Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bird Nesting Box Surprise!

Late September wood warbler migrants bring a surprising discovery.

After delivering a second dead wood warbler to the "wet lab" at Prairie Ridge Ecostation on Monday (see end of this post), I took a short walk along a couple of the trails there.  I came upon a nesting box with a decorative flag fluttering in the gentle breeze.

This is bird nesting box #4 at Prairie Ridge EcoStation.  Do you see the "decorative flag" hanging from the nesting box mounting pole?

In this close-up you can see this is a fresh looking snake shed.  From time to time as a snake grows, it begins to get too big for its skin.  To take care of this uncomfortable situation, the snake finds an object with a rough edge.  It rubs its nose on the rough edge to make a hole in its old too small skin.  Slowly and deliberately the snake continues to rub itself against other rough objects so that the old skin peels back over it head exposing the new skin.  The snake keeps at it until it has crawled out of the old "shed", often leaving it in one piece.  The old skin is actually turned inside out like a sock that has been removed quickly from the foot.    

I noticed that the front door of the nesting box was open a little bit at the bottom and tried to close it, but it wouldn't close easily.  So I took a little peek in the entrance hole.  And here is what I saw!

Looking back at me was this handsome black rat snake.  In this picture you can see its very shiny scales, evidence that it had recently shed its skin.  You can see its white "chin".  And you can see the round pupil of its eye.  The non-venomous snakes of the United States have round pupils.  Most of the venomous snakes (copperhead, water moccasin, and rattlesnakes) have elliptical pupils like a cat's eye.  The venomous coral snake has round pupils but they are not often seen and rather shy and secretive. 

I just had to see a little more of this snake so I opened the front of the nesting box.  You can see a little of the snake's thickness and the flat scales on its side.

With the nesting box door wide open you can see the black rat snake coiled up on top of the nest cup inside.  The snake was trying to avoid me by pulling its head back to the back of the box.  The nest cup began to tip toward me as the snake was trying to hide behind it.

The nest cup turned on its side.  You can see the nesting material in the cup that a pair of birds used for their last nest of the summer.  I am not sure of the species of birds that built this nest.  But getting back to the snake.  It is trying to further hide behind the nest cup.  It is "smelling" the air with its remarkable flicking tongue.
In a flash the nest cup fell out of the nesting box and onto the ground with the snake not far behind.  See how shiny it is?  You can also see some sprinkling of white between the scales on its back and sides and its dark gray belly.  Baby black rat snakes are strongly patterned.  The adult snakes like this nearly six foot long individual still show a little of that pattern between their black scales.  The snake quickly slithered off into the thicket of prairie grasses and plants.  It had been a surprise for me and, well, for the snake, too.  But you know me, it was a wonderful surprise to see such a healthy reptile in late September. 

A fellow blogger (Tyler) suggested that this might be a Black Racer because its scales appear to be smooth and not keeled (ridged).  This photo is an enlargement from picture #5.  Rat snakes are described as having weakly keeled scales.  Although most of this snake's scales looked pretty smooth, some of the scales at the lower left of this photo show a hint of a ridge (keel) along the center.  Black Racers look very similar to Black Rat Snakes, but are described as having smooth scales.  All comments are welcome.

Wood Warblers for the museum

 This is the fall Yellow Warbler that I took to Prairie Ridge for their bird collection.  At Prairie Ridge the bird was put in a plastic bag and placed in a freezer.  At some future time the bird may be mounted or its skin and feathers preserved for teaching students about the identifying marks of the species.  It is always sad to lose a bird, but it is important to preserve the dead ones as a way to teach and a way to learn more about them.  This bird died when it flew into a window at the lab where I work.  It was found and retrieved by a fellow employee who brought it to my desk.  It is the time of year that many birds species including neotropical wood warblers migrate to the Caribbean as well as to Central and South America were there are plenty of insects to eat during our winter months.

Click here to see more information about the Yellow Warbler including a range map.

This is the second warbler I delivered to Prairie Ridge.  This is a Northern Waterthrush.  It flew into the same window as the Yellow Warbler.  Another fellow employee found the bird and notified the receptionist to alert me when I arrived at work.  Notice the thin beak that is perfect for catching insects.  The yellow and brown coloring and pattern of this bird are beautiful to me.  Notice the yellow stripe above its eye and the brown streaks on its breast.  This warbler is often found near wet areas in the woods, in swamps, and along streams and lakes.

 Click here to see more information about the Northern Waterthrush including a range map.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Happy Birthday, Henna!
Here are some little creatures I saw this summer to help celebrate your third birthday.  Hope you have a wonderful party!

This summer I have been fortunate to see a number of butterflies and moths.


This first butterfly I found sipping sap from a very old white oak tree near our house.  Its common name is Creole Pearly Eye.  The five eyespots on both forewing and hind wing help identify it. 

This is the underside view of a Question Mark Butterfly that landed on the window at the lab where I work.  It is a brush-footed or four-footed butterfly.  Insects have six legs, but these butterflies have very small brush like front legs, so it looks like it only has four legs.  Can you see the "question marks"?  One question mark is at the end of one of the back legs.  On the other wing you can see one sort of in the middle of the wing.  This butterfly has a cousin called the Comma Butterfly.  It has a mark on each wing that looks like a comma.

This big eyed butterfly is a Silver Spotted Skipper.  It is feeding on a Speedwell blossom.  Can you see the proboscis (a grayish tube) that it is using sip nectar from the bloom?  The butterfly can store this "drinking straw" by coiling it into a small spring shape.


A Luna Moth came to visit the lab one day.  Actually, we have seen several of these moths this summer at the lab.  This moth has large feather-shaped antenna that it uses to locate a mate by detecting her "aroma".

Another Luna Moth landed on the window a few days later.  This moths are in the silkmoth family.  The caterpillar spins its cocoon from silk that it makes

This is another moth from the silkmoth family.  It is a Tuliptree Silkmoth.  Its caterpillars eat the leaves of yellow poplar which is also called the tulip poplar or tuliptree.  It has sort of a "T-shaped" mark on the forewing and the hind wing.  

I saw this moth at a Moth Event in July at Prairie Ridge EcoStation.  This is a Rosy Maple Moth.  It is also in the silkmoth family.  I love the wonderful pink and yellow colors!  As their name suggests, the caterpillars feed mainly on the leaves of maple trees.

This Rosy Maple Moth landed on the page of a butterfly and moth book that was open to the page that describes it!
There are many kinds of sphinx moths.  This is a Hog Sphinx Moth.  It is also called the Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth because one of the foods that their caterpillars eat is the leaves of the Virginia Creeper vine.  The adults (moths) feed on the nectar of many different kinds of flowering plants.  They hover like a hummingbird and slip their proboscis into the flower and sip the sweet liquid.

This is a Grape Leaffolder Moth. The caterpillars eat the leaves of grapevines.  When the caterpillar is ready to make its cocoon, it makes three cuts in the leaf it is sitting on.  Then it folds the leaf around itself to make a sort of envelope and closes this pouch with silk.

This is a Tuliptree Beauty Moth.  Its caterpillar is one of the larger "inch worms".  The caterpillar feeds on the leaves of Pawpaws, Sassafras, Poplars, and Tuliptrees.  The moths in the "inch worm" family are also called geometers ("measures the earth") because of the way the caterpillar moves along a leaf.  If the caterpillar is frightened, often it will hold its body stretched out so that it appears to be a small twig.

Click here to see how an "inchworm" moves.

This is a Black-Bordered Lemon Moth.  Its caterpillars eat the leaves of Morning-Glories and certain grasses.  This is another moth I got to see at the Moth Event at Prairie Ridge EcoStation.  To attract the moths, the museum staff hung up lots of white bed-sheets on fences and on the sides of the building.  Then they setup several very bright lights.  The moths would fly in to check out the lights and when tired, would land on the sheets where we could look at them and take pictures.
This little tiny moth is a Southern Emerald Moth.  Its caterpillar is also a geometer, but a much smaller one.  It feeds on the leaves of blackberries and Black-eyed Susan as well as many other plants.
This unusual moth is called the Beautiful Wood Nymph.  Its "nickname" is the "Bird Poop Moth" because it disguises itself on a leaf or a twig as a "splash" of bird poop.

Happy Birthday, Henna!  

Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day weekend 2013 - Spiders and Snakes!

I found some neat things in the yard this weekend.  I hope Ethan and Caleb will like looking at these critters.

This is a mother Wolf Spider carrying her egg sac.  It is attached to the end of her abdomen.  Wolf Spiders have four pairs of eyes.  Can you see some of her eyes on the black stripes of her head?  Wolf Spiders are hunters and do not build a web to catch their prey.  They can see well at night as they look for insects in the grass.
This is an Orb Weaver Spider in her web that she builds each night and takes down during the day.  This spider is known as a Cross Spider and sometimes as a Barn Spider.  They often have two white spots at the rear of their abdomen. Can you see them?  In late summer the females get large from a season of feeding on insects of all sizes.  Recently I saw a Cross Spider with a dragonfly in its web that was at least twice the size of the spider.  She finished eating it in less than a day. 

This is a Green Lynx Spider that a coworker found behind the lab a few weeks ago.  It is missing a couple legs.  It is a male spider which we can tell by the two short pedipalps that have "club" shaped ends.  Look at the area at the top of its head.  Maybe you can see a row of four small eyes with two larger eyes beneath those and two more smaller eyes below and between the larger pair of eyes.  These guys are not venomous to humans.  They are ambush hunters and wait in the bushes to catch passing insects.  They use the spikes on their legs to help hold their prey.  At one time they were used in cotton fields to eat insects that damaged the cotton plants.

This is the spider that used to scare me.  Now I respect it and watch it carefully.  They are venomous and can hurt us if they bite us.  But they are fairly slow when they walk and I just try to pay attention.  Your great grandmother (Mana) collected two of these spiders for me to take to the museum in Raleigh for other people to see.  I have seen her move them carefully to the field away from her house.  Most people just kill them.  I like it that I am not so afraid of them now.

This is the under side of the mother Black Widow.  The red hour-glass shaped spot is a definite identifying mark of this spider.  The "globe" shape of its abdomen is also a characteristic of black widows.

This is a young Eastern Worm Snake.  They usually have a medium gray back with a light pink belly.  They eat earthworms and slugs.  They will try to "burrow" between your fingers when you hold them.  Sometimes they will drag the pointy end of their tail across your hand.  They usually grow to about 11 inches or so.  They are fun to look at and to hold.  They are very squirmy so it will tickle you a little.  They do not harm people.

This is an adult Rough Earth Snake.  They live in the same places that Worm Snakes live, under rotten logs and wet leaves.  This snake is similar in color to the Worm Snake but has a creamy colored belly.  It also has keeled scales.

If you look closely, you can see the little ridge on each scale.  There is another Earth Snake that lives in North Carolina.  It is called the Smooth Earth Snake.  Each of its scales is smooth and does not have a ridge (keel).  The eye of this individual is cloudy looking.  It will probably be shedding its skin soon because it has out grown this one.

I found this Southern Copperhead snake behind our house earlier this summer.  They are venomous so you don't want to handle them.  They have an attractive color pattern that helps them hide in old leaves.  Their eye pupils are not round like non-venomous snakes, but vertical pupils.  Notice that the snake has darker bands across its body and that the band is narrow along its spine and gets wider as it goes down the sides.  We saw two last year, but many years we don't see one at all.  Often they will vibrate their tail in the leaves to warn that they are nearby.  They would rather bite something they are going to eat (like a mouse) than waste their venom on something big like us.