzzy caterpillars, the Giant Leopard Moth.

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar

 

Giant Leopard Moths are found throughout most of the eastern US and southeastern Canada. The caterpillars are easy to distinguish from other caterpillars. They start off small with orange and dark brown bands along the length of the body and are covered in stiff black hairs called setae (pronounced SEE-tee). As they grow, the banding along the body disappears. Older caterpillars are huge, close to three inches long, and black with bright red intersegmental areas (the soft, stretchy areas between the hard plates that make up the exoskeleton). The entire body is covered in a dense layer of shiny black, thick, bristly setae.

Adult Giant Leopard Moths are also large (wingspans reach 3.6 inches) and are spectacular.  The thorax is bright white with black rings encircling iridescent blue spots, and the wings are bright white with black spots, either solid or hollow. The abdomen is typically covered by the wings, but is iridescent blue-black with orange markings when exposed. Overall, this is a showy species from start to finish!

The caterpillars of Giant Leopard Moths have a hugely varied diet and feed on a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants. In North Carolina, they’re likely to feed on sunflowers, magnolias, cherries, willows, maples, dandelions, violets, and American Pokeweed, though they probably feed on many other species as well. They have a curious habit of feeding on one plant for a while and then moving to another plant, often a completely different species. However, they are not considered pests of any plant species, consuming only small amounts of many different plants.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars are thought to store the toxins they consume with some of their host plants, such as American Pokeweed, within their bodies as a defense against predators. This may be the reason behind the bright red markings in the larvae and the stark black, white, and orange markings of the adults. Adults are also known to excrete an acrid yellow fluid when disturbed. Unlike many other caterpillars belonging to the tiger moth family, Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars do not have stinging hairs, but they still use their hairs as a sort of defense. When disturbed, the caterpillars will curl up very tightly head to tail, hiding their soft undersides beneath their thick layer of bristles, and exposing the red markings along their bodies. Due to the way the bristles are oriented on their bodies, it is very difficult to grab a rolled up Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar to eat it.  The predator ends up pushing it away instead!

Like several other tiger moth species, the caterpillars of the Giant Leopard Moth overwinter as mature larvae and begin to search for winter shelters in the fall. The caterpillars are usually nocturnal, but they are often spotted in the fall crossing roads in daylight as they wander in search of a place to overwinter. In the spring, they will resume feeding briefly before pupating, metamorphosing into adults before beginning to search for mates. In the south, it is possible for this species to produce two generations a year, though in the northern parts of their range they produce only one.

This is a great time of year to look for Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars at Prairie Ridge! On your next visit, keep an eye out for large black caterpillars along the dirt road to the Outdoor Classroom and on the grass to either side. The caterpillars are out looking for places to overwinter, so visit soon for your best chance to see one!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)


Interning at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation

December 5, 2014 - 11:21am

The following post was written by Terra Meares, citizen science intern at Prairie Ridge for Fall 2014.  Thanks for all your hard work, Terra!

IMG_0087A crucial component of every academic endeavor is the pursuit of the ideal internship; one that piques your interest, develops your skill set, and prepares you for the “real world” after college. When looking into internship opportunities, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences was my first choice, largely due to my own fond childhood memories of field trips, but also because of the academic and research achievements of the Museum. The best part of the internship application process was that the internship coordinator at the Museum asks about the students’ interests and educational goals in order to direct them to the appropriate department.  That is how I first learned about the citizen science internship at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.

Currently I am a senior at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and a minor in Environmental Toxicology. The features of the Prairie Ridge Ecostation conformed perfectly to the experiences I needed to obtain to prepare me for a career in Environmental Science. Prairie Ridge Ecostation is a part of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences that focuses on wildlife research and educational understanding of the natural environment. Prairie Ridge began in 2004 and encompasses 45 acres of Piedmont prairie, forest, ponds, and a stream. The impressive Outdoor Classroom boasts a variety of Green Features such as water harvesting, dual-flush toilets, and photovoltaic panels. The building itself is made of parallel strand lumber, recycled materials, and an abundance of Green Design features. They also have a really cool wind turbine and Nature Play Space!

The days at Prairie Ridge were busy and eventful, not just for the engaging employees and volunteers, but for the ample wildlife as well. From nature stories, to active research, camera traps, and Citizen Science Saturdays, there is always fun to be had at Prairie Ridge and you will walk away with a better understanding of the natural world that surrounds us!

Through my internship at Prairie Ridge, I have had the opportunity to become involved in a wide range of exciting projects. My primary assignment at Prairie Ridge was to design a Citizen Science Saturday walk, an educational workshop, and an educational program for K-12 students, and I chose to focus these on pollinators. The development of these programs involved independent research, assisting with citizen science programs, and constructing appropriate materials such as handouts, activity sheets, and field guides. In the spring I will have the chance to help lead the programs I developed and evaluate their effectiveness. I will also be involved in the planning and development of a future pollinator garden at Prairie Ridge.  Participating in Citizen Science allowed me to gain hands-on fieldwork and data collection experience I lacked in my academics.

Some of the other interesting tasks that I performed through my internship were inputting data and assisting with the camera traps. Moving the camera traps was quite enjoyable, but the best part was analyzing the images. It was surprising to see the abundance of wildlife that wanders through the area! Another project that I really loved working on was sorting plant slides by phylogeny. In fact, throughout the fall semester I have enjoyed my internship at Prairie Ridge so much that I intend to continue my work as a volunteer!

The Prairie Ridge Ecostation was a fantastic internship opportunity that provided me with a wide range of skills and experiences that I will be able to apply to any future career in Environmental Science. I highly recommend Prairie Ridge as a place for students to intern, volunteer, or even visit to take advantage of the exciting events held here throughout the year. This is the perfect place to learn, explore, and gain real hands-on experience for students in a wide variety of studies. I am delighted to be able to continue assisting and stay involved in the projects as a volunteer, and I am excited for future endeavors!

Photo by Chris Goforth


Ten New North Carolina Diamonds

December 4, 2014 - 1:06pm

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

This octahedral diamond cyrstal looks like it has been faceted. These are all growth textures on the triangular crystal faces.

NCSM 5997. This octahedral diamond crystal looks like it has been faceted. These are all natural growth textures on the triangular crystal faces.

There have been 13 diamonds found in the state of North Carolina since 1893, the largest of which was four carats. Most of them were found as a result of panning operations for gold or monazite. One of these is in the Geology Collection of the Museum of Natural Sciences: NCSM 3225. It came from Burke County and was part of the collection of J.A.D. Stephenson, the man who discovered emeralds and chromian spodumene (aka hiddenite) in Alexander County.

NCSM 3225, one of the original thirteeen diamonds found in North Carolina. From the collection of J.A.D Stephenson.

NCSM 3225, one of the original thirteeen diamonds found in North Carolina. From the collection of J.A.D Stephenson.

You can imagine my feelings when 13 more diamonds came into my laboratory, all at one time.

In many ways this story belongs to Jeff Moyer of Mt. Pleasant, North…

View original 655 more words


Mars, Rainbow Planet

December 3, 2014 - 1:34pm

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

In fact, Mars is still our solar system’s beloved “Red Planet”, so-named for the abundance of iron oxide on its surface. And if held in your hand, Mars rocks most Mars rocks will appear rather similar to rocks from our home planet. However, also like rocks from Earth and other planetary bodies, very thin slices, or thin sections, of Martian terrain will look brilliantly colored using polarized light microscopy, a method that depends on how light bends through materials with varying optical properties, and used in identifying crystals and minerals .

We recently started imaging a new set of Martian and other extraterrestrial samples in the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab, beginning with Martian rocks, shown below in brilliant color.

But first, how can we have samples of Mars, since we’ve never had a mission return with any rocks? The answer: meteorites. Out of more than 61,000 meteorites found on Earth…

View original 1,081 more words


Volunteer Contributions to Citizen Science

December 2, 2014 - 8:58pm

MLMP Volunteers The Museum’s citizen science program is strong, with several staff across multiple departments involved in creating projects, disseminating information, writing grants, or training members of the public to participate in scientific research as citizen scientists. However, even strong citizen science programs need a little extra help from time to time! Thanks to a small army of citizen science volunteers, we are able to offer more programs at more times in more places than we could on our own. Let’s take a look at a few of the ways that our wonderful volunteers enrich our citizen science program!

Some people really enjoy working with the public, so we offer several volunteer opportunities for people who want to teach or interact with lots of other people:

Wading for Water Sticks

 

Citizen Science Saturday. We offer a drop-in nature hike with a citizen science focus each Saturday at Prairie Ridge. Over the course of an hour, our visitors learn something new about the natural world, collect data, and learn enough about a citizen science project that they can do it anywhere on their own. This program is 75% volunteer led, with volunteers teaching the public about the topics they personally love while demonstrating how everyone can contribute to our understanding of the natural world.

Citizen Science Carts. We have a program cart devoted entirely to citizen science! You’ll see it out and about on the Museum floor, especially in the Nature Research Center. The cart is about 95% volunteer led. The intrepid cart volunteers teach Museum visitors about a nature-themed topic and a citizen science project they can do to learn more about it. There are fun activities and lots of new discoveries – and many of the carts were co-developed by volunteers! The cart program couldn’t exist without the volunteers who lead it, so we are dependent on the awesome people who donate their time to keep it going.

Ladybug Hunt VolunteerSpecial Events. We often offer citizen science workshops or activities at Museum special events like BugFest and Reptile and Amphibian Day and Prairie Ridge special events such as Take a Child Outside and Gnomes and Fairies Spring Up on the Prairie. We also have multiple citizen science-themed special events at Prairie Ridge, including our annual Moths at Night event for National Moth Week and the Statewide Star Party for the NC Science Festival. Citizen science volunteers help coordinate, develop, and lead activities at these events and are an invaluable resource for our visitors.

Our public volunteers are important, but not everyone wants to work with lots of people. For volunteers who are shy or simply don’t like to work with groups of strangers, we offer other ways they can get involved:

Data Collection. Our data collectors work primarily at Prairie Ridge and spend their time in the field gathering information. We regularly collect data on ladybugs, trees, seasonal changes, birds, monarchs, biodiversity, rain, clouds, and dragonflies. Volunteers collect a lot of the data for these projects, and help us move the 8 Prairie Ridge eMammal camera traps once a month. Their efforts not only allow us to learn more about Prairie Ridge, Raleigh, and North Carolina as a whole, but also to reliably participate in many more projects than we could without their help.

Stream Surveyors VolunteersData Entry. We regularly collect data for nearly 40 citizen science projects between programs at the main Museum campus downtown and at Prairie Ridge. That’s a lot of data! Unfortunately, we rarely have enough time in our programs to get all of our data entered, so we end up with a big backlog of information that we need to do something with. Some of our citizen science volunteers generously give their time to enter data. It might not be as glamorous as some of the other volunteer positions, but it’s incredibly valuable work.

This past year, we were also lucky to have an AmeriCorps volunteer working with our citizen science program. If you had an opportunity to attend a program led by Mandy Cuskelly, you were treated to a great outdoor experience! Mandy worked full-time as a citizen science educator and was a great asset to the program. She built great new resources and programs that will help us well into the future. Thanks, Mandy, for all of your hard work! We’ll miss having you on board in 2015!

Our citizen science volunteers have contributed nearly 3000 hours of time so far this year, about the equivalent of 1.5 full time staff people. Clearly, our volunteers give a lot to our citizen science program! Because Thanksgiving weekend just passed, I think now is as good a time as any to say that we are incredibly grateful to our wonderful volunteers. Our volunteers make a huge difference to our programs and what we can offer to our citizen scientists. We appreciate each and every one of them, from the person who can only work 2 hours a month to the superstars who work 40 hours or more each month. All of our volunteers make a difference in our quest to learn more about the natural world and the universe beyond and we are thrilled to have them all on board!


Bobcat (What Time is it in Nature)

November 29, 2014 - 10:28am

Every now and again, we see something new and very exciting at Prairie Ridge!  A few months ago, a large cat showed up on one of our eMammal camera traps, but the image was blurry and it was hard to tell what it was.  All we could say for sure was that the cat was larger than the domestic cats that occasionally wander onto the grounds.  We recently started processing the data for October and November, and happily, the large cat appeared again – and this time you can definitely tell what it is.  I give you the first Bobcat (Lynx rufus) documented at Prairie Ridge!

Bobcat on camera trap

And just in case you’ve never seen one and want a clear, daytime shot of a Bobcat to look at:

Bobcat in day by Don DeBold via Wikipedia

In addition to being a first for Prairie Ridge, our Bobcat sighting is also the first spotted by eMammal cameras in Raleigh, so this is an extra special Bobcat!

Bobcats part of the cat family of mammals, Felidae, and share a genus with the similar Canadian Lynx, Lynx.  They are medium-sized cats, about twice the size of most domesticated cats, that reach average lengths of about 33 inches and heights of 1-2 feet at the shoulder.  They are found in nearly every state in the US as well as large areas of Canada and Mexico, though Bobcats in the northern part of the range are generally larger than those found in the southern parts of the range.  Most Bobcats are brown or grey, sometimes with reddish patches, on top and white on bottom and are sprinkled liberally with black markings, including distinctive black bars on the legs.  The hindlegs are longer than the forelegs, which gives these cats a bobbing gait, but they get their name from their short (bobbed), black tipped tails.  They also have a ruff of fur along their cheeks, which gives the Bobcat the appearance of having a large head when it is actually relatively small.

Bobcats prefer wooded areas with lots of cover, but have adapted quite well to humans and can live in a wide variety of habitats, including deserts and suburban areas.  They develop well-defined territories containing a main den or shelter and several auxiliary shelters.  They mark their territories with scratches on prominent trees, urine, or feces, and multiple members of the same sex rarely overlap their ranges except at the edges.  A male may have multiple females in his territory, however, especially given that females tend to have smaller territories than the males, but females rarely overlap one another.  Like most cats, Bobcats are largely solitary, forming pairs only to mate in the late fall or winter.

Female Bobcats typically begin to reproduce at just over 1-year-old, though the males often require a second year of maturation before they first mate.  Once a male finds a receptive female in their breeding season, he may mate with her several times over several days, but she will eventually raise her kittens alone.  A female Bobcat will usually have 2-4 kittens sometime between March and May.  The kittens are born with all of their fur, but closed eyes.  They are weaned at about 2 months and will begin hunting with their mother at 3-5 months before leaving her shortly after they begin hunting on their own in their first fall.

Bobcats are predatory carnivores and are essential for controlling rabbit and rodent populations.  In our part of the country, the primary food of the Bobcat is the Eastern Cottontail, though other rabbits or hares are the primary prey in other areas of the cat’s huge North American range.  Bobcats are opportunistic predators and are also known to feed on insects, fish, birds, rodents (particularly Cotton Rats in our area of the range), and animals as large as deer when rabbits are scarce.  They generally ambush their prey, waiting for animals to wander close before pouncing, grabbing the prey with their powerful paws with retractable claws, and killing it.

I’ll be honest: you’re not likely to see the Bobcat that has been visiting Prairie Ridge as they are crepuscular animals (active just before and after sunset and sunrise each day) and Prairie Ridge is closed during those times.  However, Bobcats are known to shift to a more diurnal (daytime) schedule in the winter to match their prey’s activity. Be sure to keep an eye out for it on your next visit.  You never know when you might catch a glimpse of this gorgeous and secretive cat!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Top photo taken by a eMammal camera trap at Prairie Ridge; lower image by Dan DeBold, used under Creative Commons license from Wikimedia Commons)


Carolina Chickadee (What Time is it in Nature)

November 22, 2014 - 2:24pm

The summer birds have mostly left Prairie Ridge at this point and have been replaced by their winter counterparts. You can hear the White-throated Sparrows calling off in the woods and the tap tap tap of the Downy Woodpeckers as they look for tasty morsels hidden among the bark of the trees. One of the birds you’re likely to see most often at this time of year is a small, year-round resident, the Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadees are members of the tit family of birds, Paridae. They’re on the smaller side, about 4-5 inches long with a 6-8 inch wingspan. They have compact bodies with short necks and large heads, but their tails are fairly long. Like their close relatives, the Black-capped Chickadees, the Carolina Chickadees have a black cap on their heads and a black bib under their short, dark beaks, but white cheeks. They are mostly white on the underside and a soft grey on top with a hint of rusty-brown on their flanks. You’ll find Carolina Chickadees throughout most of the southeastern US, from southeastern Kansas and central New Jersey south to Texas and central Florida.

Carolina Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees are such close relatives, sharing very similar appearances, habits, and habitat requirements, that it is very difficult to distinguish the two species. Skilled birders might be able to tell them apart by looking at the wing feathers visible when the wings are folded up: Black-capped Chickadee wing feathers are almost entirely edged in white while there is very little white on the feather edges in the Carolina Chickadee. It is easier to tell the two species apart by their song. Both birds make the chicka-dee-dee-dee call that gives them their name, but the Carolina Chickadee has a shorter, higher song than its Black-capped relatives. Carolinas also have a four-noted song while the Black-cappeds have a two or three-noted song.

These small birds are active foragers. During the summer, Carolina Chickadees feed almost exclusively on insects and spiders that they harvest from the cracks of tree bark. During the winter, the birds shift their diet such that they feed mostly on seeds and berries. Carolina Chickadees are solitary birds and rarely feed or sleep in pairs or groups. You may see several Chickadees at a bird feeder, but you’ll notice that the birds will grab a seed and fly away from the feeder to eat it alone, cracking it open and eating it on a nearby branch of a tree or shrub before returning for another bite. The birds will, however, form small feeding flocks in the winter, calling out to one another when they find a good source of food. These flocks often draw in other birds, such as Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees (where their ranges overlap), both Golden- and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, Red-, Brown-, and White-Breasted Nuthatches, and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Carolina Chickadees form pairs that may last several seasons and both birds will work together to excavate or find an unoccupied cavity in a tree. They are also known to use nest boxes. Once the location is selected and the cavity excavated, the female will then build a nest inside the cavity, lining it first with moss and sometimes bark. She will then add a thick layer of dried grasses, other plant fibers, and soft animal hair before laying 3-10 small cream-colored eggs with brown speckles. The eggs typically hatch in about two weeks and the babies will remain in the nests for 2-3 weeks before striking out on their own.

You can see and hear dozens of Carolina Chickadees on any visit to Prairie Ridge! Look for them in the trees and shrubs near the bird feeding station below the Outdoor Classroom and in the Arboretum. As we approach winter, the birds will begin to form their winter feeding flocks, so you may see 8-12 birds in groups for the next few months. If you stop and listen for a moment, you’ll hear the birds singing and calling from the trees. And, if you attend a Citizen Science Saturday walk in the spring on a day where we feature Nest Watch, you might have a chance to see nests, eggs, or baby birds! Carolina Chickadees are bold, adorable birds, so make a trip out to see them!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)


Chimney Swift Tower, Now Under Construction!

November 21, 2014 - 6:05pm

Construction of the Prairie Ridge Chimney Swift tower began a few weeks ago and great progress has been made so far!  Though it’s too late for the birds to use it this year, the tower itself has been completed and awaits the arrival of the birds next fall:

Chimney Swift Tower against forest

The brick tower, designed by local architect Frank Harmon and funded by Wake Audubon, provides habitat that the birds seek as they aggregate in the fall prior to migration.  It is hoped that the tower will attract a large aggregation of Chimney Swifts each fall.

While the tower structure has been completed, the technology that will allow researchers to study the birds inside the tower has not yet been installed, nor have the viewing areas for the tower.  Once installed, the viewing areas will allow visitors to relax on benches as they watch the Chimney Swifts return to their roost inside the tower during evenings in the fall.

We eagerly look forward to completion of the rest of the tower complex and hope that Chimney Swifts will colonize their beautiful new structure next fall!


Student’s Discover…..the wisdom of 6th graders!

November 21, 2014 - 12:29pm

Originally posted on EXPEDITION LIVE!:

Here at the paleontology lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and NC State University, we’ve been working on bringing North Carolina kids to the forefront of science.  We’ve been fortunate to partner with an extraordinary group of people and institutions to develop citizen science projects with middle schools as part of the NSF funded Student’s Discover project, the brainchild of Dr. Robert Dunn at NCSU.  By citizen science, I mean partnering with the public to collect real scientific data that is publishable, answers questions about our natural world, and allows the students to participate in the whole of the scientific process.  Our first run at this involves using middle school kids to collect data from fossil shark’s teeth.  The kids at Exploris Middle School in Raleigh presented on their own shark tooth research this morning.  It was extraordinary!  Today we wanted to share this reflection from one of…

View original 181 more words


Winter Sunsets Over the Prairie (What Time is it in Nature)

November 15, 2014 - 11:03am

With the arrival of winter comes a real change in the sunlight we experience.  Sure, it gets darker earlier in the evening, as you expect given the abrupt switch from the late, bright evenings of Daylight Savings Time to the much earlier sunsets of Standard Time, but nights also become longer as we move toward the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice in late December.  At the same time, the Earth tilts on its axis so that we see a shift from the intense summer sun pouring down on us from directly overhead to the sharply angled winter light that glances over the surface of our planet.  The low, angled light gives winter a unique look with long shadows and a dullness that results from the sunlight taking a longer, less direct route through our atmosphere.

Even though our days are shorter and the sunlight we see isn’t quite as bright as it is in summer, the low winter sun can create some spectacular light displays that are well worth looking out for.  The “golden hour,” the hour before sunset where the sun sinking low on the horizon casts a yellow hue over everything, can bathe the entire landscape in warm, golden light that is cherished by sunset enthusiasts and nature photographers everywhere:

Golden hour at Prairie Ridge

The low sun also produces some amazing sunsets.  And because it gets dark early in the evening now that we’ve returned to Standard Time, you might be able to see a sunset at Prairie Ridge over the next few months!  Sunsets like this:

Sunset

Or this:

Sunset

Or this:

Sunset

Or even this!:

Sunset

Winter sunsets can be amazing and, combined with any sort of clouds in the sky, the low winter sun makes for one of the most brilliant spectacles of nature.

Next time you’re out at Prairie Ridge close to closing time, I encourage you to take a look out over the prairie as you head back to the parking lot.  Have a camera ready!  The late afternoon sunlight can produce some gorgeous landscapes that you won’t want to miss!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


Revolutionary Image of Planet Formation Around a Young Sun-like Star

November 10, 2014 - 10:10am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

A few days ago, astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array telescope (or, ALMA) released this astonishing image:

 ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF).

Protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HL Tau (Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF).

This is an image of a protoplanetary disk — the ring of gas and dust that astronomers think surrounds most forming stars (or, protostars). The image amazes for a few reasons. It is the first image to show the detailed concentric rings indicative of planet formation in a protoplanetary disk. This visualization of real-time planet formation looks startlingly like artistic renderings of protoplanetary disks often used in interpreting fuzzy astronomical images.

 National Science Foundation, A. Khan).

Artistic rendering of a protoplanetary disk around a young star, much like HL Tau. Planets are shown forming in the gaps in the disk (Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan).

Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the protostar, HL Taurus (often referred to as HL Tau)…

View original 378 more words


Making History: Rosetta Catches its Comet Next Week!

November 10, 2014 - 10:09am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

It’s an exciting time for solar system scientists, as next Wednesday, November 12, 2014, the European Space Agency‘s Rosetta mission will become the first spacecraft in human history to land on a comet — one of the primitive, icy bodies that are left overs from our solar system’s formation about 4.6 billion years ago.

Rosetta is scheduled to touchdown on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (“67P/C-G” for short) at 10:35 AM Eastern Time, with a signal confirming the landing reaching Earth at 11:03 AM. A live-stream of the landing available on NASA TV, and a special free public program will be held in our Daily Planet Theater, including the live stream and presentation by Dr. Rachel Smith, Director of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab at the Museum.

 NASA).

Artistic rendering of Rosetta’s robotic lander, Philae, touching down on Comet 67P’s surface (Credit: NASA).

Rosetta first made history on August 4, 2014, when…

View original 786 more words


American Beautyberry (What Time is it in Nature)

November 8, 2014 - 2:31pm

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science intern at Prairie Ridge!  Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and is minoring in Environmental Toxicology.  She has spent her semester at Prairie Ridge developing walks for our Citizen Science Saturday series and educational programs and materials for our future pollinator garden.

Fall has arrived at Prairie Ridge and the abundance of oranges, yellows, and reds are in full swing. Amongst the fall backdrop one plant presents its striking purple berries, the American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana.

American beautyberry

American Beautyberry is a perennial shrub in the verbena family (Verbenaceae) that grows anywhere from 3-10 feet in height. The light green leaves are oval in shape with a blunt tip and serrated margins. They grow in groups of two or three on the branches and turn a stunning shade of yellowy green in the fall. The bark of the plant is smooth and studded with lenticels, raised pores that allow for gas exchange. Younger plants exhibit reddish-brown bark while that of older plants turn light brown in color.

American Beautyberry blooms from late spring to early summer. The small clusters of flowers only appear on new growth between the leaves and can range in color from light blue, to violet, pink, or white. The most impressive characteristic of this plant though is in its fruit. After the leaves have dropped, around August or September, the Beautyberry reveals its showy clusters of small purple to blue berries, called drupes. Each berry is about 4-5 mm in diameter and contains two to four seeds. These berries will last well into the winter and are an important survival food source for wildlife such as birds, foxes, opossum, raccoons, squirrels, and deer. In return, these animals help to disperse the seeds of the plant for future propagation.

The native range of the American Beautyberry spreads as far west as Texas to Maryland in the east and south to Florida. Other native areas for the American Beautyberry include the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, northern Mexico, and the West Indies. The shrub grows best in moist soils, such as woody regions, coastal plains, or swamp edges, and can withstand a wide pH range. It prefers climates with hot and humid summers and mild winters, and grows best in full sun, but can handle some shade. In addition, the plant is tolerant to drought, cold, heat, and even fire. Regular pruning should be maintained in order to encourage new growth for maximum fruit production. In the winter to early spring, prune the plant to about 12” above the base.

There is a long history of using the American Beautyberry for medicinal purposes. Native Americans used the roots, leaves, and branches of the plant to treat malarial fever and rheumatism. They also used the roots to combat dizziness, stomach aches, and dysentery, and made a concoction out of the berries and roots to reduce colic. It has also been found that the leaves of the American Beautyberry contain at least two compounds, callicarpenal and intermedeol, that repel mosquitos. Farmers would crush the leaves of the plant then place them on their horses and mules (as well as themselves) to fend off biting bugs such as mosquitos. Current research is being conducted on this use of the plant. Another great usage for the berries is in making jellies and wine, however due to the astringent properties of the berries it is best not to consume them raw.

American Beautyberry is a wonderful prairie plant, and as the name implies, the berries are a sight to see! If you would like to check out the American Beautyberry in action, come out to Prairie Ridge and observe the plethora of wildlife that these shrubs attract. Two fine examples are located in the field near the Outdoor Classroom and are currently booming with birds, quite a spectacular sight to see!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


eMammal Program at Prairie Ridge is Yielding Results

November 5, 2014 - 6:29pm

In October 2013, staff from the Biodiversity Lab and Prairie Ridge set out a series of 8 eMammal camera traps on the Prairie Ridge grounds to answer some basic questions about mammal populations, particularly how the large mammal population changes seasonally, whether the large mammal population is influenced by the small mammal population of the grounds, and whether different habitat types influence which species use those areas.  Our 8 traps have been maintained for over a year so far by a combination of staff and volunteers who move the cameras monthly, swap out the batteries, and replace the memory cards.  Volunteers then process the majority of the data before uploading it to the eMammal project.  So far, over 250 citizen scientists have participated in tagging the images with species data at Prairie Ridge, and hundreds more have taken part through an eMammal console in the Visual World Investigate Lab in the Nature Research Center.

So what have we found so far?  In the first four months of data collection, we captured 4158 pictures of wildlife, 407 of people, and 9 of domestic animals (mostly cats).  Prairie Ridge is being heavily used by wildlife.  White-tailed Deer are, unsurprisingly, the most common species we’ve spotted, followed by Eastern Gray Squirrels, Gray Foxes, and Eastern Cottontails.  Northern Raccoons, Virginia Opossums, and Coyotes were also commonly spotted on the grounds, though not quite as often as the top four.  Southern Flying Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks, however, were only spotted a few times over the first four months and are not very common at Prairie Ridge.

Species detection rate graph

Some species are more commonly found in specific areas than others. Preliminary analyses suggest that habitat type does influence the biodiversity and activity of mammals on the grounds.  The White-tailed deer roam about the grounds and heavily use both the forested and open areas:

Deer map

Coyotes, Eastern Cottontails, and Gray Foxes show similar patterns, though they did not appear on every camera trap in every location.  Our Eastern Cottontails seem to avoid the woods along the creek, for example, and the Coyotes tend not to visit the forest along the upper part of the Forest Trail.  Other species are clearly restricted in their habitat preferences, such as the Eastern Gray Squirrels:

Squirrel map

The squirrels are frequently spotted in the forested areas, but avoid the other areas almost entirely.  The Virginia Opossums avoided the open bottomland of our arboretum entirely and seem to prefer the perimeter of the grounds to the interior.

Though we have only analyzed the data from the first four months so far, there were some interesting changes in mammal detection rates as fall transitioned into winter last year. White-tailed Deer, Gray Squirrels, Eastern Cottontails, Northern Raccoons, and Virginia Opossums all decreased during the winter compared to their fall levels.  The canines (Coyotes and Gray Foxes), on the other hand, were detected more often in the winter than in the fall.

Seasonal shifts graph

It’s interesting that the predators increased in the winter while the herbivores and omnivores decreased.  Could the predators play a role in the decreased detection rate of prey species?  We’ll need more data to find out!

The camera trapping program at Prairie Ridge is part of a multi-year study of mammal populations, so the data presented here from the first four months of data collection are still very preliminary.  We can’t, for example, really link mammal detection rates to seasonal shifts with only one season represented in the data analyzed so far, so it will be interesting to see if the same patterns hold this year.  The habitat information presented here may also change as we add more seasons to the analysis and collect data over multiple years.  We haven’t started to compare the large mammal population captured on our camera traps to the small mammal population, monitored quarterly by the Museum’s mammal collection curators, so we can’t even speculate on how the small mammal population may influence the large mammal population.  Every bit of data added to the analysis will add a little more to the overall story of our large mammal population at Prairie Ridge and help us understand how our natural wildlife haven in the heart of the Triangle Area is used by a variety of species.  It will be interesting to see whether the initial trends hold true from season to season and year to year.

Would you like to get involved in the Prairie Ridge eMammal project?  We are offering our next camera trapping program at Prairie Ridge on November 15th from 1:00-4:00pm! Details are available in the program listing.


The Fungi of Fall (What Time is it in Nature)

November 1, 2014 - 12:39pm

Fall has finally started in earnest, and now is a great time to look for fungi! A walk through the woods can often yield dozens of species of fungi if you keep an eye out for them. Today let’s explore some of the fungi you might find at Prairie Ridge.

If you arrive early in the day on a wet morning, you may see dozens to hundreds of these little beauties growing in sunny mulched areas:

Trooping crumble cups

Trooping Crumble Cups are small mushrooms that start off white and turn grey. They are very fragile and often break apart if you handle them (hence the “crumble” part of the common name), and they don’t last very long. By midday, most of the Crumble Cups above ground have shriveled up and new mushrooms will appear on the next wet morning, springing up from the underground portion of the fungi. These mushrooms grow on decaying matter, so you’ll often see them along the mulched areas of the grounds. They are common in the summer and persist into the early fall, but their numbers will decrease with the arrival of the cooler weather.

Another mulch loving mushroom is the Bird’s Nest Fungus:

Birds Nest Fungus

Like the Trooping Crumble Cups, you can find many Bird’s Nest Fungi growing together on top of mulch. Unlike the Crumble Cups, these mushrooms are less fragile and are visible much longer. Birds’ Nest Fungi get their name from the shape of the cup that forms the bulk of the mushroom. Inside the cup are the “eggs,” filled with many spores. When raindrops fall into the cups, the “eggs” break open and spores are released into the environment. These are small mushrooms, less than a centimeter across, so prepare to get down on your hands and knees to get a closer look! We often spot them on the north side of the upper paved portion of the Forest Trail.

The stinkhorn mushrooms are a good sign that fall is coming:

Dog phallus stinkhorn

These mushrooms get their name from the pungent odor they emit, an odor that attracts flies. The flies feed off the spores at the tip of the mushroom and spread them to new areas. This particular stinkhorn is commonly called the Dog Stinkhorn and is an unmistakable member of the group. They tend to appear in late summer and persist into the fall. A second, larger, grey and white stinkhorn often makes an appearance a little later in the fall. Both are commonly observed after rains in damp mulch, often in shady spots. These have a very distinctive smell, so take a whiff when you see one! Once you’ve smelled one, you can often find the mushrooms by following their scent.

Some fungi are hearty and remain visible throughout the year:

Turkey Tail fungus

This is likely a Turkey Tail or a close relative, a type of bracket fungus that grows outward from dead woody surfaces. These mushrooms grow in dense colonies of overlapping brackets on dead wood, which they help decompose. You’ll see these on rotting logs in the Nature Playspace and in many other areas of the grounds.

We’ve got dozens of fungi species at Prairie Ridge and many of them are quite active now that the days are getting shorter and cooler. On your next visit, take a stroll through the woods and see how many mushrooms and other fungi you can spot. You might be surprised by the variety of shapes, colors, and textures you’ll see!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)