Sunday, September 18, 2016

 Any day at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is a good day for me. Today was no different. I started the day at the research lab facility out at Prairie Ridge with Heather and Maridith trying to learn how to use ACME Mapper to confirm locations where individual salamanders were collected up to 30+ years ago.

Then the three of us and a couple others helped Ben, the collections manager for Mammalogy, load up bird and mammal specimens that are stored in jars or buckets of alcohol and packed in cardboard boxes into a box truck. The one I will remember most was a five gallon plastic bucket with tight fitting lid that holds the remains of a Bald Eagle.

I zoomed downtown to the museum proper to help unload the truck. I arrived a bit early so walked to the biodiversity lab where I spend most of my volunteer hours. Two women were admiring the several whale skeletons suspended in the Nature Exploration Center and one asked me if they were real, then where they were dug up (they were not dug up and some of them washed up on the beaches of NC), and how the bones were so clean (I took them to the Nature Research Center side to show them the colony of dermestid beetles that have been cleaning the flesh off of the skeletons of three river otter carcasses). When I asked where they were from, I learned they were flight attendants from Seattle and Portland with just the afternoon to spend.

Then I went to ask Lydia where we should meet the truck. She was busy working over a stainless steel sink, and let me help her finish scrubbing and rinsing a tub full of bones from a beaked whale!

The truck arrived shortly after we finished scrubbing, so down to the loading dock we went. On the way we found a Southern House Spider in the back stairwell! We unloaded the boxes onto several carts and a pallet jack, rolled them into a huge freight elevator, and took them to the "secret" place where bird and mammal specimens are prepared. They'll be arranged on special shelving over the next few weeks.

So back up to the biodiversity lab I went. I talked with my boss, Mariah, about plans for taking photos of the contents of eggs she has curated. And I moved house sparrow egg photos that I had taken earlier into the new database where all the data from the several hundred eggs we've received this summer is being accumulated and stored.

From my spot at the computer I could see a family guiding an elderly relative in a wheelchair into the Naturalist Center across the way, a place that is filled with the most delightful specimens of all descriptions that are meant to be handled and studied and enjoyed, a place imagined and brought to fruition by John Connors. I thought about how diverse the people are who visit this museum. They are of all ages; all genders and sexes; all races; all nationalities; all religions; folks with all sorts of limiting physical and mental abilities along with their kind caregivers; quiet children and children bounding off the furniture and very curious children; traditional families and families with children of multiple races; grandparents with grandchildren; students from public schools and students who are home-schooled; older teens shepherding summer camp kids all wearing the same neon colored shirts; old military veterans who had limited opportunities for education, but are wiser than most of us and know tons about nature and are still learning; a young couple kissing at the Greg Fishel/WRAL weather station hands-on exhibit; a scientist from CDC who was amazed at the depth of this place; and even flight attendants with a few hours to spend before getting back on the plane for the West Coast. It occurs to me that I am observing an amazing diversity of humans who are drawn to the creatures of nature, and that diversity parallels the biodiversity that staff in this lab, that I am so fortunate to volunteer in, seeks to study everyday.

My afternoon ends with talking to the curator of birds about egg porosity and who I could talk with about how we can measure this characteristic in our house sparrow eggs. I help him set up chairs on the fourth floor where the Wake Audubon meeting was held tonight. He tells me about a recent heart valve replacement he's had and that his recovery took three days instead of the three weeks it took the last time he had the surgery. He says he's setting up chairs to build up his strength....because he's headed to Ecuador in two weeks to study birds! It's what he does!

Ah, science and nature!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Everett Creek Preserve

Yesterday we took a trip down to Onslow County, NC to a fledgling 250 acre preserve at Everett Creek. It is one of the emerging jewels of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust's efforts to conserve ecologically important habitats along the coastal plains of our beautiful state.

We are connect to this piece of Earth through a donation that my siblings and I made in 2011 of the memorable patch of woods from our youth, our grandfather's 15 acres of mixed hard woods and Loblolly pines in Lenoir County. The wooded property had become isolated by surrounding agricultural lands. Local agencies told us the property was not large enough for a park or nature preserve. So we were grateful that the NC Coastal Land Trust agreed to receive the donation as "trade-lands". The proceeds from the sale have been used to help support the Trust's programs including the Everett Creek Preserve. Our family was offered the opportunity to have a trail developed and named in memory of our grandfather. My wife and I walked a one mile section of that trail yesterday.

Over the past several years, NCCLT staff has worked to restore some of these acres to Longleaf Pine forest as well as returning native grasses to another significant portion of the preserve. This has required the use of periodic "controlled burns" to remove undergrowth and some of the under-story which can inhibit the development of a healthy stand of Longleaf Pine woods. Eventually these efforts will provide for the return of certain bird species that depend on these special pines and meadow habitats of native grasses. Native bees will be supported by the pollinator gardens that are being developed. I believe our bee-keeping grandfather would be happy with the decision we made five years ago.

A partial list of species observed at Everett Creek on 9-10-2016:

Spiny-backed Orbweaver Spider (Gasteracantha cancriformis);
Jumping Spider species (Phidippus clarus);
Orchard Orbweaver Spider (Leucauge venusta);
the work of a leaf-miner on a wild grape leaf - perhaps the tiny caterpillar of Phyllocnistis vitifoliella;
Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia);
Virginia Meadow Beauty (Rhexia virginica);
perhaps an Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus spp?);
Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia);
a dainty hoverfly (Ocyptamus fuscipennis);
American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana);
Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor);
Gulf Fritillary Butterfly (Agraulis vanillae)

This is the trail-head marker for the trail named in memory of our grandfather. Yesterday the NC Coastal Land Trust held a two hour event for about 40 folks to walk some of the trails that are being developed. The preserve is not yet open to the general public, but efforts are underway to see that happen within the next few years.

Part of the Wiggins Woodland Warbler Walk follows the route of an old "jeep" path. It's been recently mowed and there were many wild flowers along the margins.

This is quite a foggy photo of a Spiny-backed Orbweaver Spider (Gasteracantha cancriformis). Spiny is an apt description.

This lovely fellow slipped from one side of this blade of foliage to the other as I tried to photograph him. This is a Jumping Spider species, most probably, Phidippus clarus.

The is a terrible photo, but it gives a look at the pattern on the jumping spider's abdomen.

There were a few Orchard Orb Weaver spiders along the walk. This one held still for me.

This wild grape vine leaf shows evidence of the work of a leaf-miner, perhaps the tiny caterpillar of a moth named Phyllocnistis vitifoliella.

We found several Red Buckeye tree (Aesculus pavia) on our walk. I suppose they "pavia-ed" the way for us?

Here is a closeup of the fruit which houses multiple shiny mahogany-colored nuts.

This is the palmate leaf of the Red Buckeye.

I was excited to learn another new wildflower. This is the Virginia Meadow Beauty aka Deer Grass (Rhexia virginica) with its unusual sickle-shaped anthers. These were quite numerous all along the trail's border. 

A number of these legumes were in bloom near the path's perimeter. Perhaps this is an Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus spp?).

I learned two new species from this photo. The flower is called Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) for the very unusual seed pod that is shaped like, well, a box! If I had known this at the time, I would have searched for an example to photograph. I'll know next time what to look for.
This dainty hoverfly was just confirmed for me by BugGuide. It has no common name beyond Hoverfly, but its scientific name is Ocyptamus fuscipennis.

After hovering for several seconds, the Ocyptamus fuscipennis (hoverfly) proceeded to the Seedbox flower for a bit of nectar.

Also abundant along the broad walkway were many specimens of American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). I actually spotted berries just like these in our yard here in Raleigh when we returned home. 

The sun shown brightly on the dense clusters of purplish fruit of the American Beautyberry. 

At a few places along the trail there was evidence of small ephemeral streams that carry water toward Everett Creek during periods of heavy rain. 

Also sprinkled through the hardwood portions of the wooded land were Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor). Their upright fans seemed to wave at us as we strolled along the shaded corridor that makes up this section of the trail.

This patient butterfly allowed me to get a few photos to help me with identification when we got home. This handsome lepidopteran is a Gulf Fritillary Butterfly (Agraulis vanillae).

The Gulf Fritillary Butterfly begins to close its wings and reveal the strong pattern on its under-wing.

The central two-part white marking on the underside of the wing looks a bit crocodilian to me! Also impressive are the strongly ribbed wings of this Gulf Fritillary Butterfly.

In the fall of 2011 the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust honored our grandfather with a write-up in their quarterly publication.

Monday, August 22, 2016

What's a Wet Lab?

The last four months or so I've spent Wednesday afternoons quietly tucked away in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences' research lab (aka the "wet lab") near West Raleigh's Prairie Ridge EcoStation.  I've been a volunteer helping with cataloging and verifying digital data bound for the museum's ever growing database of myriad specimens.

Recently the work has centered on Red Salamanders (Psuedotriton ruber) from a huge collection of about 27,000 reptiles and amphibians specimens that were donated to the museum by Appalachian State University. Most of these specimens were collected by a university professor, his colleagues, and Herpetology classes from ASU and North Carolina State University during the years between 1960 and the early 2000s. After each specimen has been inspected to assure its species has been identified correctly, it is cross-checked in multiple ways. This includes gathering the information from the field tag that is tied to the salamander and from the hand-written specimen entry found in large rectangular books called catalogs. All of this data is entered into a spreadsheet for each individual species and re-verified at least twice before being ready to upload to the database. Additionally, a percentage of the specimens are identified for return to Appalachian State for their biology curriculum's teaching collection.

Below are four adult Red Salamanders of various sizes with their Appalachian State University specimen number tags attached.

A few more adult salamanders laid out on this old college cafeteria tray show some of the color variations within the Red Salamander species.

This is a "community jar" of Red Salamanders with specimens collected from various locations or on different dates.  When four or more specimens were collected on the same date and at the same location and with sequential accession numbers, this "series" is often placed in its own separate jar.  The larger tags that you see here are field tags that carry additional information about the individual specimen such as the date collected, the location found, and the collector's name.

This is a jar of larger Red Salamanders that are being sent back to Appalachian State University. Most of the adult specimens are stored in ethyl alcohol, while most larval specimens are stored in formalin.  These salamanders become a reference source for scientists who may be doing research perhaps ten, fifteen or even fifty years from today.

Some days as a museum staffer sorts through each jar of salamanders, I confirm for her the specimen accession number of salamanders that are to be kept by the museum, those that are to be returned to Appalachian State, and a smaller number that need to be viewed again by the collection manager.  The salamanders are then added to their new homes of fresh preservative fluid according to whether they are to be "Kept", "Sent", or "Rechecked".  There are over two thousand of these Red Salamanders that were collected over a 40+ year period to sort through.  Below is an example of printed spreadsheets that we use to sort the salamanders into their intended groups.

Then there are days when I stumble onto fascinatingly unique specimens that happen to be "passing" through the lab.  This is a species of treefrog from Cameroon that has an unusual scientific name.  For me, this is the definition of serendipitous. 

These treefrogs were on loan to one of the herpetologist scientists here at the wet lab.  This species of frog, the Kala Forest Treefrog (Leptopelis aubryoides), was named after a similar looking frog species, the Gaboon Forest Treefrog (Leptopelis aubryi) which was named earlier for the "French civil servant and colonial administrator", Charles Eugene Aubry-Lecomte.  In addition, he was an avid amateur naturalist and a collector of plant specimens in the locations where he was assigned to serve the French government.  He also collected specimens of many reptile and amphibian species that were at the time unknown to science.  Of course, much of this I found on the Google machine!

Another serendipitous experience was getting to see field tags handwritten by C. S. Brimley in 1923!  C. S. Brimley and his brother H. H. Brimley founded the North Carolina Science Museum beginning around 1879.  It is now the largest of its kind in the southeastern United States.  Amazing stuff goes on here!

Also discovered on this day was a field tag that C. S. Brimley had typed on bed sheet material a few years later.  I'm thinking his technique may have been a precursor to the "photo fabric for inkjet printers" products of today!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

One Method for Setting Up a Solid Bluebird Nesting Box

The Bluebird nesting boxes that I have been monitoring on two different trails over the past three years were beginning to show some age, so a couple weekends ago I decided to replace four old boxes with new ones, and take the old boxes home to repair and repaint for return to the field the next weekend.

I had excellent help from four youthful assistants and their parents. The happy youngsters all pitched in.  They carried the new nesting boxes, helped tighten screws and bolts, placed plastic nesting cups inside the boxes, inserted the galvanized nail that secures the door, and reminded me to soap the ceiling of each new nesting box to deter paper wasps from building nests inside.  And there were plenty of questions about why we install special nesting boxes for the beautiful Eastern Bluebirds, about the plants that were growing nearby, about a Killdeer we saw, and many other natural wonders. I was heartened by their bubbling enthusiasm.

This past weekend I switched out three more Bluebird nesting boxes, replacing them with ones that the kids helped me take down the weekend before.  I had cleaned them up, filled most of the cracks and dings in the wood, and repainted them hoping to extend the life of each box.  I painted only the exterior of each box and used light colored paints which will help keep temperatures inside the box a bit lower in the heat of summer.  The interior of the boxes should not be painted.


Most folks who put up Bluebird nesting boxes and monitor the status of any nests that are built in them (noting the number of eggs, hatchlings and successful fledglings), have their own favorite style of nesting box and method for mounting the nesting box.  I'd like to share a pictorial of the approach that I've used the last few years on a couple of short Bluebird trails.

The Bluebird nesting box that I use is referred to as the "credit union" box.  They are built by the Eastern Bluebird Rescue Group for the North Carolina State Employees' Credit Union.  The boxes are made out of 1" pine and sell for just $10 each and are available at many NCSECU branches across the state of North Carolina.  According to the article that is linked (here) over 100,000 of these boxes have been built over the past 14 years.

An important feature of any Bluebird nesting box is a guard of some sort around the 1 1/2" diameter entrance hole which is optimal for Bluebirds.  The "credit union" box is equipped with a sheet metal guard that prevents squirrels from chewing out the entrance hole to a larger diameter which would allow larger birds like Starlings to use the box.  An expanded entrance hole will allow squirrels and other predators to gain access to the box.

I have adopted using 1" EMT (aluminum electrical conduit) as a pole on which to mount the nesting box.Stores like Lowe's or Home Depot carry this product which comes in a 10 foot length.  Using a pipe cutting tool they have handy, I cut the conduit into a 7 1/2 foot piece with a 2 1/2 foot piece left over (the store staff can cut it for you,too).  This results in a length of conduit that is easy to transport home.  I use a sledge hammer (or other heavy hammer) to drive the shorter piece of conduit into the ground at the desired nesting box location, stopping every six inches or so, removing the conduit, and then continuing until I have a hole about 18" deep.  Once the shorter piece of conduit is removed, a sort of "socket" remains.  Placing the longer section of conduit into this socket leaves the pole about six feet tall.  This method provides a sturdy mount for the nesting box at a comfortable height for monitoring the status of any nests, eggs, and young birds.

To mount the nesting box, I first use a 5/16" bit to drill a hole through both sides of the conduit about 1 inch down from the top, drilling through the top of the back panel of the nesting box as well.  At the bottom of the back panel, I pre-drill two 1/8" holes and attach a two holed U-shaped conduit strap using 1" Phillips-head screws.

After sliding the U-shaped strap over the conduit and aligning the hole in the back panel with the holes in the top of the conduit, I insert a 2 1/2" long 1/4" machine screw or bolt.  I secure the box to the pole with a 1/4" nut and snug it down with a nut driver that I carry for that purpose.

This is a close-up of the two-holed 1" EMT U-shaped strap with the conduit inserted. This method allows for easy removal of the nesting box for repair or replacement. By removing the 2 1/2" machine screw at the top of the pole, the box can then be slipped up and off of the conduit.  Rehanging the box is easy as well. 

I have found that one good product to use as a removable nesting cup is a 4" (100mm) plastic plant or seedling container.  They can be washed in warm, soapy water for reuse after each nesting.

Lifting the front of the box allows easy access for inserting and removing of the plastic plant container.  Notice the grooves cut into the back side of the door.  These slots can provide nestlings that are ready to fledge a toe-hold to boost themselves to the entrance hole.  A long time Bluebird monitor told me recently that young birds that are ready to fly don't really need these grooves to exit the box.  But this is the theory behind why these slots are cut.

I like this option for a nesting cup because it fits so snugly in the box.  I find that this keeps the fecal sacs that the young birds produce after being fed from falling outside the rim of the nest cup where the adult birds cannot retrieve them. Can you imagine how much bird poo would accumulate in the box it the parent birds weren't hauling it away?

To secure the front panel of the nesting box, I use a 3/16" bit to drill out the hole shown here to the depth of about 3 inches.  A galvanized 16 penny nail is inserted to keep the front panel closed.  This 3 1/2" long nail means that about a half inch is left exposed so that it can be easily removed when opening the box for monitoring the nest.

Sorry for the blurry photo!  I learned last year that you can use a bar of Ivory soap to coat the underside of the roof (ceiling) to deter paper wasps from building their nests inside Bluebird nesting boxes.  The presence of wasps in a nesting box makes it difficult for Bluebirds to nest and raise their young.

This light green nesting box was used by a pair of little Brown-headed Nuthatches last summer.  They laid six eggs and fledged five young birds.  Later in the summer a pair of Eastern Bluebirds built a nest in this same box.  I found that nest had failed some time after the eggs were laid but before they hatched.  The nest was very wet. It appears that a storm blew rain through the entrance hole and soaked the contents.  I generally face my boxes to the East, Southeast or South so that the front of the box get some early morning sun, especially in the early spring.  In our location many of our storms come in from the West, so I usually avoid facing boxes in that direction.

The summer before, this box was home to a large paper wasp nest.  This was before I learned about Ivory soap!  In addition a mud dauber built its chambered nest on the side of the nesting cup.  Nature is always looking for a way and a place to reproduce!

This light blue Bluebird nesting box has been home to five Bluebird nests over the past two seasons.  One of those nests failed last spring, the eggs not hatching several days after the expected hatch date and the mother bird abandoning it.  After removing the old nest and eggs and placing a new nesting cup in the box, the pair built a new nest and raised a successful brood.

Ventilation is very important for nesting  boxes.Notice the two holes on the side of the box near the roof-line and the open slot just above the entrance hole.  These openings help evacuate the heat that can build up inside the box on hot summer days.

This trail of seven Bluebird nesting boxes is located in West Raleigh, NC.  I have eight more boxes erected around our home about four miles away.  Last year these 15 nesting boxes provided safe cavities for 18 nests to be built.  Those nests held a total of 90 eggs that were laid by several species of birds including Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, and Carolina Wrens.  Of those 90 eggs, 70 hatched and 69 of the hatchlings developed into young birds.  These little birds took flight after being successfully fed and nurtured by their parents.