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Upland Chorus Frog (What Time is it in Nature)

March 28, 2015 - 10:04am

After a long and relatively snowy winter, nothing is more welcome than the first signs of spring!  One of the best signs of spring at Prairie Ridge is one you may hear before you see, the Upland Chorus Frog (Psuedacris feriarum).

Upland chorus frog

Upland Chorus Frogs are members of the frog family Hylidae, which makes them relatives of the tree frogs, cricket frogs, and other chorus frogs.  They exhibit considerable variation in their coloration and patterns, ranging from gray tinged with a little green to reddish-brown.  Most have a dark stripe that runs along the side of their bodies and three stripes or rows of blotchy spots down their backs.  They also sport a triangular spot on the top of their head between their eyes and white upper lips.  If you flip one over, you’ll usually see a cream-colored belly with a sort of granular appearance, though some individuals will display dark spots on their chests as well.

These frogs are one of the earliest frogs we see or hear at Prairie Ridge each year and are known to call to each other in the late winter and early spring, their primary breeding season.  Their call is reminiscent of the sound you make by rubbing your fingers along the teeth of a comb, a sort of repetitive “crrrrreek!” sound.  (You can listen to the call here, courtesy of the Davidson College Herpetology Lab’s awesome Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina.)  You can hear the distinctive call of the Upland Chorus Frogs from quite some distance away!  If you’re lucky, you can follow a call to the source and see the frog, but they can be hard to spot.  They’re even harder to spot outside of their breeding season when they are rarely encountered by people.

You’ll find Upland Chorus Frogs alongside ditches with a lot of grass in them, flooded areas, and other temporary waters.  Once they find a suitable place, they will call to attract a mate.  After successfully finding a mate, the pair will enter amplexus, a sort of mating position where the male frog holds onto the female frog, but fertilizes the eggs only after they have been released from the female’s body in a soft mass.  The eggs are typically attached to vegetation and tadpoles take 8-12 weeks to develop into frogs.

Unlike many frogs, Upland Chorus Frogs appear to have adapted well to humans within their range.  They will often take advantage of man-made habitats such as roadside ditches during the breeding season.

There have been several Upland Chorus Frogs calling from the small ponds that have formed throughout Prairie Ridge thanks to our very wet winter.  On your next visit, take a moment to stop and listen for their distinctive calls.  Spring is coming, and the frogs are letting you know!

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

(Photo by Jeff Beane)


American Holly (What Time is it in Nature)

March 21, 2015 - 9:46am

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.

We’re just starting to see the transition from winter to spring, and although most trees are still bare, there are still plenty of evergreens that stand out among the still drab backdrop of leafless trees.  One in particular can be seen every day near the front entrance here at Prairie Ridge, the American Holly (Ilex opaca).

American holly

The American Holly is a broad-leaved evergreen tree that can reach 15 to 30 feet tall.  The bark of this holly is light gray and smooth with branches that extend horizontally.  The leaves of this plant can grow 2 to 4 inches long, and are stiff with large sharply pointed tips.  They are leathery with a smooth, green, and somewhat-shiny top side and a yellowish-green underside.  The leaves stay on the branches for two to three years, upon which they will fall in the spring as the buds begin to emerge.  Blooming occurs from April to June with small greenish-white flowers.  As with most other hollies, the American Holly is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants, however it can be difficult to determine the gender due to the fact that a newly planted holly can take anywhere from 4 to 7 years to flower.  After flowering, the female plants will produce the characteristic bright red berries, called drupes.  These drupes are about 6 to 12 mm in diameter and contain about 4 seeds each.  The berries will persist well into the winter, acting as an important food source for many birds and White-tailed deer.

American Holly grows well in moist forests of the eastern United States, and can be found as far north as Massachusetts, south to Florida, and west to Texas.  The most suitable sites for this holly are moist with slightly acidic, well-drained soils.  This tree can tolerate the shade, but does best in direct sun.

In addition to the food source that the holly berries provide to wildlife, the American Holly has been a popular symbol and is often used for decorations during the winter holiday season.  The wood of the American Holly is also used for various specialty items such as veneer, cabinet inlays, handles, and even piano keys (when dyed black).  The nectar makes great honey as well.

If you would like to check out an American Holly here at Prairie Ridge, look no further than our front door!  You’ll see an example of this great evergreen just inside the entrance gate behind the kiosk.  It’s one of the only trees that has green leaves right now, so you can’t miss it on your next visit.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’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)


Netspinner Caddisflies (What Time is it in Nature)

March 7, 2015 - 3:00pm

This week’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Sehdia Mansaray, Prairie Ridge intern for the spring 2015 semester.  Sehdia is a student at North Carolina State University and is double majoring in Environmental Science and Anthropology with a minor in French. She is interested in the relationship of human populations with their natural environment.

If you look closely in the Prairie Ridge stream where the water current is just right, you can find netspinner caddisflies in the caddisfly family Hydropsychidae.  Netspinners are closely related to moths and butterflies (you may have seen an adult caddisfly fluttering around your lights at night and mistaken it for a moth), but their anatomy and life cycle are quite different. These aquatic insects spend most of their lives in streams and other fast flowing waters worldwide, but species vary in habitat, diet, and life cycle.

Netspinner caddisflies

True to its aquatic nature, adult female netspinner caddisflies dive underwater to lay eggs on the undersides of submerged stones. Most eggs take a year to develop into larvae, but they can take up to two years in some areas. As a larva, netspinners have a tan or green body with three armor-like plates on the upper surface of the thorax. Gills and small hairs line the underside of the curved abdomen. Netspinners undergo five to eight instars (growth stages) in which they metamorphose and molt as larvae.  Mature larvae, those about to transition into the pupal stage, average from 10mm-30mm in length.

The larval stage gives the netspinners their common name: they spin silk nets to capture food. The water current in their habitat allows food particles to float by such that they may be easily caught in nets. Larvae thus spin silk nets on or between rocks where they can capture insects, algae, diatoms, and any other food particles floating downstream on the water current:

Caddisfly net

The stronger the current, the stronger netspinners make their nets.

After spending most of its life as larvae, netspinners enter the pupal stage.  As pupae, they exhibit antennae and hooked plates on the abdomen. As netspinners transform from larvae to adults, their diet changes from omnivorous-detritivorous (eating and breaking down dead plant and animal materials) to nectarivorous (feeding on nectar). As adults, netspinner caddisflies exhibit 5-segmented, long maxillary palps (mouthparts) that assist them in feeding on nectar, and dotted brown wings for their new terrestrial lives. You’re likely to see a swarm of adults during summer nights when they breed and in some areas the numbers of adults can become so numerous that they become a nuisance. Adult netspinner caddisflies generally don’t live longer than a month.

The common netspinner is used for both recreational and environmental assessment purposes. Fly fishermen often use common netspinners as bait for trout. Because they filter food from the water and break down plant and animal materials in streams, they have also been extensively studied as biological indicators of aquatic system health.

It’s amazing to see the nets constructed by the netspinners and consider how such a tiny home can have such a big impact. Come see netspinner caddisflies for yourself in the Prairie Ridge stream!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’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)


Tracks in the Snow (What Time is it in Nature)

February 28, 2015 - 3:39pm

Like the rest of the Triangle area, Prairie Ridge got a lot of snow last week.  One of the best things about snow, I think, is all the stories it tells about the animals in the area!  The most recent snow preserved a lot of animal prints.  Let’s take a tour of some of the prints and see who was out and about in the snow!

This set of prints was in a little patch of snow between the Outdoor Classroom and the forest, near the bins where we store the bird seed:

squirrel tracks

Those prints are from an Eastern Gray Squirrel that had hopped into this spot, paused a moment, and hopped away.  We often see squirrels nosing around the bird seed bins behind the classroom, so I’d bet that this particular squirrel was headed over to check out the bins when it paused here.

These tracks are from another medium-sized mammal:

eastern cottontail tracks

The tracks of the Eastern Cottontail are distinctive in the snow and generally take the shape in the image above with a lot of space between them.  Apparently we had a lot of rabbits active at Prairie Ridge during the snowy weather because their tracks are all over!  I haven’t spotted a rabbit in months, but the tracks tell us that there are still quite a few of them roaming around.

These tracks are from birds:

bird tracks

As you may be able to tell from the sheer number of tracks present, these were found under one of the bird feeders at our feeding station below the Outdoor Classroom.  There were dozens of sparrows hopping around in the snow under the feeders this morning making even more tracks. Lots of hungry birds have been taking advantage of the seed in the snow!  If you look closely, you can probably see at least two sizes of tracks, smaller tracks made by White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, or Dark-eyed Juncos and larger tracks made by Northern Cardinals.

A much larger animal made these heart-shaped tracks:

deer tracks

White-tailed deer are our most commonly spotted and reported large mammals, so it’s not surprising to see their tracks in the snow.  Their hooves make a very distinctive mark, in snow or mud, and you can often follow deer tracks for quite a long ways, sometimes all the way to the animal that made them!  Based on the tracks I saw, most of the deer have wandered around on their own or in small groups of 2-3 over the last few nights.

Some tracks tell a more exciting story.  These muddy tracks were made by a fox, probably a Gray Fox:

fox tracks

It had clearly run across the muddy road and over the top of the snow after it had iced over, so these tracks were probably made the night before I found them.  If you followed the tracks for a ways, you could see why the fox crossed the road: it was hunting!  At one point along the tracks, there was a group of prints circling around a bloody patch in the snow.  You could tell that the fox had caught and killed something in that spot, then dropped the animal on the ice briefly before picking it up, running off, and presumably eating it somewhere else.  There were no feathers or fur present, just a few patches of blood and a dent where something warm had lain for a minute and melted the ice around it slightly, so it’s hard to say what the fox caught.  If you want to make suggestions for what the victim may have been, I’ve posted the slightly graphic image of the scene here.  (Please note that there is blood visible in the image, though no other remains.  It might not be suitable for all readers.)

Prairie Ridge is always an interesting place after a snowstorm!  If the roads are clear and you can drive here safely, it’s well worth a trip out to look for tracks in the snow after a storm.  It’s amazing how much you can learn about what is active and what those animals were up to by simply looking for tracks!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’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)


Birds of the Great Backyard Bird Count (What Time is it in Nature)

February 21, 2015 - 3:57pm

Last weekend was the Great Backyard Bird Count, a four-day long citizen science celebration of birds that takes place during the beginning of the northward migration.  We held a birding open house at Prairie Ridge last Saturday and invited people to learn about birds, watch birds from our Outdoor Classroom deck, and do some citizen science.  It was cold and only a handful of hardy souls made it out to participate, but between everyone who participated, we amassed a pretty good list of birds!  For this week’s What Time is it in Nature, I’m going to highlight a few of the feeder birds we saw during the GBBC.

Some of the birds we see at the feeders in the winter are birds that are found on the grounds year-round.  The Northern Cardinals are commonly spotted at the feeders all year:

Northern Cardinal

Cardinals are the state bird of North Carolina, and given the number of them we see at Prairie Ridge, it’s no wonder!  They’re very common in our area.  You can’t miss them with their bright red plumage, black faces, and crests, especially in winter when their bright color really stands out against the drab landscape.

We also see many Tufted Titmice throughout the year:

Tufted titmouse

While they’re on the grounds year-round, we seem to see a lot more of them in the winter as they visit the feeders often.  Recently, they’ve been spotted feasting on suet and snagging seeds from the feeders that they carry off into the bushes to eat.  These are very active birds, almost always on the move!

Other birds have been taking advantage of the suet during the recent cold spell as well:

Chickadee and downy woodpecker

The smaller bird on the left is a Carolina Chickadee, one of our most common birds at Prairie Ridge.  They’re small birds that you’ll see near the feeders year-round.  Like the Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadees generally grab a seed and fly off to eat it alone in a tree or bush.

The larger bird on the right is a Downy Woodpecker, our most commonly observed woodpecker.  Even though they’re here all year, the Downies tend to take greater advantage of the feeders during the winter and spend more time in the woods in the summer.  It’s easier to spot them now than it will be in the warmer months because they’re right out in the open at the feeders.

Blue Jays have been very common recently!

Blue jay

It’s not unusual to see five to seven Blue Jays near the feeders at a time, squabbling over access to the peanut feeder or the best seeds on the ground.  Even if you don’t SEE the Blue Jays, you can often hear them up in the trees!  Their loud, squawking calls are easy to remember and often one of the first calls beginning birders learn.

The Pine Warbler is another showy species that brings a pop of color to the feeders:

Pine Warbler

The bright yellow plumage is hard to miss!  The Pine Warblers are often seen feeding on the suet cakes, so look for them clinging to the sides of the suet cages.  Now is a great time to see them!  During the summer, they spend most of their time in the tops of pine trees and can be hard to spot.

Not all of the species we have visiting our grounds are native!  The European Starlings have been out in droves at Prairie Ridge recently:

European starling

European Starlings are, as their name suggests, native to Europe, though they’ve been in the US for a long time.  Lore tells us that a group of bird lovers in the late 1800’s released a small flock of Starlings in an attempt to establish populations of every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays in the US.  That small flock grew and spread and now Starlings are found throughout the US and into Canada and Central America.  A lot of people consider them pests, but they are quite beautiful, especially in the winter when they sport their white spots.

By combining the bird lists of everyone who participated in our bird open house, we came up with a list of 33 birds that we contributed to the Great Backyard Bird Count (in no particular order):

Carolina Wren White-breasted Nuthatch Blue Jay American Bittern Eastern Towhee Tufted Titmouse American Robin European Starling American Crow Carolina Chickadee Northern Cardinal Mourning Dove House Finch White-throated Sparrow Downy Woodpecker Dark-eyed Junco Turkey Vulture Eastern Bluebird Red-bellied Woodpecker Brown-headed Nuthatch Hermit Thrush Winter Wren Song Sparrow Field Sparrow Chipping Sparrow Red-tailed Hawk Mockingbird Rock Dove Brown Thrasher Red-winged Blackbird Pine Warbler Yellow-rumped Warbler Blue Jay

 

Not bad given the cool temps and low visitation!

There’s still time to see a lot of our winter visitors before they head north for the summer and many more opportunities to get involved in bird citizen science!  Next week’s Citizen Science Saturday will feature birds, for example, so come out from 10:30-11:30 next Saturday (Feb 28) to get involved!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’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)


iLabs: WRAL.com Video and Interview of the Micro World iLab!!

February 20, 2015 - 12:33pm

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall of WRAL.com’s “Go Ask Mom” feature, visited our Micro World Investigate Lab yesterday and interviewed Christy and I about our lab.  If you want to ready the article and catch the video, check out:

Destination: Nature Research Center’s Micro World Investigate Lab

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iLabs: We DID it!!! 100,000 Visitors in the Micro World iLab!!!!!

February 16, 2015 - 2:08pm

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

Who would believe it but on a usually quiet Monday morning we received over 60 visitors in the morning and among them, these two lucky students!  They are our 100000th and 100001st visitors to our lab.  We opened April 12, 2012, and in less than 3 years we hit 100,000!  Here’s to our next 100000!!!!  Deb & Christy

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Birding – for Science! – During the Great Backyard Bird Count

February 12, 2015 - 2:51pm

This post is brought to you by Sehdia Mansaray, intern at Prairie Ridge this fall.  She is a student at NC State University.  Thanks Sehdia!

Carolina ChickadeeEvery day, billions of people around the world tune themselves into the song and flight of birds. Citizen science projects such as NestWatch, Project FeederWatch, and eBird allow people to take their passion for birds and turn it into valuable scientific data. The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is one global citizen science project that takes place annually during the month of February. This year, the GBBC will take place Friday, February 13, through Monday, February 16.  During the event, participants gather data by counting the number of birds observed in one location for at least fifteen minutes. These observations can be done on just one day, or on each day of the event. Data can be entered through the GBBC website or the GBBC BirdLog app. The GBBC is a great citizen science project to get involved with because you don’t have to travel anywhere special to participate: you can count birds in your backyard, at a park, or even in the supermarket parking lot!

February is a great month to observe birds as they migrate between their overwintering and breeding ranges. Bird migrations are driven by the need to feed and breed. In the winter, cooler weather decreases the food supply for birds and birds migrate to find warmer areas for food.  In the spring, they migrate to find more space to breed. Located along the Atlantic Coast Flyway between the cooler climates of Canada and the warmer climates of Central and South America, North Carolina functions as a prime site to see and hear a variety of birds as they migrate between the north and south. The geography of the Piedmont, Mountains, and Outer Banks also provide a great diversity of nesting and breeding grounds.

Redwing Blackbird maleThe amazing feat of bird migrations is how generation after generation, birds are able to journey to the same region without ever taking the same path twice. Birds use several methods to navigate from one area to another. Using the sun by day, the stars by night, and topographic features such as rivers and mountains, birds are guided to their seasonal feeding and breeding grounds. Birds can also use their sense of smell and Earth’s magnetic field to determine which direction to head.

The information gathered from bird banding and citizen science projects help scientists understand bird distribution, feeding habits, and breeding habits. The information is also important in understanding how environmental conditions might be affecting a bird population or species. Numerous bird species have been documented by volunteers with a wide range of birding experience.

American Bittern

Here at Prairie Ridge, we will be participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count on Saturday, February 14, from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm in the Outdoor Classroom.  You’ll learn how to identify some of our common winter birds, help us document the birds on our grounds, learn how to participate in bird citizen science projects in your own backyard, and have a chance to interact with other bird enthusiasts. We’ll loan you a pair of binoculars and a field guide so you can observe and identify the birds visiting our bird feeders from the comfort of our classroom deck.

Are you an experienced birder?  We hope you’ll leave a copy of your bird list with us so we can keep a running tally of all the birds spotted.  With your help, we will develop a complete list of birds on the grounds on Valentine’s Day and contribute valuable information to scientists who use the data we collect in their research. Be sure to come out to Prairie Ridge to experience this once a year event!


iJupiter

February 9, 2015 - 11:45am

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

Jupiter: giant planetary overlord of our solar system. From Earth, Jupiter’s gargantuan presence is hardly evident on a daily basis; to us it is a far-away dot in the night sky (albeit the third-brightest after the Moon and Venus).

But, Jupiter is special and significant. With a mass equal to 2.5 times that of all the other planets combined, it is by far the largest planet in the solar system. Light from Jupiter can be bright enough to cast shadows on Earth, which is impressive given that its average distance from us hovers between ~ 460 million and 510 million miles. And, while it is the great giant of our planets, Jupiter is made up primarily of the lightest of gases: hydrogen (primarily) and helium. While it may have a rocky core, it has no solid surface to speak of, rendering it most difficult to imagine as either a haven for extraterrestrial life, or a destination…

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Yellow-rumped Warbler (What Time is it in Nature)

February 7, 2015 - 2:58pm

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.

The winter birds are lively and jubilant here at Prairie Ridge, darting around and enjoying the beautiful weather!  Between the cheerful chirps and fluttering activity, the colorful yellow flashes of the Yellow-rumped Warbler are easy to spot and a wonderful sight to see!

Yellow-rumped warbler

The Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronate) is from the wood warblers family or birds and is large compared to most.  They range in size from 5-6.5 inches in length and have a wingspan of about 8-10 inches.  These warblers have a long and narrow tail that is 2-3 inches long and a sturdy half-inch long bill.  The most notable characteristic of the Yellow-rumped Warbler is in it markings.  In winter, these birds are pale brown with a bright yellow rump, just as their name suggests.  However, during the spring these birds will molt, turning shades of gray and black with bold flashes of white and bright yellow markings on their rump, sides, and face.  As with many bird species, the males are more striking while the females tend to be duller in color.  Males also have a signature soft and slow warble or trill consisting of up to 21 notes that lasts for about 1-3 seconds.

In the summer, the Yellow-rumped Warbler can be found mainly in coniferous forests and mountainous areas, especially in the western US and Appalachian mountains.  In the fall and winter they will move to open shrubby areas such as parks, residential areas, and dunes.  These warblers can also be found in tropical regions during the winter, where they frequent mangroves and shade coffee plantations.

Compared to other warblers, the Yellow-rumped species is a versatile forager.  Their main source of food is insects such as caterpillars, leaf beetles, weevils, ants, aphids, grasshoppers, gnats, and even spiders.  In fact, they will even grab insects off of manure or from spider webs!  However, most of the time these birds hunt for insects from tree canopies, catching them in midair while in flight.  Another staple food source for this warbler is berries, especially during the winter months.  They eat a variety of fruits that include poison ivy, poison oak, juniper berries, and grapes, however this particular warbler has a special feature that the others do not.  The Yellow-rumped Warbler can eat bayberries and wax myrtles due to their unique gastrointestinal trait that allows them to digest the waxes found on these fruits.  This feature provides them with a wider area to travel during the winter months, allowing them to fly further north than the other species, where these berries are abundant.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler breeds in monogamous pairs.  The males court the females by fluffing their colorful feathers, fluttering about, and through their calls.  The females build the nests, which are shaped like cups about 3 to 4 inches across and 2 inches deep.  The females use twigs, pine needles, grasses, rootlets, and even animal hair or moss to build these nests, which takes about 10 days to make.  Warblers tend to build their nests upon a horizontal branch anywhere from 4 to 50 feet from the ground in conifer trees that include hemlock, spruce, pine, and Douglas firs.  On average, these birds will lay 4 to 5 creamy white eggs with brown and gray specks twice a year.  When the nestlings arrive, both parents take responsibility in feeding them.

Prairie Ridge is a great place to check out the colorful Yellow-rumped Warbler!  You will most likely find them near the bird feeding station below the Outdoor Classroom and in the Arboretum.  You can also attend a Citizen Science Saturday walk where we track bird sightings for eBird in the winter and look for nests, eggs, or baby birds for NestWatch in the spring!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’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)