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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)


Sweetgum (What Time is it in Nature)

January 31, 2015 - 3:54pm

This week’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Jacqueline Hogg, intern for the Museum’s Naturalist Center.  Jacqueline is a student at Salem College and is double majoring in Environmental Studies Conservation Ecology and Music Vocal Performance.  She thinks the Museum’s vast array of knowledge, research, and opportunities are a perfect fit for her interests and is interning at the Museum to expand those interests.  Thanks Jacqueline!

Sweetgum is a beautiful deciduous tree that is a member of the Hamamelidaceae, or Witch-Hazel family. Look out for them in the Southeastern Coastal Plain and Piedmont areas, east-central and south-central parts of the US, and if you’re adventurous in your travels, they can be found in southern Mexico and Central America. These hardwoods are extremely tolerant and can flourish in a variety of conditions. They grow best in areas with moist, nutrient soils, such as tidal swamps, stream banks, and low swampy bottomland areas where their root system is not limited. These magnificent trees can grow over 100 feet and reach 3-5 feet in diameter!

Sweetgum in winter

You may be wondering how to distinguish this species from other trees you may see. They have rough, deeply furrowed grayish-brown bark in maturity:

Sweetgum bark

… and a rusty-red bark in adolescence.  The star-shaped leaves may look similar to maple leaves:

Sweetgum leaf

… but they’re arranged alternately instead of opposite: each leaf arises at a different point on the stem instead of directly across from each other. The leaves have five to seven lobes and saw-toothed margins. If you look closely at a tree in the summer, you may see greenish flowers and later you will see dangling fruit that appears as a green spiny ball containing 40-60 seeds that turns dark brown as it ages:

sweetgum ball

Multiple bird species eat the seeds, including Purple Finches, Goldfinches, Mallards, Bobwhite Quails, Carolina Chickadees, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Towhees, White-throated Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens, as well as squirrels and chipmunks. These trees display glossy-green leaves in the summer months, but in the fall they add to the bright colors with bright yellow and red displays from the tree-tops.

These trees aren’t just magnificent on the outside. Liquidambar styraciflua is more commonly known as the Sweetgum tree. Where does it get this delicious name? Under its bark flows a sweet balsamic sap that has a long history of special uses by humans. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Koasati, Rappahannock, and other Native American tribes had several uses for it. When the sap of the tree is exposed, it hardens into a fragrant gum that served as chewing gum and the fruit and bark were used for tea. Sweetgum also had several medicinal uses. The hardened sap was used to treat canine distemper and a salve was made by mixing the plant with animal tallow. The plant was used to dress cuts and bruises, skin sores were treated by boiling the roots, and a “drawing plaster” was made from the gum. The sap was used to reduce fevers, and both the sap and inner bark were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. The bark was even used as a sedative.

Sweetgum is a hardy species that is valued in several modern markets as well. Their aromatic sap is used as an ingredient in both medicine and perfume. Its timber also provides pulpwood, veneer, lumber, plywood, slack cooperage, railroad ties, and fuel.

There are many fine examples of Sweetgums on the Prairie Ridge grounds! On your next visit, take a trip down the Forest Trail. Look for large groups of spiky brown “gumballs” on the ground and look up. You’ll still see many gumballs hanging from the high limbs of the Sweetgums, which makes them easy to tell apart from many of the other trees on the Forest Trail in winter. These trees will start to grow leaf buds in preparation for spring soon. Keep watching them on your visits to Prairie Ridge and you’ll be able to watch them transition from winter to 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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


Fire Time! (What Time is it in Nature)

January 22, 2015 - 6:31pm

Today was the day for the annual prairie burn at Prairie Ridge.  I’ve written about the burn in the past so I’m not going to go into a whole lot of detail here, but the prairie is currently broken up into three sections.  Each year one is burned, another is mowed, and the third is left alone.  Burning and mowing mimic processes that occur in naturally occurring prairies, burns set by lightning and people and grazing by large mammals, and are essential processes for maintaining prairie health.  In a nutshell, prairie grasses are well adapted to fire and grazing, but other plants that encroach into prairielands are not.  When a fire rips through a prairie, the prairie grasses will regrow easily from their deep roots and seeds stored underground while most of the other plants will die.  Our burn helps us keep out invasive plants, control the spread of trees into the prairie, control blackberry growth, and replenish soil nutrients.

Prairie on fire

This year, we burned the section of prairie opposite the lawn from the Outdoor Classroom.  People can view the fire in this section from the safety of the classroom, so we invited the public and ended up with about 60 people who came to watch our burn boss, Brian Hahn, and other controlled burn experts from the NC Forest Service set the prairie ablaze.  Using drip torches, they carefully and methodically burned small patches of grass as our visitors cheered them on from the classroom.  We also had interpretive materials and staff on hand to answer questions while the fire was going this year, so it ended up being a great educational event!

Setting the fireMost of the visitors left shortly after the first section of prairie was burned, but we had a second burn this year as well.  If you’ve been out to Prairie Ridge recently, you may have noticed the huge mowed area beyond the pond.  That area is being prepared for planting and will be seeded with prairie grasses this year.  The area was mowed and herbicides were applied to kill the roots so the plants couldn’t grow back.  Today that entire section was burned to kill anything that’s left and prepare the soil for planting, essentially giving us a blank slate to work with.  We’ll plant prairie grasses and wildflowers in the burned area, so look for a whole new section of prairie stretching from the area between the pond and Edwards Mill Road all the way down to the new entrance off the Reedy Creek Greenway this summer!

BitternFor all you American Bittern watchers and lovers who were worried about the impact of the burn on everyone’s favorite resident bird: the Bittern WAS on the grounds during the burn.  However, we saw him (or her) fly from the larger pond to the smaller pond as the fire approached and he appears none the worse for wear overall.  Only time will tell, but I’d bet he’ll stick around the rest of the winter and will be largely undeterred by the burn.

You’ll notice huge areas of charred grasses on the Prairie Ridge grounds over the next few weeks, but they’ll green up again sooner than you might expect.  Even though the prairie might not look very exciting for a couple of months, now is actually a great time to visit!  The huge open areas created by the burn are popular with ground foraging birds, so you can often see large flocks of American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, and non-native European Starlings feeding in the burned patches.  Small mammals are easy to spot as they dash across the bare fields, and are much easier to see than normal.  This also attracts birds of prey, so look for Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors flying over the burned areas for the next few weeks.  If you’re really lucky, you might see a Black Rat Snake hunting among the ashes!  It might be winter and things might be rather dead at this time of year, but the burn draws animals out temporarily.  That makes now one of the best times to visit all winter, so come on out and see what you can find in our newly burned fields!

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)


Witch Hazel (What Time is it in Nature)

January 17, 2015 - 5:12pm

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.

Although most of the plants are currently in their winter dormant stage at Prairie Ridge, one of the latest bloomers is the American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  While most plants typically bloom in the spring, Witch Hazel blooms in the late fall once all of the leaves have dropped.  In fact, some individual shrubs and species have blooms that linger well into the early winter.

Witch Hazel

The American Witch Hazel is a perennial shrub or small tree typically reaching 12 to 15 feet in height.  The woody plant has smooth gray bark with zigzagged branches that tend to form an upright shape.  The deciduous leaves of the Witch Hazel are broad and oval-shaped with large wavy teeth on the margins and range from 2.5 to 6 inches in length.  The leaves have a dark green appearance and turn a radiant shade of gold in the fall.

Witch Hazel has unique flowers.  Blooming occurs from September through November after the leaves have fallen.  The small pale to bright yellow blooms each contain four long and slender petals that resemble streamers.  Flowering occurs simultaneously with the maturing fruit from the previous year, hence the name Hamamelis meaning “together with fruit”.  The flowers produce small, tan to gray hard capsules with two compartments, each containing a seed.  The capsules go dormant throughout the winter and develop over the next growing season.  In the autumn, about 8 months after flowering, the capsules fully mature and burst open to launch the two shiny black seeds up to 20 feet from the tree.  The seeds then take an additional year to germinate.

The American Witch Hazel is native to North America and grows from southeastern Canada to Minnesota in the north and reaches south from Florida to eastern Texas.  Witch Hazel is abundant in the Appalachian Mountains where it can grow to even taller heights.  The slow-growing shrub fares best in rich, moist, and slightly acidic soils of shaded sites in forests and at the forest edge.  Witch Hazel can tolerate wet or poor soils and pollution, and has relatively few pests.  Keep in mind that flowering does not start until the plants are at least six years old.

Witch hazel is commonly known for its medicinal uses, however historically it had a much more unusual purpose!  Native Americans once used the forked limbs of the Witch Hazel branches as dowsing or divining rods to detect water sources.  The dowsing end of the forked branch would bend underground in the earth when water was detected.  This process was later used by early European settlers and eventually became an established component of well-digging.  Currently the bark of the Witch Hazel is commercially used to make an astringent or alcohol extract, which also goes by the name Witch Hazel .  The astringent is used both medicinally and in healthcare products for sores, bruises, swelling, hemorrhoids, aftershave applications, to remedy psoriasis, eczema, and even to treat insect bites, poison ivy, and varicose veins.  Witch Hazel is recommended for women to reduce swelling and to soothe wounds from childbirth.  The plant is also a food source for the larvae of some lepidopteran species (butterflies and moths) and in return the adults are important pollinators for the plant.  The fruits of the plant are and important food source for some birds as well.

If you would like to see the American Witch Hazel , come out to Prairie Ridge where we have fine examples located in the Nature Neighborhood Garden and the Jesse P. Perry Arboretum.  The trees just finished their bloom for the year, but you can still see the flower petals attached to the branches and the start of next year’s seed crop.

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)


Fall Cankerworm (What Time is it in Nature)

January 10, 2015 - 3:04pm

Recently, we’ve spotted several moths on the side of the Prairie Ridge office trailer and other areas of the grounds.  They’re fairly nondescript gray moths with subtle markings and have been active in spite of some very cool nights over the last few weeks.  Upon investigating them further, we discovered what these little gray moths were: Fall Cankerworms.  Today, let’s explore the fascinating biology of these cool weather insects!

Fall Cankerworms are sexually dimorphic, which means that the males and females have very different appearances.  Male moths are drab gray with wingspans reaching just over an inch:

Fall cankerworm male

The wings have indistinct pale brown and white markings, but they are subtle.  Female Fall Cankerworms, on the other hand, have a completely different appearance:

Fall cankerworm female

Female Cankerworms are wingless and rely on their legs to get them from place to place.  They’re up to a half-inch long and are most likely to be spotted on tree branches, sometimes in very large numbers.

Fall Cankerworms are native to the US and are found throughout the east as well as extensive areas of the west.  Though they are native, they are also considered pests.  After mating, female Fall Cankerworms lay neat rows of eggs on the high branches of a variety of trees (maples, ashes, and elms are favorites) in the late fall, typically after the first hard freeze.  The eggs overwinter and hatch in the early spring.  The inchworm caterpillars that emerge then feed on the leaves of the trees they were deposited on.  Periodically, Fall Cankerworms will experience a boom and cause extensive defoliation of trees in an area, eating most to all of the leaves on a variety of tree types.  If these outbreaks occur early enough in the year, the trees can sometimes recover some of their leaves.  Other times, the trees will have to wait until the following spring to replace their leaves.  Either way, Fall Cankerworms rarely kill the trees they feed on.  Once they have eaten enough leaves to grow to full size, they will lower themselves from the trees to the ground via a silk thread and pupate in the ground throughout the summer, then emerge as adults in the fall.

Fall Cankerworms are interesting insects.  Most insect populations peak in the spring and summer, times when the evenings are warm and the days warm to hot.  Because they are exothermic (i.e., rely on the temperature of their environment rather than warming themselves), most insects enter a dormant stage during the cooler months of the year.  Fall Cankerworms, on the other hand, are only active in those cooler months!  The adults generally emerge shortly after the first hard freeze in the fall and can remain active until early February.  The eggs go through a brief dormant period in the late winter and then the caterpillars emerge in mid-spring when it is still chilly.  The pupae are hidden safely away underground through the hot parts of the year until a freeze signals the moths that it is time to emerge as adults.

In our state, the Charlotte area seems to be particularly hard hit by Fall Cankerworm outbreaks and the city has implemented a state-approved control program that involves spraying the trees with a Bt pesticide spray.  Bt is derived from a biological source, the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and rather specifically targets caterpillars of butterflies and moths.  By using Bt during the early spring when pretty much only the caterpillars of the Fall Cankerworm are active, cities or forest managers can target the cankerworm caterpillars without harming most of the other insect species (many of which are beneficial or harmless) in the area. Other control methods include tacking wide strips of sticky paper onto the bark of trees to trap the females as they climb up to the tops to lay their eggs.

Fall Cankerworms blend in with their environment quite well, so it can be hard to find them even when they are abundant.  Next time you’re at Prairie Ridge, look for females on the upper branches and trunks of trees and males on the walls of the office trailer and outdoor classroom.  The males might be a little boring to look at, but their interesting biology more than makes up for any lack of showiness!

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)