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.