Saturday, February 6, 2016

Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum)

The four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) is listed as a species of special concern in North Carolina. Although some populations have been found in the Coastal Plain and Mountains, the four-toed salamander predominantly occurs in the Piedmont where it prefers marshes, swamps and ephemeral ponds surrounded by forest.

After mating in the fall, some female four-toed salamanders cooperate with each other during the spring nesting season, preferring to lay eggs together on moss-covered logs and roots draped over still water. This communal nest allows one female to leave for a short period, while the other stays behind to tend to the eggs. While it may look like the females are guarding the eggs from predators, researchers have suggested that the females actually protect the eggs from being destroyed by fungus. Reid Harris and Douglas Gill have suggested that female four-toed salamanders may actually eat eggs on which fungus is detected. 

Four-toed salamander by J. D. Willson (

After one and half to two months of protection, in the warmth of early summer, the larvae finally emerge from the eggs and drop into the still water where they transform into small adults in about 6 weeks. It will take at least one and half more years for the young four-toed salamanders to reach sexual maturity. 

As adults, the four-toed salamander ranged from two to 3.5 inches. The back tends to be a mottled reddish brown with small black spots, with the tail getting progressively redder. The tail, when grabbed, can be disconnected and will continue to writher and wiggle to lure predators away from the fleeing salamander. The belly of the four-toed salamander is white with black spots, and as its name suggest, the four-toed salamander only has four toes on each hind foot. Adults can typically be found under rocks and leaf litter. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Nominate a Naturalist!

Nominate a Naturalist!*

"Thomas Say Awards Program 2016
Being an American naturalist during the eighteenth and nineteenth century required skill, intelligence, determination, support, and some luck. Self-taught naturalist Thomas Say (1787-1834), who identified more than 1,500 species of insects and animals unique to North America (including the coyote), was one of these brave naturalists who helped blaze a trail for future naturalists. This award program is named in his honor, as are numerous species such as Say's phoebe, Sayornis saya. He represents innovation, commitment, and a passion to contribute to science.

In the fourth year of this awards program, we strive to honor naturalists who have demonstrated the highest accomplishments of our profession and have inspired greater understanding, awareness, and stewardship of our natural resources. Nominees have to be NAI Interpretive Naturalist Section members. It does take a little time to prepare a good nomination and put it together with accurate information and clear details. However, the results last a lifetime. 

These awards of excellence not only provide much deserved recognition for our fellow section members, but they also bring to the attention of administrators that they have outstanding employees, whose abilities and talents are recognized by other outside professional individuals and organizations. And, at times, it helps sway agencies and their budgets to be able to send these award recipients to the conference to receive the award in front of their peers.

It is now YOUR turn to make the effort and nominate someone (or something). The awards for will be given during the section meeting at the NAI national conference in Corpus Christi, Texas, November 8-12, 2016

The award nomination information can be found at You don't have to wait until the deadline, which is July 1, 2016, send to Awards Chair Lori Spencer,  You can nominate someone or something today!"

*from the NAI Interpretive Naturalist Section publication The Naturalist

Need more information? Please visit

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Beech Drops (Epifagus virginiana)

Beech Drops (photo by Stan Malcolm, available at 

Plant Profile.− This month’s plant profile in a parasitic plant called Beech Drops (Epifagus virginiana). Beech Drops clump around beech trees, grow about six inches high, and look dead. They look dead because they lack leaves and chlorophyll, but luckily for Beech Drops, they do not need to make their own food because they can get nutrients and carbohydrates from the roots of Beech trees (Fagus grandifolia).

Beech Drops may not look impressive at first, but if you look closely you’ll find tiny pink flowers. The flowers near the base of the stem seem closed up tight. These flowers are known as cleistogamous and they are self-fertilizing. The flowers near the top of the plan are open. These flowers are chasmogamous and are fertilized by nearby plants. A recent study suggests that those chasmogamous flowers may actually be pollinated by ants!

While Beech Drops are fascinating in their own right, they also have been used medicinally for thousands of years. American Indians would steep the whole plant in hot water to great a tea to treat diarrhea, dysentery, mouth sores and a variety of other complaints. Some people have even used the plant as a poultice to treat wounds and arrest the on-set of gangrene.

Beech Drops are found across the eastern United States and Canada. They are also found in all three provinces of North Carolina, from the mountains to the coast. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Nominate an Environmental Educator!

"Greetings members and friends of EENC,

We are now accepting nominations for the 2014 EENC Awards. These awards will be presented at the 2014 Annual Conference/Regional SEEA Conference this September at Caraway Camp and Conference Center.

Use this link to reach the nomination form:

The awards are separated into two categories, those available to the general public, and those available to EENC Members only. The descriptions of the awards are listed below, as well as on the nominations form.

The following awards are open to all organizations and the general public.

Environmental Educator of the Year recognizes an educator who stands out among environmental educators as a professional who exemplifies excellence in environmental education and lends credibility to the field. Through valuable contributions and professionalism, the environmental educator is regarded as an ideal example that other EE practitioners should strive to emulate.

Exceptional Environmental Education Program recognizes a program, education center, organization, partnership or educational system that exemplifies excellence in environmental education. The program reaches far beyond the usual magnitude and degree of scope and scale to create: a sustainable commitment to environmental education, a more environmentally literate public, a stronger profession for environmental educators, and otherwise supporting EENC’s mission and objectives.

Outstanding Partner recognizes a business, non-profit, or governmental agency that have partnered with EENC to support the mission and growth of EENC.  This organization has made significant contributions to EENC by providing in-kind contributions; donations of employees’ time, talent, and materials; monetary support to the EENC Board or Board Training; or by providing significant funding or services to EENC’s annual conference. This partnership enables EENC to experience a growth in professionalism and/or membership, which may not have been possible without this contribution.

            Membership in EENC is required for the following awards.

Outstanding Newcomer recognizes an Environmental Educators of North Carolina member of five years or less who has made significant contributions to EENC during his or her short time with EENC.

Outstanding Practitioner recognizes a member of the Environmental Educators of North Carolina who works regularly as an environmental educator, lending their skills to the growing body of environmental education as a profession. The individual will have made significant contributions to the Environmental Educators of North Carolina through statewide participation, leadership in their region, and being an advocate for high quality education through how they teach, live, and do.
Outstanding Service recognizes an active member who has served in several key leadership roles making a significant contribution to further the mission of EENC. This individual has given many hours of dedicated service to help shape EENC into a viable statewide professional organization.

Melva Fager Okun Life Achievement recognizes member who has served EENC in key leadership roles for over three years on the Board of Directors. This individual has made very significant contributions in furthering EENC’s mission to serve as a leader in building a statewide network of EE practitioners, providing excellent professional development, strengthening EE throughout North Carolina, and serving as an active state affiliate to the North American Association for Environmental Education.

Please reply to this email if you have any questions.

Thank you so much for your support of EENC!"

(from Michelle Pearce)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Paean to a Walnut Tree

In a North Carolina neighborhood, constituting one small portion of a corpulent suburban empire, a young walnut tree bows to the wind. The rain pelts its leaves, but those leaves hardly quiver. The rain is not the walnut’s king. The walnut kneels like a courtier only for the wind, and when the wind decamps, the walnut stands tall again, the master of its domain.

In its front-yard fiefdom, the walnut must wage war. At first the walnut unwittingly welcomes its enemy. When the walnut caterpillar moth lays its eggs, they appear small and harmless. In ten days, the eggs explode with hundreds of larvae that live to devour. Soon the writhing mass of young caterpillars disperses, attacking the food stores of the tree. The walnut struggles to survive until its powerful ally – the weather -- arrives. With one hard freeze, the long war ends.

The walnut also craves conquest. It aggressively ferrets out new territory, dispatching long roots to pilfer resources from its neighbors. The walnut fights without mercy, using chemical warfare to vanquish its enemies. Lively columbines and gentle lilacs succumb quickly to the poisonous exudate; the spice bush fights back, but in the end, the walnut stands victorious.

The walnut courts and conquers, but it also gives generously to its neighbors. Each year, the walnut doles out rich nuts to squirrels and raccoons. It offers shelter to nervous Carolina wrens and boastful bluebirds. Without recompense, the walnut encourages every passerby to revel in its shade. Without shame, the walnut tempts voyeurs to contemplate its trials and tribulations, its annual cycle of dieback and growth.

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), photo by Alicia Lamborn available at

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pettigrew State Park (Creswell, NC) & Pocosin Lakes NWR (Columbia, NC)


Each Spring, I make my way to Pettigrew State Park (Creswell, NC) to explore the rich vernal wildlife around North Carolina’s 2nd largest natural lake, Lake Phelps. Lake Phelps is one of the Carolina bay lakes – elliptical lakes aligned on a northwest-southeast axis of uncertain origin, hypothesized to have been carved out by ocean currents, wind or comets.

Highlights of this year’s visit, included the installation of new boardwalk, plus large singing choruses of Southern Toads, blossoming Pawpaws, and Zebra Swallowtails.

Birds seen:
  • pileated woodpecker
  • red-bellied woodpecker
  • blue jay
  • Carolina wren
  • northern cardinal
  • white-throated sparrow
  • mourning dove
  • common grackle
  • boat-tailed grackle
  • Carolina chickadee
  • American crows
  • laughing gulls

  • American robin
  • blue-grey gnatcatcher
  • eastern meadowlark
  • yellow-rumped warbler
  • white-eyed vireo
  • turkey vulture
  • eastern bluebird
  • brown thrasher
  • purple martin
  • northern mockingbird
  • American goldfinch
  • brown-headed cowbird
  • European startling
  • eastern towhee

Birds heard only:
Silver-spotted skipper at Pettigrew State Park (Creswell, NC)
  • yellow-throated warbler
  • northern parula
  • eastern screech owl
  • grey catbird
  • tufted titmouse
  • red-shouldered hawk
  • red-eyed vireo

Other wildlife encounters:
  • zebra swallowtail
  • tiger swallowtail
  • falcate orange-tip
  • silver-spotted skipper
  • southern toads
  • Fowler’s toads
  • Zebra swallowtail at Pettigrew State Park (Creswell, NC)
  • southern leopard frogs (heard only)

  • bullfrog (heard only)
  • yellow-bellied slider
  • eastern box turtle
  • eastern musk turtle
  • redbelly turtle
  • eastern grey squirrel
  • cotton rat
  • opossum
  • eastern cottontail
  • raccoon (tracks only)
  • clearwing moth spp.
  • phantom craneflies (mating)

Jack-in-the-pulpit at Pettigrew SP (Creswell, NC)

Pawpaw (Asimina spp.) at Pettigrew SP (Creswell, NC)

Sensitve fern at Pettigrew SP (Creswell, NC)

American sycamore at Pettigrew SP (Creswell, NC)

Southern toad at Pettigrew SP (Creswell, NC)

Eastern box turtle at Pettigrew SP (Creswell, NC)

Eastern musk turtle at Pettigrew SP (Creswell, NC)

Redbelly turtle at Pettigrew SP (Creswell, NC)

This year, we also visited the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Columbia, NC. The short boardwalk, which starts at the visitor center, allowed for close encounters with Red-bellied Watersnakes, Eastern Musk Turtles, and Spotted Turtles.

Spotted turtles at Pocosin Lakes NWR (Columbia, NC)
Birds seen:
  • American robin
  • European starling
  • boat-tailed grackle
  • purple martin
  • red-bellied woodpecker
  • yellow-rumped warbler

Birds heard:
  • yellow-throated warbler
  • laughing gull

Other wildlife encounters:
Red-bellied watersnake at Pocosin Lakes NWR (Columbia, NC)
  • eastern painted turtle
  • eastern musk turtle
  • redbelly turtle
  • spotted turtles
  • yellow-bellied slider
  • red bellied water snakes
  • northern watersnake
  • cabbage white
  • falcate orange-tip

Watersnakes (possibly Northern) at Pocosin Lakes NWR (Columbia, NC)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Braving the Bitter Cold for the American Bittern

On my birthday, in mid-December, I dragged my entire family -- parents, husband, and 4-year-old son -- to find an American Bittern. We drove to Prairie Ridge Ecostation in Raleigh, NC, following a trail of eBird and list-serv sightings of this bulky brown and tan bird in the Heron family (Ardeidae).

On a crisp, clear winter's day, we slowly walked around one cattail fringed pond, stopping every so often to carefully eye the reeds. We knew that the American Bittern was a camouflage expert: its brown and tan vertical stripes help it fade into the winter-bleached cattails just as much as its awkward stance, with its long beak pointed into the air. The first pond yield no bittern. We walked on to the next. Eventually, fingers chilled and faces frozens, we walked back across the stark field to our car, heads hung with the weight of failure.

Over a month later, I saw another posting about the American Bittern at Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Again, I dragged my family back out. This trip ended in failure too. I was devasted because I knew the bittern wouldn't stick around much longer. American Bitterns will spend the winter in much of North Carolina, feeding on crayfish and frogs without having to bore through a thick layer of ice. But in spring, the American Bitterns leave North Carolina, and head to their breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada. Lamenting another lost opportunity, we ate away our sorrows at the local Ben and Jerry's.

Yesterday, I saw another posting about the American Bittern. A lady, much like me, had visited the site three times before finally seeing it. I decided to drag my family out to Prairie Ridge Ecostation one last time. As we walked around the first pond, my heart began to sink. Nothing. We headed to the smaller, cattail-filled pond. We walked halfway around this little pond when I saw a strange bit of dark brown mixed into the pale cattails, my eyes finally focused in on the elusive American Bittern.

At first it seemed frozen in its strange beak-up pose. Then it was comfortable preening in front of us, and the bittern even ate a little something it grabbed out of the shallow pond. The bittern moved with great speed and precision, each movement efficient and graceful.

I had finally found the American Bittern at Prairie Ridge. And I even got to take it home with me. When we discovered the bittern, my son magically transformed himself from a little boy uninterested in birds into a keen mimic of the American Bittern. Later he told me that "the bird" was the most beautiful thing that he had seen today.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Eastern Garter Snakes: Mating Balls & Sex in the Trees

Last week, Duke Forest staff photographed Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) intertwined on the forest floor. They had a discovered a "mating ball" of small males vying for the chance to fertilize a mature female.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating in the Duke Forest, February 20, 2014; Photo courtesy of Sara Childs.

Other garter snake species are better known for their mating balls, including the Red-Sided Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis). In Manitoba, as many as 25 male Red-Sided Garter Snakes will compete for the chance to fertlize one female, with hundreds of snakes congregating in spring outside their hibernacula or winter dens. The females release a pheromone that drives male Garter Snakes wild (video link here).

Both Eastern Garter Snakes and Red-Sided Garter Snakes have been documented to mate in the trees, a full yard off the ground. Researchers believe that Garter Snakes are driven to arboreal mating by their thermoregulatory needs -- it's easier to make sweet snake love while warm. Typically, Garter Snakes are only seen mating in trees after a rain. The rain cools the ground, but the trees and shrubs remain warmer at air temperature. On sunny days, the ground tends to be warmer than trees, and Garter Snakes are more likely to be seen mating there.

Friday, February 14, 2014

American Beech

“[The] Beech is identifiable by the gleam of its wondrously smooth bark, not furrowed even by extreme old age. Here it will be free of branches for full half its height, the sturdy boughs then gracefully down-sweeping. The gray bole has a further beauty in the way it flutes out at the base into strong feet, to the shallow, wide-spreading roots. And the luxuriant growth of mosses on the north side of such a tree, together with the mottling of lichens, add to the look it ears of wisdom and serenity.” – Donald Culross Peattie, 1948, A NaturalHistory of Trees of Eastern and Central North America
Beech nut
The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is never more beautiful than in winter, with its slender branches outlined in ice, their downward sweep extended by stubborn leaves that refuse to fall. It's beauty has been noted by both eminent naturalists and giddy couples seeking to etch their love permanently into its smooth gray bark.

Found across eastern North America, west to Minnesota and south to Texas, the American Beech populates hardwood forest and well-drained bottomlands. It can be recognized by its alternate, elliptical leaf with sharply incurved teeth, its lancelike pseudoterminal buds, and its small nut encased by a prickly husk. 

Two varieties of American Beech are known to occur in North Carolina. Fagus grandifolia var. caroliniana occurs in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, and it is recognized by the fuzzy hairs on the underside of its thin leafFagus grandifolia var. grandifolia occurs in the mountains and is hairyless or hairy only on the midveins of the leaf. 

Scorias spongiosa on Beech in Durham NC
In many forests of the Piedmont, the beauty of the American Beech is marred only by the Beech Blight Aphid and the dense black fungus (Scorias spongiosa) that grows on the aphids' honeydew. Yet, with dense snow covering the ground and base of the trunk, even this cannot detract from the grace of the American Beech.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What is the coldest environment birds can tolerate?

A Triangle Naturalist reader recently asked: "Is there a temperature limit past which birds can no longer withstand the elements?"

While many bird species migrate to avoid to the chill of winter in temperate climates, some species, like the Emperor Penguin live year-round in frigid Antarctica, where temperatures can dip below -76°F and winds roar at 100 mph.

Emperor Penguins maintain their body temperature through a number of adaptations. While cozying up en masse, Emperor Penguins also rely on their specialized circulatory system, a thick layer of blubber, and densely packed feathers to stay warm.

Emperor penguin huddle
Emperor Penguins huddle to stay warm. Photo from Warner Bros at

Birds in the Piedmont of North Carolina, and the upper Midwest, stay warm using similar adaptations. Some species will huddle together, with the birds at the end regularly switching places with the birds in the toasty middle. Ducks and gulls, for example, have specialized circulatory systems in their feet allowing for counter-current exchange, where warm blood leaving the body heats up the cold blood coming back into the body from feet sitting in icy water. Downy feathers also provide insulation against severe cold.

To return to our reader's question -- is there a temperature limit past which birds won't survive? -- my reply is that there must be, but of all the vertebrate taxa in the world, birds have managed to endure cold the most successfully.