Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Mid-May Ramble

Our intention was camping, but Sue's hectic work schedule and a dicey weather forecast in the days leading up to the weekend led us to amend our plans. While I've spent much of the spring chasing wild turkeys around our property in Cleveland County, Sue hadn't been since the first week of April, so that's where we went on Sunday.

We got there around noon and had a picnic down by the creek. While we ate leftover spaghetti and chocolate truffles, we kept our ears open and ticked off the birds singing in the riparian zone: Acadian flycatcher - check, ovenbird - check, summer tanager - check, yellow-throated vireo - check, black-throated green warbler - check.

After lunch, we walked back to the old logging road that the timber company built to access the property some 10 years ago and started up the valley. I must admit, after spending so much time and effort trying to kill a tom turkey during the past two months, it was a welcome relief to just putz around and take in all of the other wild things that live there.

Bugs were the first things we noticed. The butterflies along the road fluttered all around us; beautiful, pale blue spring azures, common buckeyes, silver-spotted skippers, fritillaries of undetermined species and tiger swallowtails.
Love is in the air. Copulating tiger swallowtails (light and dark morph).
Eastern comma
As a casual fan of lepidoptera, I am particularly fond of the group known as anglewings. In our area, these are typically medium-sized butterflies that tend to inhabit shady, wooded areas, though they often come out into openings to sip salt and mineral deposits from the sand or clay. While Sue was off looking at plants, I managed to get a few pictures of a particularly accommodating eastern comma - named for its rather inconspicuous punctuation on it's underwing.

Further down the trail, we came across a couple of bizarre caterpillars, looking menacing and poisonous with a thicket of sinister dorsal spines. Although I fancy myself a serviceable identifier of butterflies in their adult forms (thanks in no small part to Jeffery Glassberg's fantastic guide, Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East), I know virtually nothing about making sense of their larval stage. I took a few photos and hoped for some guidance from David Wagner's very cool book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America. To date, I've had little success keying out the caterpillars in my life with this book, though I suspect it has a lot to do with the variability in their life stages rather than the inefficiencies of the book. This time, however, I think I can confidently say the creepy-crawlies we found were another anglewing type - the question mark. (No, it's not a joke. Similar to the eastern comma, the adult question mark sports the punctuation of it's namesake on it's underwing.)
Question mark caterpillars (???)
Black-shouldered spiny leg - I think.
There were also a few dragonflies buzzing around. If anything, I like dragonflies even more than I do butterflies. Maybe it's their huge eyes and ability to move their heads independently of their bodies that make dragonflies seem intelligent, for lack of a better word. Maybe it's their impossible powers of flight, or the fact that many species undertake long-distance migrations in the fall. Maybe it's the spectacular diversity that changes with every habitat. Likely it's the fact that dragonflies are hell on mosquitoes and other biting insects that like to suck my blood. For all those reasons, I like the heck out of dragonflies and like my interest in butterflies, I find great knowledge in a layman's book by Sidney Dunkle called (shockingly enough) Dragonflies Through Binoculars.

As we hiked up away from the creek and through the regenerating forest the logging company had cut around the turn of the century, the bird song reflected the change in habitat. Yellow- breasted chat - check, prairie warbler - check, field sparrow - check, indigo bunting - check, broad-winged hawk - check.

The mountain wetland hangs on.
Sue took a detour to measure our success in restoring a tiny wetland area that had been filled in when they built the road and choked out by encroaching upland vegetation. Last fall, we spent a day clearing out sweet gum and tulip poplar saplings in an effort to free up the few cattails, sedges and alders that remain. So far, the wetland species seem to have responded favorably to the increased sunlight and available water, but we must remain vigilant for exotic invasives like Japanese honeysuckle. When we have the time and money, our first habitat management project will be to fully restore the wetland. It's going to take a bulldozer to remove the culvert from under the road and the berms where the loggers deposited their excess dirt, but it will be worth it to see the native plants and animals return.

Royal fern?
The spring that feeds the wetland lies on the other side of the road and runs through the aforementioned culvert. There, Sue spied a giant fern that we somehow had never noticed before. Standing more than 5 feet tall, I'm guessing it must be a royal fern - the only one we've found on the property during our five years of rambling.

Our visit wasn't completely benign. Over the winter, Sue had discovered and identified a large princess tree growing at the edge of a clearing. Despite my protests that the tree would make for a perfect place to hang a deer stand, Sue was adamant the non-native and highly-invasive intruder had to die. We stopped at the truck to gather our instruments of death and then hiked on up to the tree. It was certainly a picture of health - filled with seed pods waiting to become a virtual forest of princess trees. Through her research, Sue chose the manner and timing of execution. May is the best time of year for the "slash and squirt" tree killing technique, so I girdled the tree with a hatchet (sighing heavily as I did it in sight of so many deer trails) and Sue followed with a generous squirt of herbicide to every cut. Now we'll wait and see what happens.
Princess tree - a picture of health.
Slash and squirt - dead meat.

On our way back down the hill, we stumbled into a brightly marked box turtle crawling across the trail. Box turtles seem to be well-represented in our little part of the world, but they are in trouble throughout their range. Populations of these long-lived, terrestrial turtles are in decline due to a number of factors, especially habitat destruction and roadway mortality. An adult male, like the one we encountered, can be as old as 40 years to 120 or more - something to think about the next time you see one struggling across a busy highway. For the time being, this one is safe as long as he stays on our side of the valley - and we intend to keep him and all the other wild things on the property that way, for as long as we are able.
eastern box turtle


  1. Great post.
    The first part of my zoo career was spent as a butterfly keeper (sounds ridiculous I know). So, I'm a pretty big fan of Lepidoptera myself. I also have the eastern caterpillar book, and I concur with your ID on the Question Mark.
    I also concur with your dragonfly ID. If you're a big fan of Odonata, you need Giff Beaton's book "Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast." It's my go to reference.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and really like to see someone else out there who appreciates the lesser species among us. Kudos to you.

  2. Jay - Right on brother. I actually take some of my inspiration from you and your excellent blog. I feel the more you know about every single piece of the system, even the tiniest nuts and bolts, the better you understand it as a whole, the more you appreciate and enjoy it and the better outdoorsperson/naturalist you are. Thanks for the back-up on the shaky IDs and the book recommendation. I'll check it out.

  3. Have you and Sue done a "Big Day" on your spread yet? Be curious to know what the mountain flyway would yield during the neotrop migration. Always entertaining prose, my Brudda.

  4. Kid - No we haven't. I've got a rudimentary species list going, but I haven't made any sort of dedicated effort. There are definitely some cool breeding birds there; acadian flycatcher, worm-eating warbler come to mind. Sometime, I'd like to get a few experts out there for weekend "bioblast."

  5. I'll show you how to blast a turkey...sorry, that was too easy. Seriously though, Jacqui and I would love to make a better attempt at identifying all the creatures lurking in Pheasant Creek. We'll have to secure a date once we get out of this hospital. ;)

  6. Carolina - can't come soon enough.