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Live Talk in the Daily Planet: What is Arduino? (or “How to Build Robots!”)

April 14, 2014 - 10:48am

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

What is Arduino? (or "How to build robots!"): Live at the SECU Daily Planet Theater, Nature Research Center, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

What: Free talk with live demonstration and Q&A.
When: April 15, 2014 @ 10:45AM
Where: Inside the SECU Daily Planet Theater.
Who: Matthew FaerberCoordinator of the Visual World Investigate Lab in the NRC.

Ever want to build a robot but didn’t know where to start? Come to the Daily Planet to learn how adults and children alike are using an affordable technology called Arduino to build anything that they can dream of.

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Age of the Appalachians Part 2: Ground Truth

April 7, 2014 - 12:53pm

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

This geologic map of the Appalachians, from Alabama to New York, gives an idea of the complexity of the mountain geology.

This geologic map of the Appalachians, from Alabama to New York, gives an idea of the complexity of the mountain geology.

One of the most common canards I hear about North Carolina geologic is, “The Appalachians are the oldest mountains in the world.” I hear the same about the Uwharries, which are not even in the contest. The age of the Appalachians is tied to the question of “When were they built?”  The answer is that there was no single time in which they were built or finished. The story of the Appalachians was built through observation of crosscutting relationships, then augmented with isotopic dates: See Part 1 of this blog series.    The map at the top of this article is from Jim Hibbard of NCSU and his co-authors  (2006, Lithotectonic map of Appalachian Orogen from the Geological Survey of Canada) which can be downloaded here

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Age of the Appalachians Part 1: Geology Ground Rules

April 7, 2014 - 12:53pm

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

One of those things that “everybody knows” is that the Appalachians are the “oldest in the world.”  That conclusion is usually based on the amount that the Appalachians are eroded- young mountains, sharp topography, old mountains, rounded topography. But the age of the Appalachians is a simple question with no simple answer. A good guide can be downloaded from the United States Geological Survey if you click here.

To get at the answer, you need to know something about the way geologists do business. So this is part 1 of a two-part blog.

Geology is often oversimplified as the study of rocks, but if you look closer, it is actually the study of deep time and the sequence of events. You can build a picture of a sequence of events by crosscutting relationships: Younger events cut across older events.

Sediments stack up on top of each other, so…

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Introducing Natural North Carolina

March 31, 2014 - 11:31pm

At the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, we like to provide a variety of citizen science opportunities to our visitors, both on-site and online. We want you to have a chance to make a difference in science, to be able to contribute something to a research project regardless of your level of scientific experience, so we offer a variety of citizen science projects at the Museum. It is with great excitement that we bring you a brand new project: Natural North Carolina!


Natural North Carolina is a project aimed at documenting every plant, animal, and fungus species in our great state. The Museum staff alone can’t find every species, however, so we need your help! By simply heading outside, snapping a photo of anything interesting you see, and uploading your images to the Natural North Carolina project online, you will make a valuable contribution to our distribution maps and species database.

The Natural North Carolina project was built within the iNaturalist platform, which means that we have instant access to several great tools. You’ll need to make a free iNaturalist account, but then there are a couple of ways to participate. If you have a camera you love, snap some photos of nature and upload them to our project website at When you upload a sighting, you can have the system take the date, time, and location right from your images if you have those features enabled on your camera. Otherwise it’s a matter of a few seconds to type in the data manually and submit the sighting. You can submit any photo of any species taken any time, so long as the photo was taken in North Carolina. Photos from your back catalog are welcome!

If your cell phone camera is your primary (or only) camera, you might try the iNaturalist smartphone app for Apple and Android phones. Simply open the app, snap a photo, and the app will fill in the date, time, and location automatically. Just be sure to add your sightings to the Natural North Carolina project by tapping the Choose Projects button and choosing our project before you submit. You’ll be able to access all of the submissions you’ve made with your phone every time you open the app.

The best part of building our project within iNaturalist is this: whether you submit your sightings online or via the smartphone app, you never need to know which species you’ve sighted before you submit. Click Need ID Help when you submit your photo and other iNaturalist users can help you identify the things you see. Likewise, if you know a lot about a group of organisms, you can suggest identifications to other iNaturalist users who need a little help. This communication between users is one of the best parts of getting involved in Natural North Carolina and helps make the project fun and easy to use.

By submitting your sightings of North Carolina’s wildlife to Natural North Carolina, you will help us do two things. Your sightings will become part of an ever growing database of species from all over the state, information that is freely available to Museum scientists, other researchers, and the general public for use in answering scientific questions. Simultaneously, we will build an amazing searchable field guide to North Carolina life that you can view anywhere you have access to the internet. You can even use the project as a repository for your own wildlife life list or keep a list of species found in your backyard, your school yard, or other favorite spot in the state. And the more you participate, the greater this resource will become! With your help, we will be able to build an incredible resource useful to a wide range of users, both within North Carolina and beyond.

Give Natural North Carolina a try today! It’s easy to get involved. Upload a few photos to the project online. Download the iNaturalist app and submit a few photos while you’re out on your daily walk with the dog. Browse the field guide and marvel at the amazing diversity of our state. Or, attend one of our free iNaturalist training workshops! We’ll walk you through the whole process, from creating an account to recording your sighting to submitting your findings online. Visit the Museum’s events calendar to search for upcoming dates.

We hope you’ll join us on our new citizen science adventure! With your help, we can all learn more about the species that call North Carolina home – together.

What Time is it in Nature: Spring Peeper

March 29, 2014 - 2:41pm

If you’ve paid attention to the sounds of nature at night recently, you have likely heard one of North Carolina’s most widespread frogs. Choruses of Spring Peeper calls have begun to fill the evening soundscape at Prairie Ridge, a good sign that spring is finally here!

Spring Peeper

Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) are small frogs common throughout North Carolina and most of the eastern US. Topping out at an inch and a half, these little frogs come in a variety of color forms, including tan, grey, yellow, pink, and orange. Spring Peepers generally remain well-hidden, but the X-shaped mark across their backs is distinctive and will let you know when you’ve spotted one. In fact, the species name crucifer refers to this mark and means “cross bearing.”

Spring Peepers are woodland frogs and you’ll typically find adults close to the ground in brushy undergrowth close to temporary or semi-permanent fishless ponds. Like many of their close relatives, they feed primarily on insects and other invertebrates as adults. Unlike some of their relatives, Spring Peepers tend to remain active throughout the winter. They even contain chemicals that act as a sort of antifreeze that allows the frogs to survive and remain active throughout all but the coldest winter days. On particularly cold days, they will retreat into shelters under bark or logs, but Spring Peepers can remain active at surprisingly low temperatures and are one of the only frogs you can expect to hear in the middle of winter.

As their name suggests, Spring Peepers make a peeping sound when they call. For such little frogs, their calls are quite impressive! Individual frogs can be heard a mile away, and large choruses can be heard even further, their overlapping calls creating a sound similar to sleigh bells. The calls are an important part of their biology: males call to attract mates in their winter and early spring breeding season. Once they’ve mated, female Spring Peepers will lay their eggs in ponds and the tadpoles will spend about three months in the water before emerging onto land as adults. Tadpoles feed on aquatic plant matter, and are an important food source for wading birds, snakes, other frogs, and some insects, including giant water bugs and dragonfly nymphs.

We’ve heard Spring Peepers calling at Prairie Ridge on recent warm evenings, but you can hear them all over the Triangle. Spring Peepers remain well hidden and are hard to find, but if you’re lucky you might see one in the brush near the pond, alongside one of the temporary pools, or in a brushy area along the edge of the forest. If you hear a Peeper call during the day, try following the call to the source! But even if you can’t find a frog for a close look, enjoy the sound. The recent warmer nights mean a lot of Spring Peepers are out calling, and that spring is on the way!

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 USGS, used under the Creative Commons License)

What Time is it in Nature: Longleaf Pine

March 21, 2014 - 9:00pm

The first day of spring has arrived, and with it comes several more signs of spring!  One good sign is visible on a tree with an interesting biology that has played a prominent role in North Carolina’s history, the Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris).

Longleaf pine

Longleaf Pine is a pine species native to the southeastern US.  The trees grow tall and straight, reaching heights of over 100 feet at maturity.  The leaves are dark green and needle-like and grow in bundles of three.  The needles are, as the name suggests, quite long, reaching lengths of over 17 inches.  Longleaf Pine also has thick bark, which is important to its biology.

Longleaf Pine undergoes a fascinating reproduction and growth process.  The trees produce two types of cones, the pollen-bearing male cones and the seed-bearing female cones.  Both types of cones are first produced in summer, then grow slowly over the fall and winter before becoming active the following spring.  The purple male cones will release pollen:


… to fertilize the female cones:

Longleaf female cone

Fertilized female cones then continue to develop over another year and a half before releasing the seeds.  A female cone may eventually reach lengths of nearly 10 inches by the time the seeds are released.

Longleaf Pine seeds need open, sunny patches of ground to germinate.  If they are dropped in the right location, the trees develop slowly over several years in what is called the grass stage, developing an extensive root system while remaining very short and brushy above ground.  Eventually the trees experience an amazing growth spurt and grow up to 10 feet a year for several years before reaching their full height.  Branching begins once the trees reach at least 10 feet tall, and new needles emerge from white buds, often called candles and visible in the image above, in the spring once branching begins.

Longleaf Pines are adapted to experience periodic, low intensity fires and such fires are necessary for Longleaf forest health.  The trees need a lot of light and have thick, fire resistant bark, so fires help keep Longleaf forests open by burning off shade-producing plants and shrubs.  The seeds are also unable to penetrate dense leaf litter to reach the ground, so removal of the ground cover by fire promotes germination while the ash provides valuable soil nutrients.  Though it is counterintuitive, fire suppression is one of the worst things you can do to a Longleaf Pine forest and this practice has contributed to the destruction of the ecosystem.  Over the past few decades, controlled burn programs have become an important management tool for the maintenance and restoration of Longleaf Pine forests in the southeastern US.

Now commonly considered the state tree (though technically the state tree is simply “pine”), the Longleaf Pine has played an important role in North Carolina’s history.  From the early days of colonization, the Longleaf Pine forests of North Carolina have been harvested for timber, but they also supported a strong “naval stores” industry.  Tar, pitch, turpentine, and rosin are all products of pine and the vast Longleaf Pine forests of North Carolina provided these essentials to merchant and naval ships.  Unfortunately, overproduction of these products and overharvesting of timber have contributed to massive reductions in the size of our Longleaf Pine forests.  Throughout the southeastern US, Longleaf Pine has been reduced to about 3% of its historic acreage.

Prairie Ridge has only a few Longleaf Pines as we are outside of the current natural range of the trees in our state, but they are featured in our native tree arboretum.  The male cones are currently vibrant purple and will soon release their pollen, and you can see growing female cones and brand new needles poking out of the candle-shaped buds.  Be sure to visit the Longleaf Pines the next time you visit Prairie Ridge and take a good look at one of the best symbols of our great state!

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)

What Time is it in Nature: Boxelder Bug

March 14, 2014 - 10:13pm

Thanks to the warm weather we’ve had recently, we’ve started to see the first insects emerging at Prairie Ridge!  Several species have been spotted on the grounds over the past week.  One insect species is already forming large groups, the Eastern Boxelder Bug (Boisea trivittata).

Boxelder Bug

Eastern Boxelder Bugs are a part of the insect family Rhopalidae, the scentless plant bugs.  The adults are just under a half-inch long and are slightly flattened on top.  They are dark brown or black with vivid red-orange markings: three lines down the thorax (their species name, trivittata, refers to these lines), a line down either side, and diagonal lines across the wings.  The nymphs, or immature stages, are smaller and mostly red, but they also lack the wings of the adults.  This species is common throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. and reaches north into Canada and as far south as Guatemala.

Boxelder Bugs overwinter as adults and emerge in the spring.  Once they do, they often form large aggregations, groups of bugs that remain in close proximity to one another.  They aggregate in part for protection from predators and gain safety in numbers, but it also makes finding a mate relatively easy.  Spring aggregations, like we’ve started to see at Prairie Ridge, are typically found in warm, sunny spots on south-facing trees, slopes, rocks, or walls near Boxelders or other host plants.  You may see several hundred bugs at a time, warming themselves in the sun.

Boxelder Bugs feed on primarily Boxelder trees (Acer negundo), though they will also feed on other Acer species (maples), soapberries, and the occasional ash.  They prefer feeding on the seeds, but will also eat the leaves when there are no seeds available.  In spite of their feeding habits, Boxelder Bugs rarely become so numerous that they damage trees.  They are not considered forest or agricultural pests, though the best female Boxelder trees (the seed producers) can attract shocking numbers of bugs.

In addition to feeding on Boxelders, Boxelder Bugs also rely on the trees for reproduction.  Adults will gather near Boxelders and other host plants in the spring and mate.  Females will then lay their small yellow eggs in the crevices of the bark when the first vegetation begins to appear.  The eggs hatch in 10-14 days and the nymphs feed on the leaves and seeds of the host plant.  They will molt 4 times before becoming adults, typically in late spring or summer.  If the weather is particularly good, these bugs may produce a second generation the same year.

In the fall, Boxelder bugs form aggregations in warm, protected places.  Human homes are lovely warm places, so they are known to invade in winter, squeezing in through cracks and other openings.  The bugs cause virtually no damage to the home’s structure, contents, or occupants, so they are considered a nuisance pest rather than a destructive pest, but many people find their presence indoors distasteful.  You can prevent the bugs entering your home by making sure that windows, spaces around pipes, and other possible access points are well sealed.  If they do end up in your home, it’s easy to remove them by sucking them up with a vacuum cleaner, though you must also determine where they are getting in and seal it if you don’t want to find more.

We’ve spotted Boxelder Bugs aggregating along the Forest Trail between the trailer and the Nature PlaySpace.  Next time you visit Prairie Ridge, be sure to look around in the dried leaves to either side of the trail!  If you see large numbers of half-inch brown or black bugs with red markings, you are looking at the adult Boxelder Bugs that made it through the winter and are now eager to reproduce.  You might even see pairs, attached back to back, wandering around the forest floor together – a sure sign of reproduction.  Aggregations like these are a great sign of spring, so hopefully more warm weather is just around the corner!

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)

Not Your Average Galaxy

March 10, 2014 - 10:23am

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

I recently had the opportunity to attend a lecture by  Dr. Patrick Treuthardt , assistant director of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Laboratory in the Nature Research Center. This was part of a lecture series that the Museum offers its volunteers so they can learn about research and have a direct opportunity to interact with our scientists on staff. I soon found out that Dr. Treuthardt is a self-identified galaxy geek. He begins the lecture by projecting a beautiful color-infused image of a galaxy far, far away. It is so stellar and radiant, that I am thinking there is no way that something like that exists. Yeah, I have seen pictures of galaxies, but they all blend together like watercolor paintings of oceans. He explains further that we (on Earth) are part of the Milky Way. This is the part of the lecture where I start to salivate, like a Pavlovian dog thinking about chocolate; which is where my mind tends to wander, but then he shows an image of the Milky Way and explains nonchalantly… a galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound system consisting of stars, stellar remnants, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and dark matter. I am speechless – of all the things to be what an amazing thing to be. A galaxy sounds so alluring and dark and brooding, like an Ernest Hemingway hero. I always thought that a galaxy is just a galaxy and they are all the same, but I was so very wrong. They are these diverse specters of the universe that we know something and nothing about at the same time.

My simplified summary:

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Testing the Smartphone Digital Microscope

March 10, 2014 - 10:22am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

Top view of the Smartphone microscope. The black thing is the rotating "stage" we added, essentially a tiny Lazy Susan.

Top view of the Smartphone microscope. The black thing is the rotating “stage” we added, essentially a tiny Lazy Susan. The phone lens goes over the hole with the brass tube around it.

Side view, digital Smartphone microscope. The bottom layer has three holes for stability.

Side view, digital Smartphone microscope. The bottom layer has three holes for stability.

The Digital Smartphone Microscope seemed like a really good idea. The video circulated last year. It looked like fun, which is of course the reason to do anything sciencey. If you clicky here you can watch the original video on YouTube.

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What Time is it in Nature: Early Signs of Spring at Prairie Ridge

March 7, 2014 - 7:35pm

The weather has been a bit of a wild ride this winter, seesawing back and forth between beautifully balmy days and frigid, snowy days. Sir Walter Wally, the Museum’s weather forecasting Groundhog, told us we’d have six more weeks of winter, and it looks like he was correct! However, a few harbingers of spring are creeping in at Prairie Ridge. Is spring right around the corner? Let’s look at some of the signs.

The Red Maples are always one of the first trees to bloom, and they’re blooming in full force now:

Red Maple Flowers

Red Maples get their flowers long before their leaves, which make them stand out in the forested areas of the Prairie Ridge grounds. Red Maple trees are either male or female or both and you can easily tell the sex of a tree by the shape of the flowers they bear. Male flowers have several long stamens protruding from the cup-like base of the flowers, giving them a bushy tip. Female flowers have just two pieces protruding from the flowers, the two styles that form a sort of V-shape. Those are female flowers in the photo.

The Paw Paw Trees are also starting to show some signs of spring:

Paw Paw Buds

Paw Paw flower buds are brown and furry, with the appearance of well-worn, chocolate brown velvet. These will eventually develop into deep purple flowers which, if fertilized, can produce a tasty fruit. The Paw Paw is also a host plant for Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars, so we’ll be keeping an eye out for caterpillars as soon as the leaves start to make an appearance.

Another great sign of spring is the reappearance of the Red-winged Blackbirds:

Red Winged Blackbird

We see these birds on the grounds year-round, though we usually spot them alone near the feeders during the winter months. In the spring, we start to see a lot more of them – maybe three or four at the feeders at a time – and in more areas of the grounds. You’re now likely to see flashes of red on the shoulders of sleek black birds in the willows around the pond, making loud and raucous calls. Those are the Red-winged Blackbirds males, and they are starting to look for the streaky brown females that they hope to attract as mates.

You’re more likely to hear than see one sign of spring! We’ve heard Upland Chorus Frogs singing on recent warm days. Their calls are reminiscent of the sound of running your fingernail over the teeth of a comb, a loud “creeeek!” you can hear from some distance on the occasional winter or early spring day. (You can hear their sound on the Herps of North Carolina website.) These frogs generally prefer temporary bodies of water, and for the most part the Prairie Ridge individuals have stayed true to their nature. The one Upland Chorus Frog we heard outside of puddles and vernal pools was visiting the smaller of our two ponds. However, the American Bittern that has overwintered at Prairie Ridge was showing a strong interest in the frog making a racket the day we heard it. There’s a good possibility that particular individual met its demise in the belly of a Bittern.

We’ve spotted another group of animals frequently over the last few weeks:

People at Prairie Ridge

Large weekend crowds are always a good sign of spring! On warm days, you’ll see lots of families in the Nature PlaySpace, birders out looking for the American Bittern, cross-country runners training, and people attending programs. It’s a great time to visit Prairie Ridge, so we hope you’ll come see us soon!

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)

What Time is it in Nature: Canada Goose

March 1, 2014 - 11:15pm

Winter brings new birds to the Prairie Ridge pond. While some of the regular summer visitors make occasional appearances during the cold months (Great Blue Herons, Red-winged Blackbirds, etc), we also get several winter-specific birds. One winter visitor is a bird many people are familiar with, the Canada Goose, Branta canadensis.

Canada Geese

Most people can easily recognize a Canada Goose. They’re large birds with brown backs, tan bellies, and black heads and necks. The bright white line down the cheeks and under the chin is distinctive and obvious from a distance. Like other ducks and geese, Canada Geese have well-webbed feet and wide, relatively flat bills.

You might spot Canada Geese in a wide variety of habitats, but they prefer grassy fields near water. They are thought to prefer these habitats for two reasons. First, their diet consists primarily of grass most of the year, so the fields provide a great source of food. However, open fields also allow the geese to spot predators from far away, giving them plenty of time to flee into the water as the predator attempts to approach.

While grasses and sedges makes up the bulk of the Canada Goose diet in the spring and summer, the geese have a varied diet at other times of year. In the fall, they typically switch to feeding on berries and seeds as grasses become less abundant, and they are also known to feed on agricultural grains. They seem particularly adept at removing dried kernels from corn cobs. Changes in our horticultural practices over the last 50 years have led to some changes in Canada Goose feeding habits, however. Two of the eleven recognized subspecies of Canada Geese live in areas where there is now grass available year-round and feed nearly primarily on grass throughout the year. Some geese are also choosing not to migrate quite so far south, in part because current harvesting practices leave behind a lot of grain waste in fields that the geese can feed on throughout the winter.

Canada Geese have adapted particularly well to life in urban environments, making use of nearly any body of water available. They can form very large flocks and become so numerous in some areas that people consider them a nuisance, especially in parks or in other outdoor spaces frequented by people. In fact, in many areas where the geese have been reintroduced after a decline in numbers, the populations have grown so quickly that they have become a problem. Canada Geese are one of a handful of bird species that have shown an increase in population size with an increase in urbanization.

We don’t have Canada Geese at Prairie Ridge everyday, but when we do they are usually in the pond or along the grassy shores. We most often see them in pairs, but rarely more than four at a time. Though they are common throughout much of the US, they are still spectacular animals! Next time you’re at Prairie Ridge, take a stroll down to the pond and see if you can find any Canada Geese. Take a good look: you might be surprised by just how elegant they are!

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)

A Great Weekend With Great Egrets

February 28, 2014 - 3:58pm

Researcher holding Great EgretIt was almost one year ago that we began our LifeTrack: Great Egrets project at the Museum.  Researchers and educators from the Museum partnered with researchers at Lenoir-Rhyne University and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission to do something that had never been done before: tracking Great Egrets in near real-time via GPS trackers.  Scientists have tracked Great Egrets before, but they had to track the birds manually, a painstaking effort that often meant slogging through marshes and brush to find the birds and still resulted in an incomplete knowledge of their habits and habitats.  The GPS trackers on our birds are far more advanced and allow us to pinpoint the exact location of the birds remotely several times a day and have already provided greater insight into the behaviors of the birds.  But, we didn’t want to stop there.  We wanted to bring North Carolina’s school children into the project, to get their help studying our birds.  We sent out applications and selected 10 schools to participate in the project initially, one school per bird.  Teachers were invited to participate in the initial capture and GPS tagging of the birds and were given the basic information and tools they needed to bring the project into their classrooms, including daily updates on where “their” bird had been.  The goal was to offer a teacher workshop where researchers, Museum educators, and North Carolina’s teachers could learn about Great Egrets together and develop ideas for how to get students state-wide more involved in the project.

Thanks to the generous support of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, we were able to offer a free teacher workshop at the beginning of February and took 15 teachers from across the state on a weekend-long trip to observe Great Egrets in the field.  We arrived after dark the first evening, so everyone briefly moved into their rooms at the lovely new Pocosin Arts facility in Columbia, NC and then gathered to learn about the Lifetrack: Great Egret project as a group.  The group also learned some basic bird identification skills before heading down the street for dinner and then turning in for the evening.

Frozen Lake Mattamuskeet at sunriseThe bulk of the workshop took place the second day.  After a quick breakfast, everyone packed into the Museum bus and headed to Lake Mattamuskeet before dawn to watch the sunrise.  The sight was breathtaking, particularly because the lake was completely frozen over.  But then we got right down to business and enjoyed a day packed full of activities and learning.  We practiced our bird identifications from the night before on a large group of Tundra Swans and Shoveler Ducks walking around on the ice.  We demonstrated how researchers trap Great Egrets to tag them and discussed how the GPS tags work and are attached to the birds.  We completed activities that the teachers can take back to their schools, such as calculating the total body weight of a bird and its tracker and then scaling it up so a kid with a backpack can see what it feels like to be an Egret with a tracker.  We observed Great Egrets in the field, classifying their habitats and recording their behaviors in activities that mimic the work of the researchers in the field.  We were treated to the awesome sight of thousands of Snow Geese on the ice.  At one point in the afternoon, we ended up splitting the group into four teams.  Two teams visited sites at Lake Mattamuskeet our Egrets used in the past to document the habitats according to the methods they’d learned earlier in the day.  The other two teams watched Egrets hunt and calculated the strike and success rate of the birds.  Then one team split off from the behavior team to take a sick Egret to a wildlife rescue center.  Interacting with that Egret and taking it to the rescue center was a highlight for several people on the trip.

Egret workshop activity on wingspan estimationThe third day of the workshop focused on data analysis.  We’d given our teachers the tracking data for their birds all along and given them access to the Movebank website where the data is stored and displayed.  We hadn’t ever shown them how they could use the data to answer scientific questions about the birds, so we led everyone through a data processing activity with the data we’ve amassed throughout the project.  We also discussed ways that the teachers might use the information they learned in the workshop in their classrooms and did a quick activity estimating wingspan of several large birds we saw during our outdoor observations.  And with that, the workshop was over!  After a fun and highly educational weekend for everyone, it was time to head back home.

We hope that our teachers will use what they’ve learned in the workshop to enrich the education of their students and bring real scientific research into their classrooms.  With the background information, activities, and hands-on experiences they gained in the workshop, our teachers should be well-equipped to lead their students in exploring the natural world and science through the lives of our Egrets, and help us learn more about these amazing birds as well.  In the end, everyone – researchers, Museum educators, and teachers alike – walked away from the experience having learned something new.  It was a great weekend with Great Egrets!

If you’d like to learn more about the LifeTrack: Great Egret project, please visit the  project’s home on the Movebank website.  The data from this project is freely available to everyone – we encourage you to use it to answer your own questions about the Great Egrets.  You never know when you might make an amazing new discovery!

Short Grass on the Prairie

February 28, 2014 - 3:49pm

If you visit Prairie Ridge over the next month or so, you’ll likely notice that the grasses are shorter than usual in many areas of the grounds.  Part of the prairie (near the pond and along the lowlands of the Forest Trail) was burned in November during our annual prescribed burn.  You can no longer see the ashes in those areas, but the grasses have remained short through the winter.  Over the last few days, the grasses near the parking lot have also been reduced to nubs.  This part of the prairie was mowed, and for a very good reason.

mowed prairie before and after

The Prairie Ridge prairie is a demonstration of what the prairies of North Carolina looked like before they were eliminated due to proliferation of farmland and urbanization.  Back when prairies were part of North Carolina’s natural landscape, we had two things that helped maintain our prairies and prevent encroachment of forests into the grasses: fire and large grazing mammals.  Lightning and man-made fires would rip through our prairies every few years and burn up the small trees and shrubs that managed to establish themselves among the grasses.  The grasses, however, were well adapted to fire and quickly regrew from seeds and roots that were protected underground.  Large mammals were also an important part of the prairie ecosystem.  Species such as Bison and Elk used to roam North Carolina, and their grazing helped keep the prairie healthy between fires by thinning the grasses and fertilizing the land.

People in populated areas, such as the Triangle, generally suppress fires and most of our large grazing mammals are gone.  This means that our prairie doesn’t experience the sort of essential naturally occurring processes a prairie in North Carolina would have relied on in the past.  Instead, we duplicate those processes ourselves.  Prescribed fires mimic the sorts of fires that used to sweep through North Carolina’s prairies from time to time, and we burn one of three sections of the prairie every year.  We can’t bring in large grazing mammals to feed on our grasses, but we can mimic some of the services they provided mechanically.  By mowing the prairie, we help replenish nutrients to the soil and remove vegetation, allowing the sun to reach new seedlings that sprout up in the prairie come spring.

Fire and mowing are important management tools we use to keep our prairie looking its best.  It might not look like much now, but the grasses and flowers will soon regrow, filling the prairie with brand new vibrant green grasses dotted with occasional splashes of color.  In the meantime, there are things to love about the bald patches!  Look for big flocks of robins hunting seeds and insects, small mammals such as Hispid Cotton Rats darting across the surface, and birds of prey searching for food overhead.  Just because the grasses are short doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see.  Come on out and see what you can discover in the short grass!

What Time is it in Nature: River Otter

February 22, 2014 - 5:24am
River Otter, Lontra canadensis

We were recently treated to a very special sight: a River Otter swimming in the pond!  While they are certainly not something you’re likely to see every day, River Otters (Lontra canadensis) have been spotted on the grounds on several occasions and are always a welcome sight at Prairie Ridge.

River otters

River otters

River Otters are semi-aquatic mammals found primarily in the northern, far eastern, and northwestern US and across large regions of Canada.  They are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae) and share some characteristics with other members of the group, especially their long, narrow bodies and short legs.  River Otters reach lengths of 42 inches, about one-third of which consists of their long, thick tails.  Their heads are broad and flat in front and topped with small, rounded ears.  River Otters also have thick, muscular necks that are about as broad as their heads.

River Otters are designed for life in water.  Though their legs are short, they are strong.  Combined with its webbed feet, a River Otter can easily propel itself through water with its short limbs.  While underwater, the Otter can close its ears and nostrils to prevent water from entering them.  The fur is also well suited to aquatic life.  The thick coat of River Otters not only provides protection and insulation while on land, but the fur repels water and helps keep Otters warm and dry even while submerged. They are often seen drying themselves by rolling around on grass or logs to squeeze the water from their fur.

The diet of River Otters also reflects their aquatic lifestyle.  River Otters typically prefer fish, and fish will make up the bulk of their diet when abundantly available.  However, crayfish also make up a significant part of their diet and they will eat frogs and other amphibians, turtles, aquatic insects, and fruits as well.

River Otter used to be much more common in North America than they are now.  Part of their decline is due to hunting: Otter fur is soft, warm, and water-repellent, and the animals have historically be hunted by fur trappers to sell the pelts.  River Otters are also susceptible to habitat loss and environmental pollution, both increasingly common in North American freshwater systems.  Reintroduction programs have helped repopulate River Otters throughout their historic range and to boost the overall population.  These efforts are the reason River Otters are currently found throughout North Carolina.

Next time you visit Prairie Ridge, keep an eye out for a River Otter!  The most recent sighting occurred in the pond, but Otters occasionally visit the stream as well and have been spotted moving between the two habitats.  If you do spot an Otter, it is well worth taking a moment to watch it!  Otters are well-known for their playful behaviors and their superb swimming abilities, so they are fun animals to watch.  What a treat to see one right here in the middle of the Triangle!

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)