Brief History of Wake Audubon Society

April Showers Bring May Flowers

i Apr 17th No Comments by

By Annie Runyon

I found these longleaf cones (flowers) at Harris Lake this past week.

You can see the cluster of purple male cones (or catkins) above, and 2 female cones growing below the pointy growing tip of a new branch.

Our longleaf pine sprouted its first catkins in our yard this spring.

It has joined with all the other neighborhood pines, mostly loblolly and a few short leaf,

releasing clouds of bright yellow pollen into the air.

Now we know it is the tiny pollen grains from the oaks, red cedars and hickories that are likely causing our allergies … but the pine pollens are the bigger, showy ones that we notice. AND people are grumbling. POLLEN IS EVERYWHERE! This abundance assures these wind-pollinated trees that their cones will produce seeds, and that new tree seedlings will sprout.

Perhaps this generous dusting of protein-rich pollen seeping into the soil with April’s showers will also help to fertilize and nourish all of the surrounding plants. Perhaps pollen is a spring tonic for the whole forest.

2013 on the March

i Mar 8th No Comments by

By Jeff Beane

Holy cow—it’s March already.  If, like me, you’re wondering whatever happened to January and February, or to last year for that matter (or indeed, to the 1970s), you’d best get out there and start paying attention.  It may have been a cold month so far, but, speaking as one who has already lived through an embarrassingly large number of Marches, I can guarantee that it ain’t gonna stay that way for long.

Right now, Yellow Jessamine, Hepatica, and Trailing Arbutus are in bloom, Mink kits are being born, Great Horned Owls are feeding good-sized nestlings, and if the sun is shining you’ll see a Falcate Orangetip fluttering by if you’re not careful.  Purple Martins’ll be back any day now, Yellow-throated Warblers and Northern Rough-winged Swallows are already showing up, and as soon as there’s a warm day you’ll be seeing the first Eastern Tiger Swallowtails of the season.  Spotted Salamanders and most chorus frogs have already finished breeding, but you’ll still hear Spring Peepers on warm nights for the rest of the month.  American Toads and Pickerel Frogs started calling during that warm spell back in January, and they’ll finish their breeding as soon as it warms back up.  Several herring, shad, and sucker species have already begun their spring spawning runs.

In the Coastal Plain and Sandhills, the hardwood trees are starting to acquire leaves.  Tiger and Mabee’s salamanders have long since bred (in those places where there was enough water), and my telemetered Pine Snakes and Coachwhips will be emerging from their hibernacula any day now.  Southern Toads, Carpenter Frogs, and Southern Cricket Frogs are just about to start calling.  In just a week or two, Bachman’s Sparrows will be singing in the longleaf savannas.

In the Mountains?  Well, it’s still freezing up there, but the Wood Frogs snuck in their quick-and-dirty breeding season back during those January and February rains; you’ll have to look for their egg masses if you want to see them now.  Once the snow melts you might see a Bloodroot already blooming and hear a peeper or two (or even a Mountain Chorus Frog if you happen to be in Cherokee County and get really lucky with the weather).

If you don’t get out there soon, you’ll miss Trout Lilies completely, Eastern Cottontails will already have had their first litters, peak shorebird migration will be past, and you’ll miss the first emerging Luna Moths and the first returning Chimney Swifts.  Gray Fox pups are being born, too.  Before the end of the month, you’re going to be seeing bluets and violets blooming, Palamedes Swallowtails flying, and Brown-headed Nuthatches laying eggs.

If you start hearing Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-Widow’s, White-eyed Vireos, and Fowler’s Toads, you’ve probably already waited too long.  It’s basically April, dude (or dudette).

Of course, if you happen to be a crappie fisherman (or –woman) or a Gopher Frog biologist, you’re already out there and you know all this already.

You have to get out early in the year, and get down low to the ground, to see and smell the tiny flowers of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens).  But it’s worth it.

Trees in the Coastal Plain are festooned with the blooms of Yellow Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) this time of year.  Just look.  Don’t eat.

Upland Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris feriarum) breed in temporary wetlands in winter.  If you haven’t heard them yet this year, you may have already missed them.

Right now is peak breeding season for the Carolina Gopher Frog (Rana [Lithobates] capito).  With most of its habitat long gone, many biologists believe this rare Longleaf Pine specialist is doomed in North Carolina.

A clutch of Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) eggs in a small dead snag.  This tiny, charismatic bird’s philosophy is breed early and avoid the rush.

The beautiful and familiar Luna Moth (Actias luna) can have three broods a year in North Carolina.  The first one emerges this month.

If you want to see Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in bloom this year, it’s time to start looking.  Even in good years, the flowers don’t last long.

What Hummingbirds Can Teach You

i Feb 26th No Comments by

In these cold winter months, it is important to have a positive mindset. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and the lack of sunshine can really take its toll. Sometimes a change of perspective is all it takes to bring a person out of the winter doldrums. Being a bird lover, I often think about things from the perspective of the winged creatures. This may seem a bit weird, but can bring about some interesting enlightenments.

(photo by Michael Hogan, posted on Cornell website)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about hummingbirds and how thinking like them could improve our lives. Here are some reasons why.
Cleanliness and Confidence
Hummingbirds are meticulously clean to the point that if they were human, they would probably all be considered OCD. This is important for them because diseases spread amongst birds very easily. Cleaning themselves after feeding and bathing in commonly visited areas is a means of self-preservation. Good hygiene keeps them alive.
Perhaps because they are so clean and good looking, hummingbirds are also extremely confident. They defend their territory mercilessly. They mate by puffing out their chests and making wild displays. Hummingbirds know what they want and what is theirs and they fight for it.
Though hygiene may not be as much of a life or death issue for humans, it is still important. By maintaining healthy habits, you ensure that you stay healthy. When you’re healthy you’re usually happier. You also look better, which is an automatic confidence booster. It is important to exude confidence (but perhaps not to the hummingbird level of cockiness), and protect what is important to you.
Memory
Hummingbirds know where they’ve gotten food in the past, how long it takes flowers to refill and who is responsible for filling hummingbird feeders They are not only observant, but they keep that information for future use.
Intentionally committing useful information to memory can save a lot of time in our daily lives. As someone who gets lost regularly, I’ve been surprised how much of my “directionally challenged-ness” can be solved by paying attention to landmarks, directions, and using a map. This encourages me to remember how to get somewhere rather than just following directions by rote, which usually results in me getting lost the next time I try to find a place.
Fight for What Matters
As mentioned previously, hummingbirds are very territorial. They don’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Hummingbirds are very friendly, unless threatened. Likewise, be agreeable, but not a doormat. Stand up for your rights and your possessions. This assertiveness will earn you respect and a sense of security.
Make the most of your sleep
Hummingbirds are smart even with they sleep. They are able to reduce their metabolic rate and enter a deep sleep. In this state, they burn very little energy and can keep their body temperature at a near-hypothermic state. This allows them to save energy for the days, as well as survive in low temperatures.
It is important to maximize your sleep. It is proven that different people get maximum from sleep at different types. Most people benefit more from hours of sleep before midnight, though some people’s cycles are different. It is also important to prepare for sleep efficiently, by allowing yourself to wind down and minimize electronic contact before bed. It is also important to eliminate as many lights and sounds from your bedroom. This allows you to get the most benefit from your sleep and conserve energy for the next day.

Hummingbirds are known to be smart and beautiful creatures. They are respected by their fellow creatures and by humans. By taking their example, you can do a lot to improve your life. Are there other animals that you feel like you can learn from in daily life?

Submitted by Ernie Allison. Ernie loves nature and more specifically, he loves birds and wants to teach others how to appreciate them, too. In the winter, Ernie participates in several citizen science projects, mostly focusing on hummingbird migration patterns.

Pine Island Trip Report

i Feb 14th No Comments by

February Blog – Pine Island Trip Report
Our chapter’s first field trip to the North Carolina Outer Banks was a great success. Thirty-seven chapter members and friends attended the January 4-6th trip. The main building at the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary is an old hunting lodge. Several participants stayed at the lodge and enjoyed the rustic but comfortable setting. Others stayed at a hotel across the street and drove over to the lodge for the Friday evening wine and cheese social (thanks to all who contributed food and drink). Saturday morning we again met at the lodge to hear about the history of the Pine Island Sanctuary property and about Audubon’s plans for modest upgrades to the lodge, parking and trails. The property will be a place for research and education focusing on the birds of the marsh.

A coyote loped across the lawn, ending our talk of plans for the lodge and sending us outside. We walked down to the marsh where Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons watched the serene beauty of the winter marsh landscape. After a short tour to the rest of the sanctuary we headed south to explore Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Bodie Island Lighthouse and adjacent pond, the Bonner Bridge area and the ocean, via the beach and pier.

A group went to the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge to view the Snow Geese and Tundra Swans coming in from their day of foraging in neighboring fields. On Sunday, some folks stopped at Lake Mattamuskeet. A great variety of ducks, thousands of Tundra Swans, an American Bittern, and White-crowned Night Herons were the highlights. Here is a list of the birds seen on Saturday.

Loon, Red-throated
Loon, Common
Grebe, Pied-billed
Grebe, Horned


Gannet, Northern
Pelican, Brown
Cormorant, Double-crested
Heron, Great Blue
Egret, Great


Egret, Snowy
Heron, Tricolored
Ibis, White
Swan, Tundra
Goose, Canada
Goose, Snow
Duck, Wood
Teal, Green-winged
Duck, American Black
Mallard
Pintail, Northern
Teal, Blue-winged
Shoveler, Northern
Gadwall
Wigeon, American
Scoter, Black
Bufflehead
Merganser, Hooded
Merganser, Red-breasted
Duck, Ruddy
Vulture, Black
Vulture, Turkey
Eagle, Bald
Harrier, Northern
Moorhen, Common
Coot, American
Killdeer
Avocet, American
Yellowlegs, Greater
Willet
Sanderling
Sandpiper, Purple (Oregon Inlet)
Dunlin
Gull, Ring-billed
Gull, Herring
Gull, Great Black-backed
Tern, Caspian
Tern, Forster’s


Dove, Mourning
Pigeon (Dove, Rock)
Kingfisher, Belted
Crow, Fish
Crow, American
Chickadee, Carolina
Wren, Carolina
Wren, Marsh
Kinglet, Golden-crowned
Robin, American
Mockingbird, Northern
European Starling
Warbler, Yellow-rumped
Warbler, Palm
Yellowthroat, Common
Cardinal, Northern
Sparrow, Chipping
Sparrow, Savannah
Junco, Dark-eyed
Blackbird, Red-winged
Meadowlark, Eastern
Grackle, Boat-tailed
Finch, House

Thanks to Bob Oberfelder, one of our Wake Audubon trip participants, for sharing some of his photographs. To view more of his photographs from this trip, see the Wake Audubon Meet-up site, past trips.

Gerry Luginbuhl, President, Wake Audubon Society

Birthday Adventure of a Perpetual Wanderer

i Sep 20th No Comments by

Having been in the area just short of four years, I have spent much of my spare time exploring what North Carolina and Southern Virginia have to offer.  This year, for my birthday weekend (the big 3-5), I decided to venture a little farther North to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  This choice resulted in one of the best trips of the year and in finding one of my new favorite places!  A fellow member of my hiking group accompanied me on this trip to unchartered territory, but we were well researched; armed with countless trail maps and trip reviews from the internet, and a very full agenda!  Our home for the long weekend was Big Meadows, right off of Skyline Drive.

Unbeknownst to me, Skyline Drive is a continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway and is every bit as beautiful.  While there seem to be less sweeping views of the mountain ranges, there are still a lot of overlooks where you can pull off.  Despite the fact that it was late August, the wildflowers were still plentiful as well.

Perhaps due to the heavier canopy, I saw far more wildlife in three passes on Skyline than I ever have on the BRP.  We certainly learned quickly why the maximum posted speed is 35mph.  Aside from the twisting and turning of the road itself (which is in great shape with fabulous rock walls lining much of the drive), seemingly suicidal deer are plentiful.  These four-legged friends are quite tame, likely due to exposure to tourists like ourselves, and did not spook easily.  This was sad to us, but great for photo ops and entertainment at the campground.

While the deer were our most frequent sightings (and hazards) along the drive, particularly in the fog and at dusk, Skyline Drive was also the setting for my very first black bear sighting as well as an encounter with some unruly turkeys.

I did note that we did hit the area trails, right?  The hiking within Shenandoah National Park did not disappoint either!  On Friday, we hiked the White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run circuit which was a strenuous 8 miles or so with significant elevation gain, but very much worth the effort.  There are over six waterfalls along the trail, but unfortunately the water flow was fairly minimal.  Within our first couple of miles, we encountered a rare, midday bat sighting.  While the orange substance on/around the ears didn’t resemble and photos I had seen of white-nose syndrome, we were not sure if the little guy was sick or not, so we were sure to keep our distance.  We also found what I later researched and believe to be a white-spotted slimy salamander.  This little guy was actually a pretty good size, I would guess about 5 inches long.  This hike also provided us with the opportunity to be startled several times!  In waiting for my counterpart near a large rock outcropping, I almost wandered dangerously close (for my comfort anyway!) to a fairly good sized copperhead before spotting it.  Luckily, it seemed quite comfortable and didn’t react poorly to my presence or proximity.  A short while down the trail, we also had to zip past a ground hive of bees of some sort.  They seemed content in going about their business as well and left us alone, as we did them.  This had turned out to be quite the adventure and it was only day 1!

-Justine Homiak, Wake Audubon Board Member

Why Bird?

i Sep 4th No Comments by

Someone once asked me why I found birding so appealing. Three reasons came very quickly to mind. The first was that it gave me an excellent reason to get outdoors–the windows in my home do not lend themselves very well to seeing the birds on my feeders from inside, so if I really want to see them I must go outside. “Outside,” of course, covers a vast, vast area, so essentially birds open up the world to the energetic and the curious. My second reason was aesthetic. Birds provide access–sometimes easy and other times difficult–to one of nature’s most splendid displays of beauty in terms of color, form, and activity. Few things are more beautiful than migrating geese silhouetted against a full moon or warblers skittering about a tree canopy like erratic Christmas ornaments. The third reason I offered was the intellectual interest that birds generate. Throughout his recent talk to the Carolina Bird Club, renown writer on birds, Scott Weidensaul, repeated his principle theme that “birds do amazing things.” The literature and film stemming from the study of the “amazing things” birds do as well as the intrinsic interest that individual birds and species possess fills libraries and archives. One person could never read or view all of it. This was my spontaneous response to the question I was asked. So, I would ask you. What is it about birds and birding that appeals to you? I look forward to reading your responses in this space.

-John Little, Wake Audubon Board Member

Young Naturalists For Nightjars

i Jul 23rd No Comments by

Young Naturalists For Nightjars
By Sean Higgins

Nightjars, including whip-poor-wills, chuck-will’s widows and common nighthawks, are some of our most bizarre and mysterious birds. Their nocturnal habits, long migrations and cryptic colors make it difficult for biologists to fully understand their habitats and populations. Ten young naturalists helped by joining a nationwide citizen science survey through the Center for Conservation Biology. This required a nature convoy by moonlight on one very hot summer night.

June 28th, 2012. 8:30 pm – 11:30 pm.
We rendezvoused at Pelican’s SnoBalls in Apex for a briefing on the scientific protocol while enjoying ice cream and dill pickle-flavored snow cones. From there we drove along the east side of Jordan Lake in Chatham County.
We stopped every mile to get out and listen for the cooing calls of nightjars. A chorus of katydids, green frogs and eastern spadefoot toads filled the humid air – but no nightjars. At times, we wondered if we heard whip-poor-wills deep in the distance – but then dismissed it as our ears playing tricks. At one stop we thought we spooked a gaggle of geese, only to discover young adults enjoying a nighttime swim.
For our final survey stop, we pulled onto a gravel drive between two straw fields flanked by forest. We listened intently in all directions for a full six minutes as the protocol required. Alas, we’d been shut out. As we gathered together for one final debrief, I tried to minimize the group’s disappointment.
“Our result of no birds is just as important to the conservation study as if we’d heard a dozen”, I said reassuringly. “Remember that it’s the combined data in all 48 states over several decades that allows scientists to…”
CHUCK WILL’S WIDOW….CHUCK WILL’s WIDOW… CHUCK WILL’s WIDOW…

“Did you hear that?”, a young naturalist shouted. “There’s a second one over there”, shouted another. “Can we count them in the study?”
I explained that we could NOT count these late comers in our official results, but we could make a side note of their late appearance. It was a fitting end to an unusual evening – perhaps a commentary on the shadowy nature of nightjars!

Wake Audubon’s Young Naturalist Club is a group of 12-18 year olds, their families and volunteers who join together for monthly wildlife excursions and service projects across the state. Learn more at www.wakeaudubon.org.

Interesting Blog

i Jul 20th No Comments by

Read about an interesting new study on Lincoln’s Sparrows’ songs from Discover Magazine’s Ed Yong. The researchers are right here at UNC-Chapel Hill!
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/07/17/sparrows-sound-sexier-in-the-cold/?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pulsenews

Bird Nesting in NC

i Jun 14th No Comments by

One of the most alluring behaviors about birds is that of building a nest. This is obviously a fundamentally important task for most bird species, and it is equally important for us to understand the nesting process of each species if we are to make sound conservation decisions. Most of us love an “Easter Egg hunt”, and as a bird biologist, I love sleuthing around the woods and fields for bird nests – I’m sure it’s the thrill of the hunt, and I’m lucky to be able to play out my childhood afflictions in my adult, professional life. I have been recording nest data on North Carolina birds for over 20 years. I’m continually surprised at how little we know, still, about a number of the species that breed in our State.

On the one hand, there are programs to monitor certain groups of birds, such as those we call “colonial nesting waterbirds”, like the coastal-breeding terns, or egret, species. On the other, there are still a number of species for which we have almost no nest data; or, those which we have are 100+ years old. I study the breeding biology of a few species, but when engaged in my projects, or on public field trips, I keep an eye out for any nest behaviors. This past spring, I and the Museum’s bird collections manager Brian O’Shea, came across a dozen or more nests, two of which were “firsts” for me, others nearly new for me, and others just plain neat to view.  Included here are some observation notes about some of these nests, and some photos, when we could get those.

First things first.

Worm-eating Warbler  (WEWA) – this Neotropical migrant species is now a “species of concern” in the Southeast, as it appears to be declining in numbers.  I have found birds carrying food before, which most birds do when feeding nestlings somewhere; but I was unable to follow those birds to the nests. In mid- May of this year, while studying some breeding Black-throated Green warblers in the Uwharrie mountains region, I again came upon an adult carrying food. This time, I was able to hide far enough away, yet still watch the adults, and figure out where they were going with the food. It took over an hour, because they were weary, and on the slope of a ravine that was partially obscured from me. This species nests on the ground, and often at the base of some vegetation. There was little vegetation in the area to where the pair kept going, and I was able to locate my first Worm-eating Warbler nest underneath an overhanging “soffit” of dirt/moss, near the base of one of the few Mountain laurels on the hillside. The nest contained 3 babies, which were beginning to “feather out”. I quickly took some pictures and kept moving.

Later, when reviewing the images, I realized that the front nestling was a Brown-headed Cowbird. This species lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the host to raise any cowbird that hatches out. Often, the cowbird eggs hatch first, and those babies grow quicker than any host young, and as such, the host young often perish (or are literally tossed out of the nest by the baby cowbird). In this case, I guess because the nest was on the ground, although the cowbird certainly looks larger, the two warbler nestlings look healthy enough, and my guess is that all of them eventually fledged. I was unable to go back and check. It was a surprise to see a cowbird chick because the nest site was within a very large patch of fairly mature forest.  But we have learned over the past few decades that cowbirds do penetrate miles into such deep woods, and they are masters at finding other species nests, especially ground nesters.

Worm-Eating Warbler Nest with Cowbird Nestling

Blackburnian Warbler (BLBW) – on June 5, 2012, Brian and I, along with Marilyn Westphal and Mark Simpson, were scouting along the Big Butt Trail just west of Mt. Mitchell, assessing the feasibility of studying Veery and Hermit Thrush along this trail. Along the way, I spotted a female Blackburnian with food, and instinctively hollered “she’s got an active nest somewhere nearby, follow that bird!”  Well, perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but this was to be my first nest for this species, anywhere, and certainly one of the few documented for NC. Within a minute, this female flew to the end of a Red Spruce branch about 30’ up, and Brian announced “I have it.” And indeed, just like that, there it was, a small blob of plant fibers tucked into the leafy, terminal sprigs of a spruce tree.  It was too high to determine the number of young or their age, but still an exciting find for us.  And just as exciting (or perhaps more to some) were the many male Blackburnians we saw along a one-mile section of this trail.  Attached images are a female foraging in red spruce/fraser fir.  This migratory species heads to South America after the breeding season.

Blackburnian Warbler Female Foraging

Seconds, anyone?

Winter Wren (WIWR) – soon after finding the above warbler, we began our way back to the parked car. As we approached a large, upturned root ball, a small brown object gently fluttered past me.  I had found only one Winter Wren nest before, about 20 years earlier, but in the same “root ball” situation (and they are well-known for nesting in such sites).  I was sure it had a nest somewhere underneath but upon kneeling found it to be rather dark and more spacious than I’d thought, as the root ball had an overhanging “porch roof” of nearly two feet. But Brian had his headlamp along, and with his help, I quickly spotted the classic globe of moss that makes up a typical winter wren nest – and noted the other typical feature, that of feathers lining the inside. Brian determined that there were 6 eggs inside. It’s a large nest given the birds’ size, with a side entrance; and I imagine that the thick layer of moss, plus those feathers, provide for nice insulation on those cold mountain nights, which extend into late June (in NC, Winter wrens breed from 3000-the top of Mt. Mitchell). The forecast for the coming night was for lows in the upper 40’s, and remember, this was June 5th.

Winter Wren Nest

House Wren (HOWR) – when I returned home to Raleigh on June 8, the wren eggs in the nest box alongside our driveway had just hatched. This nest contained 6 eggs as well. House and Winter wrens weigh in at about 10g or less, and I still have a hard time understanding how they can even attempt to raise 6 young, let alone lay 6 eggs.  Both of these species are in the same genus, Troglodytes, which translates to “cave dweller” and are what we call “short distance” migrants – they essentially do not go south of the border.

Black-and-white Warbler (BAWW) – I had another bit of positional luck in the Uwharries this spring. On May 8 we were trying to capture another Black-throated Green Warbler for our study of that species, and when we sat down some 10 m from the mist net, we saw some activity to our right. There was an adult female Black-and-white, with a big wad of food in her beak. By now, you know my reaction to such sightings! She was quite close to us, less than 10 m, clinging to the side of a small tree that was part of a group of 3 smallish trees. This species is also a ground-nester, so I was sure she had a nest at the base of one of those trees, and indeed, she did.  BAWW’s do not seem to be as shy around the nest as some other species. Within a few minutes we had captured the Black-throated Green we were after, and I moved our banding operation a bit further away, but only about 12 m from the nest site. She, and soon after her mate, immediately began going to the nest, feeding the 5 nestlings.  The nestlings seemed to be about 5 days old, and in this species, fledge at about 9 days old. Indeed, I returned on May 14 and saw one fledgling following the adult female, and being fed by her, about 15 m from the nest site.  This is only the 3rd nest of this species that I have found, although I have often seen adults carrying food for nestlings.

Black-and-White Warbler Babies

Wood Thrush (WOTH) – there is much concern about the fate of this Neotropical migratory species these days, as population numbers have plummeted over the past few decades. In urban areas, this species still occurs but is usually a host for Brown-headed cowbirds. Thus, in any area, we are interested in how it fares during the breeding season. As indicated already, cowbirds are found even within large areas of mature forest. On May 7, again while tracking a Black-throated Green Warbler on Daniel Mountain in the Uwharries region, I happened to look to my right and spy that suspicious form in a small mountain laurel alongside the trail. A closer peek revealed a female sitting tight in her nest. I was able to climb the bank and get on level with the nest, and even slightly above, and take some images of her –a veritable “birds-eye view”.  When I retreated and went back down to the trail, she bolted. My guess is that she knew she had been found, but was not going to risk any movement, and thus detection, while I was looking at her.  Thus, as soon as I took my eyes off of her to go back to the trail, she felt safe to make her escape. At that point I decided to go back and see the contents, again to determine if there were any cowbird eggs or not.  As you can see from the image, they were all Wood Thrush eggs. You may be surprised by how similar they are to a Robin’s egg – well, a Robin is in the thrush family and thus these two species are closely related. (Bluebirds are also thrushes). I was back in the Wood Thrush area on May 16th, and with the help of a mirror determined that the eggs had hatched and the young appeared about 3 days old. I did not want to disturb the nest area any more so did not climb the bank again to take any more photos.

Wood Thrush Nest and Eggs

Dark-eyed Junco (DEJU) – this species requires no luck at all to find its nest, nor hardly any effort. Indeed, it’s when you don’t find one after spending a few minutes in the mountains above 3500’ that you should begin to worry. So, what’s the big deal then? A couple things. For one, when we can acquire a lot of data about an animal, we can better track changes over time. Thus, it’s prudent to also keep recording nest data for at least some of our more common species, across their range (whether that be elevational, like a junco, or longitudinal, like towhees). Another is to document a range of behaviors. The Dark-eyed Junco is typically a ground nester, usually doing so underneath a dirt overhand along a road or trail, where some herbaceous cover hangs over as well.

In early June, Brian and I were capturing Hermit thrushes along the Pearly Crockett road, just south of Mt. Mitchell.  As I backed away from our mist net, I brushed a very small red spruce sapling, and out flew a junco. Naturally, I peeled back a branch, and there was a nice, rather large-for-a-junco nest, with 3 eggs. Some images are included. Juncos are known to build nests off the ground, but it’s uncommon. I have seen a lot of Junco nests on the ground, but they were never as large as this one, and I suppose being off the ground means you need a little more insulation. I carry a measuring tape with me, and this nest was 1 m above the ground; the inside diameter was 6 cm, the depth of the cup was 3 cm, and the overall width of the nest was 12 cm. But the side that faced the outer part of the tree was broader; that is, the nest width on that side was twice the width of the part that faced the sapling trunk; I think of these as landing pads for an approaching bird (we often saw this in the many Swainson’s warbler nests we measured).  Later on down the road we found a rowdy flock of teenaged juncos, at least 10 juveniles about a month out of their various nests.  I swear juncos nest all year round!  They are one of the most prolific breeders I know.

Dark-eyed Junco Nest with Eggs

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (YBSA) – while on our annual mountain birding trip, May 18-20, we came across quite a few nests of various species. In NC, sapsuckers are a rare breeder in the mountains at various scattered locations, between 3000-5000’ elevation. I studied nesting sapsuckers for a few years, with several colleagues, at 3 sites, including Moses Cone Park. Our now-annual trip includes a morning at Trout Lake in the Cone Park and I cannot resist looking for my beloved sapsuckers and any nests. Indeed, they seem to come looking for me, although it’s been 6 years.  During our study, we found that they preferred nesting in dead snags within live red or sugar maples, or black locusts. But this year, along Trout Lake, I found two active nests and both were in dead black birch trees.  Mid-May is when the adults are incubating.

During our study we were able to use a camera mounted on a pole that extended up to 55’ and thus we were able to document clutch size. In the first year, we got data on over 25 clutches and all were of 6 eggs. In the second year, there were two snow storms in late April which is right before they begin laying, and in that year, all the clutches were of 5 eggs. Cause and effect? We don’t know, but I’m suspicious.  And how does one know when a cavity some 30 or 50’ up is “active”, without the camera? In both cases, we witnessed an incubation “exchange” – in sapsuckers, and apparently most woodpeckers, males take the night shift, so during our morning sojourn we apparently had just the right timing, as the females came in to check on things, and the males departed.  That’s certainly one good way to keep your man from staying out too late at night and boozing it up (on fermented birch sap “beer” no less…..).

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Nest Cavity

Empidonax flycatchers – for years Curtis Smalling has observed two species of this genus – Least and Willow flycatchers – nesting at the Valle Crucis Community Park. This is one of our stops on our spring mountain birding trip. This year, we found females of both species building a nest. Most interesting was the Willow, which was just beginning the process.  There were only a few strands of plant fibers draped over a small branch, in the early afternoon of the 18th. She must have begun right after “lunch”.  Four species of Empidonax flycatchers nest in NC: Least, Alder, Willow, and Acadian.  But there are few reports of any Empidonax flycatcher nests for NC.  At Valle Crucis, we also found another small flycatcher, the Eastern Wood-pewee sitting on a nest, apparently incubating.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (RTHU) – although many nests of this species have been found throughout the southeast, one never gets tired of seeing another. Indeed, I think I’ve only seen ~10 in my life. On our mountain trip, Brian outdid himself by finding not one, but TWO nests; one at Trout Lake, and the other at Valle Crucis. The VC nest is shown here, and was “in construction”. The TL nest was done and the female was incubating/brooding, nicely shown in the image.  In hummingbirds, once courtship and mating has taken place, the female does the rest, building the nest, and raising the young. And she holds her own territory to do so, driving away conspecifics, including males.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Nest

Cedar Waxwing (CEDW) – in NC, this species nests primarily in our mountains, with occasional reports in other parts of the State.  On May 18 we found a pair building a nest alongside the parking lot of the Cone Manor House, at the Moses Cone park.  We watched the female make several trips, bringing soft plant fibers with which to line the nest. Each time, the male would follow and watch over the activity. The nest site was only about 35’ above us, and we had a great view.

Other nests we found on our mountain trip: Yellow Warbler (YEWA), Red-breasted Nuthatch (RBNU), Baltimore Oriole (BAOR).

Yellow Warbler in Flight

Red-breasted Nuthatch at Nest Site

Baltimore Oriole

Great Crested Flycatcher (GCFL) – this flycatcher is another Neotropical migrant, and a cavity-nesting species. They use “previously owned” cavities. It is a species that returns to our area in late April, but for some reason, I have found numerous times where they returned to our neighborhood at this time in west Raleigh, but began nesting in late May or early June. Most birds begin nesting soon after returning from their “winter” quarters. Such was the case this past Sunday, June 9th, in our front yard. I was out doing some gardening, when down came a female, spiraling right to the ground.  I seldom see them go to the ground for food – rather, it’s almost always for nest material. Of course, I wanted to holler out, “she must be collecting nest material!” but sadly, no one was around to hear me.

Nonetheless, she did begin picking up pine needles and some oak leaves, and then flew up to a snag in our neighbor’s tall Loblolly Pine. I was a bit disappointed, because last Fall I had hung a bird box with a hole specifically for Great Crested Flycatcher; and she flew right past that box and on up!  This species has nested in other boxes of ours, twice, over the past few years. But not this time. Perhaps the “candy peanut orange” paint job dissuaded her.  On the other hand, it’s hard to compete with the site she chose:  an old Red-bellied Woodpecker nest, with an east-facing entrance, and 17m (55 feet) up (HINT for the man who has everything: I LOVE my new laser range finder!).  This species requires a hole slightly larger than that used by/for bluebirds, should you wish to try for a GCFL pair of your own.

Great-crested Flycatcher in Nestbox

Red-shouldered Hawk – we have had an active nest just a few houses away, all spring. On June 11th, the nest appeared empty, and it would make sense – the nest has contained only one nestling and it’s been growing fast (young of this species often fledge later in June).  Young of this and related hawks, like the familiar Red-tailed, usually venture out among nearby branches as they mature, but I was unable to find this one youngster on the 12th, anywhere in the tree. Then on the 13th it was back in the nest. I watched it for about 15 minutes, while taking some photos, and it did indeed take one walk out along one branch, spent a few minutes looking around, and then walked back onto the edge of the nest. This species usually lays more than one egg, 3-4, and the female likely did. From the looks I got of her, and her eyes, she seemed to be a younger adult. The eyes still had a fair amount of yellow, whereas the older birds, those 3+ years, have dark eyes. The nest is way up in a very tall Sweetgum tree, and yes, I was elated to have my laser range finder in hand for this one!  The nest clocks in at ~85 feet (26-27m).  Now, that’s a room with a view.

Red-shouldered Hawk Nestling

And what about that study of breeding Black-throated Green warblers? Well, we had some radio transmitters on a few males, and although my field technician found one of the males feeding fledglings (already out of the nest), we never did find a nest. The same thing happened last year. I’ve only found one nest ever, and that was near Mt. Pisgah. It was about 60’ up in a Chestnut Oak tree, near the tip of a long branch, typical for this species and others like it (e.g. Blackburnian).   The thrill is on……..

– John Gerwin, Curator of Birds, Museum of Natural Sciences

Photo credits:

DEJU, BLWA, YBSA, WEWA, WOTH, BAWW, RSHA, GCFL – John Gerwin

RTHU, YEWA – Dan Harvey

BAOR, RBNU – Sue Harvey

WIWR – Brian O’Shea

Creature Feature: Fowler’s Toad (Bufo [Anaxyrus] fowleri)

i May 15th 1 Comment by

Creature Feature

Fowler’s Toad (Bufo [Anaxyrus] fowleri)

by Jeff Beane

Childhood is a toad in the garden, a happy toad.

–William Carlos Williams

For naturalists in the North Carolina Piedmont, April is a pretty fine month.  Spring is in full swing, filled with the sights and sounds of many things happening at once.  If you live near almost any sort of pond or wetland, a harsh, nasal “waaaaah!” will be just one of the sounds you can welcome at this time each year.  It means another breeding season is beginning for Fowler’s Toad (Bufo [Anaxyrus] fowleri).

The word “toad” has no precise scientific definition—it’s a general term used for anurans that tend to have chunky bodies and dry, warty skins; that hop rather than leap; and that are encountered more often on land than around water.  There are actually many families of anurans (Anura, literally meaning “tailless,” is the amphibian order that includes all frogs and toads), and many of them contain members commonly called toads.  The toads that most folks are most familiar with belong to the large family Bufonidae—the “true toads.”  Fowler’s toad is the most widespread, and perhaps the most frequently encountered, of North Carolina’s four bufonids.  It ranges throughout the Piedmont, much of the northern and inner Coastal Plain, and lower elevations in the Mountains.  The American Toad (B. [A.] americanus), is more common in the Mountains, but also ranges throughout most of the Piedmont and the northern Coastal Plain.  The Southern Toad (B. [A.] terrestris) occurs throughout most of the Coastal Plain.  The tiny Oak Toad (B. [A.] quercicus) is also a resident of the Coastal Plain, where it has undergone sharp declines in recent years.

Recent genetic work on bufonids has prompted some systematists to “split” the once-huge genus Bufo into several genera, and North Carolina’s four species have been recently assigned to the genus Anaxyrus.  But taxonomy is a controversial science, with much subjectivity involved, and published changes are not always immediately or unanimously accepted.  It will be a long time before some of us old-timers stop using names we’ve known our entire lives.  As my friend Dave Stephan put it:  “I will stop using the names Rana [a common frog genus] and Bufo when they are pried from my cold, dead hands.”

Bufo is Latin for “toad.”  Anaxyrus is from the Greek ????, meaning “sovereign” or “king.”  The species name honors Samuel Page Fowler (1799-1844), New Jersey statesman, member of U.S. House of Representatives, and mineralogist (the mineral Fowlerite is also named for him).  Fowler’s toad was until fairly recently regarded as a subspecies of the Woodhouse Toad, B. [A.] woodhousii.  The two are now recognized as separate species.

Fowler’s Toad is easily and often confused with the American Toad and Southern Toad—the three are similar in appearance and occasionally hybridize where their ranges overlap.  Usually no more than two of the three occur together in any one locality.  Around the greater Raleigh area, we have Fowler’s and American toads, with Fowler’s being slightly more common (see chart below for ways to distinguish these two).  Southern toads may enter extreme southern Wake County.

Toads are strictly carnivorous, and will feed on almost anything small enough to catch and swallow.  Prey items must be swallowed whole; toads are not capable of chewing or biting off chunks.  Small prey are snapped up with a quick flick of the toad’s sticky tongue.  A toad may use its forelimbs to help shove larger items down its throat.  The great majority of the diet is insects, but toads will also eat other arthropods, worms, and small vertebrates; the only things they don’t manage to get down are those packing a very powerful wallop via stings, bites, or harsh chemical defenses—and even some of these may elicit repeated attempts at being swallowed before the toad gives up.  They have strong stomachs and manage to eat some fairly noxious prey items.  Virtually all farmers and gardeners know of toads’ well-deserved reputations as insect control agents and welcome them in yard, field, and garden.  Toads may be active day and night, but are more often nocturnal, especially in hot weather.  They may gather at outdoor lights at night to eat the insects that accumulate there.  Such “porch light toads” often become tame, and many a child has made a game of tossing insects to a backyard toad.  Toads detect prey visually, by motion, and will attempt to feed on virtually any small moving object.  A toad surrounded by fresh dead insects would starve—they are not noted for their intellect.

Toads and other amphibians absorb water through their porous skin; they do not “drink” in the same fashion as do most mammals, birds, and reptiles.  A Fowler’s Toad’s skin is thicker and drier than that of many amphibians, allowing it to live its entire adult life on land.  Toads must remain at least somewhat cool and moist, however, and will seek underground refugia in hot or dry weather.  They also spend the colder months belowground.  A toad breathes mostly through its lungs, but some oxygen exchange also takes place through its skin.

Like a great many amphibians, toads produce skin secretions that make them unpalatable or even toxic to many predators.  Nonetheless, they are eaten by many animals whose stomachs can neutralize the toxins.  The Eastern Hognose Snake specializes on toads, eating very little else, and some other snakes, including garter snakes and Red-bellied Water Snakes, can eat toads with impunity.  Snapping Turtles also eat them.  Raccoons, skunks, crows, and some other predators may eviscerate toads, eating only the nutritious liver and other internal organs and leaving most of the carcass.  Newly transformed toads, besides being smaller, have milder toxins; they have many more predators than do adults.  Birds such as grackles and jays have been observed eating large numbers of toad metamorphs.  The biggest threats by far, however, are humans with their vehicles, mowers, domestic animals, and pesticides.  But even the killing of huge numbers of individual toads by these factors pales in comparison to outright loss and fragmentation of habitat.  Still, the adaptable Fowler’s Toad manages to survive in some suburban and semi-urban areas, as long as there is a place to breed and some terrestrial habitat.  Its adaptability has allowed it to remain common in the face of serious declines among other amphibian species.

Like all of North Carolina’s anurans, Fowler’s toads must breed in water.  They utilize a great variety of wetlands for breeding, from puddles to lakes and rivers.  They readily use permanent water, and the construction of farm ponds, reservoirs, and other artificial bodies of water has probably greatly benefited them.  Their tadpoles, unlike those of many amphibians, are tolerant of fish; they avoid them by staying mostly in very shallow water, by hiding in vegetation or bottom litter, and by being bad-tasting.

In the Raleigh area, Fowler’s Toads usually begin calling around the first week of April, but that varies with temperature, water levels, and location.  The breeding season is prolonged, often lasting until July or August.  Males call to attract females and to maintain territories (females are silent).  They may sit in shallow water or on land when calling.  Sound is produced by inflating the vocal sac and forcing air across its thin membrane.  Different frog and toad species have different types and shapes of vocal sacs.  A Fowler’s Toad has a single, spherical one that inflates like a balloon under his throat.  The call has been compared to the bleat of a sheep.  When a female approaches, a male grabs her and clasps her tightly just behind the armpits with his forelimbs.  This position is called amplexus.  He will hold onto her until she releases her eggs and will dump sperm on the eggs as they are laid.  Enthusiastic males may try to mate with other males, or with other amplexed pairs.  In extreme situations, males may form mating balls with a female or two somewhere in the middle; on rare occasion females, or even males, may be overwhelmed and drowned.  Males emit a chirping “release call” when clasped by another male.  The particular frequency of this call usually causes a male to realize his mistake and release his would-be mate.  Male toads will also utter this release call when handled, and this is a useful method of distinguishing the sexes; another is that males have dark throats while those of females are plain white.  Females also attain slightly larger sizes than males.

Fowler’s Toads deposit their eggs in long strings.  Two strings are produced simultaneously—one from each ovary—totaling around 7,000 eggs.  They are randomly strung in vegetation or on the shallow pond bottom.  The eggs hatch in about a week and the small, black tadpoles grow quickly, feeding mostly on algae and other organic material, which they scrape from the substrate with the keratinized rows of teeth lining their small mouths.  They transform in about one to two months at small sizes—newly transformed toads are only about 0.3-0.4” (8-11 mm) long.  They can be found leaving ponds in huge numbers.  They may disperse far from the wetlands, and will immediately begin eating insects and growing rapidly. Some may reach sexual maturity in as little as a year, while others require two or three years.  They will live the rest of their lives on land, except for returning to ponds or wetlands annually to breed.  Only a tiny percentage of the thousands of eggs laid by a female toad will end up as breeding adults.

For defense, toads rely on cryptic behavior (hiding, camouflage), on flight (hopping quickly away toward cover); and on their skin toxins.  Rough handling can result in a toad exuding its milky-white toxins—called bufotoxins.  These are produced in various places in the toad’s glandular skin, but especially in the two large, oval glands located on each side of the head—the parotoid glands.  Bufotoxins may have hallucinogenic properties in small quantities.  Some species of toads—most often the Sonoran Desert Toad (Bufo [Incilius] alvarius) and the Marine Toad, or Cane Toad (B. marinus [Rhinella marina])—are actually abused as a drug; live toads are licked, or their skins are dried and eaten or smoked.  Some Native American tribes are known to have dried toad skins and smoked them ceremonially.  Such activities can, of course, potentially result in severe vomiting, brain damage, or death.  North Carolina’s toads have relatively mild toxins and are more likely to induce instant vomiting in a human than either hallucinations or death.  They are harmless to human skin, but can cause severe irritation if rubbed in the eyes or other mucous membranes.  In other words, toads may be safely handled, but don’t eat or lick them, or rub your face or any other sensitive part of your body with them.  Needless to say, they do not cause warts.

A frightened toad will also inflate its body with air to make it larger and harder to swallow, and will release excess water (this is not urine, as is commonly believed) from its cloaca.  Toads may also feign death when handled.  This might seem like self-defeating behavior, but a toad that is swallowed by a snake without a struggle sustains no injuries, and just might survive if the snake happens to regurgitate it later because of its skin toxins or for some reason.

Potential longevity is poorly known for most toad species, but some bufonids have lived for longer than 20 years in captivity.  It seems reasonable that a Fowler’s Toad could live for 10 years or more in the wild if it could escape predators for that long (very few do).

Watch for Fowler’s Toad in your yard or garden this spring, and listen for its harsh-but-friendly voice on spring and summer nights.  As neighbors go, you could certainly do worse.

Fowler’s Toad                                                                                 American Toad

Most dark spots on back will each contain 3 or more warts. Most dark spots on back will each contain 1 or 2 warts.
Cranial crests (bony ridges on top of the head behind each eye) are small and inconspicuous. Parotoid gland (large, oblong gland on each side of the head) is usually flush against cranial crest. Cranial crests are well-developed and conspicuous.  Parotoid gland is usually separate from cranial crest or connected by a short spur.
Smallish warts on outer surface of tibia or shank of hind leg. Enlarged warts on outer surface of tibia or shank of hind leg.
Underside usually plain white with a single dark spot on chest/throat. Chest often mottled with dark pigment; usually no single dark spot.
Smaller; maximum snout-vent length about 3.25” (82 mm). Grows larger; maximum snout-vent length about 4.25” (107 mm).  Largest specimens are from Mountains.
Snout slightly more pointed. Snout slightly more broadly rounded.
Color highly variable, but sometimes greenish. Color highly variable, but usually brown, gray, or reddish; seldom looks greenish.
In Raleigh area, usually calls from early April to August. In Raleigh area, usually calls from late February to April.
Call is a harsh, nasal “waaah,” ca. 1-4 seconds in duration. Call is a long, musical, whistlelike trill, ca. 20-30 seconds in duration.
Breeds in a wide variety of wetlands, but often prefers farm ponds, lakes, or other permanent water. May use permanent water, but prefers woodland pools or other temporary wetlands.
Tends to have slightly lower, more horizontal posture and slightly smaller forelimbs. Tends to sit more upright; forelimbs slightly larger.
Usually a distinct whitish mid-dorsal stripe. Mid-dorsal stripe often present, but not always distinct; sometimes faint or absent.