Lots of rain = snails, frogs, snakes, and turtles.

Do hermaphrodites have more fun? Here’s a pair of rosy wolf snails swapping slime and various parts. The show lasted for about an hour. No one was eaten, despite this species’ alternate common name, ‘cannibal snail.’
Squirrel tree frog on stand-up paddleboard. This is a popular hangout spot for frogs.

It’s been a boom season so far for yard creatures. Or maybe we’re just around more to notice. Whatever the case, the May and June showers have brought a whole lot of damp to every surface, including one’s skin. (also known as ‘air you can wear.’) The resulting lush vegetation has become a thrilling and perilous buffet, where you need to watch your back in case you might be the next meal. Suburban yard accoutrements (deck chairs, hoses, umbrellas, drying-out coolers, garden pots, firepits. etc.) are just more moisture-collecting surface area and refuge for anything that climbs.

Chinquapin, Castanea pumila, offers a fantastic hunting blind for this yellow rat snake. We see this one regularly, staring patiently at the bird feeder a few feet away…
Close encounters. This small rat snake struck (unsuccessfully) right after this photo was taken, and fell off the wall. How embarrassing.

In particular, though, we’ve noticed a rainbow of rat snakes. Corn snake on the deck, yellows along the fence-line in the shrubs and climbing the big pine. juvenile on the wall (check out the hunting photo – that frog did not move until the strike!)  These are all members of the genus Elaphe (or Pantherophis, depending on your source, for example… 1,2,3, 4), and the species-level detail seems to be even more of a debate.

Harold crosses the patio. His (her?) pattern is pretty distinctive, as is his face. We’re guessing ‘he’, given the brighter eyes and flatter carapace, but we didn’t pick him up to look for the male’s concave plastron and longer tail.
Hatchling, next to Hydrocotyle sp. for scale – about 1.5 inches across! This little fella/gal was about to cross a road…

The eastern box turtle community has been more visible as well – babies everywhere, and plenty of adults on the move. We moved this little one from the roadside to an adjacent wet ditch. The carapace patterns are especially striking and recognizable after a shower.

 

Welcome to summer!

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Goodbye sweet Lu.

waiting for deck lunch.

What a good girl you’ve been.

Best neck ruff hugs, goat tooth smile, long curl tail wags.  Big brown eyes. Soft  crinkle ears, one high, one low. Tender baby belly, later with long white hair. Rabbit-ey deer-hoof paws.

toes.
smelly breath, smelly bed.

Crazy toes excitement, welcome home. Grab a shoe, or another shoe. Or blue bunny. Where’s BLUE BUNNY?

you can never have too many bunnies.

Take and GO! Are we going for a walk? When are we going? Now? How about now? Is it time for dinner? Now is time.

Is that a dog/squirrel/bear/bird/cat/lion/other on tv?

let’s GO, guys!

It’s raining. May I go out, please? Now may I come back in for the toweling? Ok, back out now. And back in for the towel. More towel.

Back in the day, I loved to swim. And leap. Plus SNOW!!! Spin, twirl, run, and dig.

i might like that.

What are you making? eating? Is it for me? Can I have some? You’re gonna drop some, right? No blinking, it will come.

happy face recent walk.

Long walks way out ahead. Then right beside you when I couldn’t see or hear. Nose to your knees. UNO. DOS. TRES. COOOKIES! Big driveway hop.

sweet dreams, old girl.

And later, pick me up please. Carry me in, carry me out. Time for bed, please. Bed hog. Snoring. Farting. Dreaming.

Goodbye good girl Lu. We miss you.

12:45 p.m., May 21, 2018

 

 

feature from the black lagoon

Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum knees – edge of Wakulla Springs, FL. The movie ‘Tarzan’s Secret Treasure’ was filmed here! Wakulla State Forest contains floodplain,  basin, and dome swamps.

“Draining the swamp” has become the latest go-to metaphor for describing the removal of public servants who abuse their power and position in government roles.  You hear it used more in the conservative media, who seem to favor simple, visually-evocative messaging (see:”Lock her up!”) but people across the political spectrum have been guilty of falling back on this messy expression as well.

Winter in a South Carolina swamp.

The phrase stinks, but not like the fragrant eau de decomposition you can smell on a warm day in the swamp. If you love wetlands, you probably get as riled as I do when hearing or reading it. Of course we all understand the sentiment. It IS disgusting and creepy to consider breaches of public trust that come from greedy public servants (fun oxymoron), accumulating via favoritism, using their protected status to scheme for the benefit of themselves and their supporters. Ugh.

Basking gator, could care less about spectators with cameras.
Banded water snake not dangling from tree limb. 

‘Disgusting’ and ‘creepy’, among many other negative adjectives, are also used frequently to describe places people fear – like swamps. To the reductionist (or conservative) ear, ‘swamp’ conjures images of murky water full of aggressive alligators, trees festooned with venomous snakes and thorny vines, air thick with biting insects – in other words, a hard-to-escape place filled with malevolent beings that attract other malevolent beings.  If you just drain that murky water, that habitat for those creepy beings will dry up, poof, go away. And then you can ‘develop’ the new land for a profit. (see: Florida.)

Bald cypress buttress. An adaptation to ‘spongy’ ground.
Ouch. Smilax smallii, Jackson or Bamboo vine. One of several greenbriar species found on swamp edges. This species only has spines on the lower part of new shoots.

The etymology of ‘swamp’ is thought to come from “swombho-“, a PIE (‘proto-Indo-European’) term meaning roughly ‘spongy; mushroom,’ adopted over time, particularly in the US,  to describe wet, spongy ground with ‘impenetrable’ vegetation. (1) “Spongy” doesn’t sound so bad, but “impenetrable” surely does – suggesting that you could become entangled by plants and slowly drown and/or get eaten. Nowadays, ‘swamp’ is generally defined as “an area of low-lying, uncultivated ground where water collects; a bog or marsh” (Oxford English Living Dictionary) and more officially as “any wetland dominated by woody plants.” (US EPA Wetland Classification. Don’t worry, there are lots of subcategories of ‘swamp,’ too.)

Now that’s creepy. Poster from IMDB.

Over the years, swamps have had plenty of starring roles in movies and tv shows. As set pieces go, you can’t get much more evocative than this film poster for ‘Curse of the Swamp Creature.‘ For more recent depictions, you can binge shows like Swamp People, (thanks, History Channel!), and Swamp Loggers, (thanks, Discovery Channel!) which was filmed not far from here.*

Utricularia inflata, Swollen bladderwort. Zoom in  – the bubbly-looking bits below the surface are the traps.
Not a spotted salamander. This is a Southern cricket frog.

Clearly I have a problem with this phrase – for two reasons. One: ‘Swamp’ has been appropriated as a BAD WORD. But swamps are actually lovely, important places, with a diverse and abundant population that did not arise via corruption. From a purely human practical perspective, swamps provide flood and water quality protection. They are full of trees and (or!) shrubs that make appealing and necessary stop-overs for numerous migratory birds. And variable with location, they’re also habitat for a variety of species that have fascinating adaptations to water-logged living, from carnivorous bladderworts with insect-trapping floats, to spotted salamanders, which have an unusual symbiotic relationship with green algae. If you know where to look, swamps can show you some stunning orchids. Swamps are GOOD places. Why would you want to drain them?

No place like home. Think this is an Eastern mud turtle. Denizen of spongy land and shallow water. You can’t tell in this photo, but water was about 2′ away…

Two. Destroying something good is….uh,…NOT GOOD. D’oh. Historically, swamps were drained to gain fertile land for agriculture and settlement, and also to attempt to reduce mosquito populations in well-intentioned efforts to reduce disease. Then there’s the lore that “Washington D.C. was built on a swamp” – likely the literal (littoral) origins of our phrase.  (There’s some geographic and semantic dispute about that – see here, and here.) More recently, some are starting to recognize that all of this muck-moving can have dreadful consequences. (see again: Florida.) Flooding, loss of storm buffers, decreases in water quality, collapse of bird and insect populations, etc.. Draining a swamp destroys webs of life that can never be replaced.  It is definitely NOT the same thing as clearing the corridors of power of …okay, I almost said ‘leeches.’ Whoops. Let’s go with ‘dens of thieves,’ or maybe ‘power-hungry career politicians who clearly never go outside.’

No draining, please. Great egret, hunting in a swamp near Lake Waccamaw.

In my humble opinion, it’s time to retire ‘drain the swamp,’ particularly as it is applied to purging a corrupt government. There are other ways to express our disgust in words.  In this day and age, it has become way too easy to drain actual swamps.

 

 

april shower flower power

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, sampling Coral Honeysuckle on a rainy day.
It must be hard to hover with wet wings.

Coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens is finishing its first round of bloom, and the Painted Buntings and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have arrived. One recent rainy afternoon, we watched this individual alternately sample the flowers, then retreat to the Wax myrtle, Morella cerifera, to fluff and dry off.

Although we’ve been hearing them for a couple of weeks now, today the Painted buntings appeared at the back yard feeder, within 10 minutes of putting out some millet. The feeder has been empty for at least a month. Hmmm.

thank you very much . Painted buntings.

 

in like a lion, or a towhee.

Late February and early March have been notable so far for obnoxious winds. If you don’t live in SE NC, imagine soupy clouds of pine pollen and being pelted unpredictably by sweetgum balls.

towhee 8 halyburton feb252018 ldb
male Eastern Towhee. Tail-spreading is also a threat display.

On a recent wander through a local park, this Eastern Towhee was singing at the top of his lungs before getting blasted from behind by a sudden shocking breeze. Several guides note that this species is more often spotted closer to the ground, but we’ve seen what we think is this same bird over the last couple of years in the same spot, high up on the same tree, in the same park, singing the same song…a living trail marker. He’s the only one we see, but others are audible.

ducks 5 halyburton feb252018 ldb
mallard pair.

A little farther into the park, notable for its remaining longleaf pine/wiregrass/turkey oak community and interesting topography, this mallard pair was enjoying a high water day in one of the lime sinks. (which is often totally dry…) It’s a pretty neat spot – a little higher along the rim of the sandy depression, there are several Litsea aestivalis, Pondspice – a rare plant in NC, and federally listed as a species of special concern. Happy almost-spring…

IMG_8969 litsea backlit
Litsea aestivalis, aka Pondspice. This photo was taken a couple of years ago in early March – check out the zig-zag twigs and buds ready to open. This species sports tiny pale yellow flowers prior to leafing.

 

 

 

FLY EAGLES FLY!

And what are you doing here? These two were sharing (?) a branch, about 5 feet apart, waiting out a hard rain on Super Bowl Sunday.
Bald eagle has more interesting things to think about.
A couple of weeks ago. This is one of a pair who spent a long while checking out the neighborhood.

Bald eagles might’ve discovered the neighborhood, to the consternation of crows who are accustomed to harassing the local hawks. Bald eagles are not uncommon in SE NC, especially along the coast, but seeing them a bit further inland apparently scoping the suburbs has to be a sign of something. Friends living closer to tidal creeks and spoil islands have been seeing more of them as well, so maybe there is some kind of population boom, and/or there is less available territory. Our neighborhood, about one square mile in area, still has some very large old pines and green open space, areas that are typically used by red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, and osprey, during warmer months. It’ll be interesting to see if they decide to hang around. Check out this work by NC State scientists studying bald eagle movements.

…and I’m outta here.

…here’s a place to insert a clever comment about the 2018 Super Bowl winners. Or you can check out some Superb Owls, if you’d rather.

lives they lived

Thanks, Google! A last aerial photo of the uncleared site, for posterity.
Bye-bye Shaggy blazing star, Liatris pilosa. Fantastic pollinator magnet. Haven’t seen this anywhere else.

In the spirit of The New York Times tributes to those lost during the previous year, here’s a plant life contribution from SE NC. Goodbye, little patch o’ longleaf.

Longleaf community reincarnated into fast food joint, complete with ORANGE rock mulch and pampas grass  (anticipated view, this one is up the road a bit.)

But hello Chick-fil-A! Yeah, some of us crave salty chicken bombs once in a while, but not enough to require 3 identical restaurants within a few-mile radius.

Here’s an incomplete (and imperfect) list of who was inhabiting this tiny parcel  (top right) just a few short months ago…

bye-bye October flower, Polygonella polygama. Pollinated by bees, including Perdita polygonella – which ONLY nectars on this genus.
goodbye, Southern beeblossom, Gaura angustifolia. Local kin to the oft-planted ‘Whilring Butterflies.’

Acer rubrum, andropogon glomeratus, andropogon ternarius, aristida beyrichiana, arundinaria tecta, chrysopsis gossypina, dicanthelium sp., diospyros virginiana, eupatorium spp.,gaura angustifolia, gelsemium sempervirens, gentiana autumnalis, heterotheca subaxillaris, ilex glabra, ilex vomitoria, ilex opaca, liatris pilosa, lyonia lucida, morella cerifera, panicum spp., pinus palustris, pinus taeda, pityopsis graminifolia, quercus laevis, quercus nigraquercus virginiana, smilax spp.trilisa odoratissima, vaccinium crasssifolium…

Not pampas grass. Think this is Splitbeard bluestem, Andropogon ternarius. All gone now.
See ya, spent blooms of Vanilla Leaf / Deer-tongue, Trilisa odoratissima. Leaves were used to flavor tobacco…

And probably a lot more, since I only took one opportunity on a November afternoon to wander and observe. Wish I had taken a few more, since this place was one of very few islands of residual ‘nature’ remaining in the north New Hanover county asphalt-n-subdivision sea. As of last month, it’s been cleared and graded, as predicted. Sigh.

You can’t (re)make this kind of plant community from scratch. And ‘tree protection’ ordinances don’t protect the less charismatic (clearly not IMHO) understory.

A closer view.

The banner and left photos are (WERE) pine barren gentian, Gentiana autumnalis, a member of fire-dependent longleaf and pond pine communities. Not sold at the garden center of the adjacent Lowe’s Home Imrpovement.

Happy 2018, everyone!!!!

MAGA right?!!!

hermit thrush, why are you shy?

hermit thrush, lurking in yaupon / ilex vomitoria. a winter visitor to SE NC.  not much song for us, just some secretive shame …

you have such a lovely song.

native american legends say  when birds flew into the heavens to collect their songs, those who flew highest would find the best songs. you thought you wouldn’t be able to fly high enough, so you hitched a ride hidden in an eagle’s ruff, unbeknownst to the eagle, who began to tire and fall just before reaching the highest and best song. you slept on the eagle’s ascent, and tumbled out just in time to fetch the most beautiful song. you were so happy and proud! but when you returned to resentment of birds on the ground, you were soon ashamed of your deceitful ways.

sunrise 7:13 a.m., sunset 5:05 p.m.

so now you sing an enchanting song, but you creep and hide…

HAPPY SOLSTICE AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

a SW Florida retention pond walkabout…

Here’s one of the nicer pond edges, abutting a subdivision conservation area. It was full of birds, which were almost loud enough to compete with various weekend machines.
Here’s the other side of the same pond.

Ever wonder what lives and grows along the margins of those orthogonal ponds?  I do.  (yup, easily amused…)The Thanksgiving challenge this year was to identify some of the stuff on the slim portions of unmown retention pond banks in a very wet planned community in SW Florida.

The fuzzy-looking plant looks like the fertile fronds of Ceratopteris thalictroides, also known as water sprite. This exotic fern, an escape from the home aquarium trade, is one of 2 species of Ceratopteris found in Florida. The other species, Ceratopteris pteridoides, is apparently more of a floater and considered native. (1)
Typical emergent vegetation in most of the neighborhood ponds includes Sagittaria lancifolia, Eleocharis  sp., Pontederia cordata, Scirpus spp.,and Hydrocotolye sp..

The ponds in these photos are a few years old, and have had time to accumulate a variety of both native and exotic invasive species in the areas where management practices allow for plants to duke it out on their own. Most of the diked high banks are mown down to seasonal high water, with a few exceptions in hard-to-access areas. Along the water itself, a few pockets of vegetation have proliferated, which are pretty popular with a variety of bird species.

Palm warbler stalking insects in  dried-out foliage of Ludwigia leptocarpa along  pond edge. This individual has a yellowish rump, like a Yellow-rumped warbler (another common winter resident), but it also sports the yellow undertail area characteristic of palm warblers. (not visible in photo.)
Adult common gallinule, peeking through a clump of Scirpus sp. / Bulrush.

In this neighborhood in late November, palm warblers seem to be the most visible songbirds of the moment, especially when they are plucking insects off of the ubiquitous pool cages! These winter visitors  spend the breeding season ‘in bogs and fens in the northern United States and Canada.’  Common gallinules (previously known as the common moorhen) were also hard to miss, both visually and aurally.  Small groups of adults and juveniles could be seen tip-toeing along the spatterdock at nearly all times of day. These marsh birds are also winter visitors, although their breeding grounds are more southerly than the palm warblers.

Caesar’s weed, Urena lobata. This species is on Florida’s Noxious Weed List,
Goldenrod, Solidago sp. – not sure which species…

It wouldn’t be southern Florida without a bunch of brightly-blooming plants in late November. Nearly all of the upper edges of the dikes contained the exotic Caesar’s weed, Urena lobata,  which bears a superficial resemblance to the spring-flowering native saltmarsh mallow, Kosteletzskya pentacarpos, we see  in FL as well as SE NC.  More expected fall bloomers included various species of native goldenrod, Solidago sp. and asters, Aster/Symphyotrichum spp..

Whate peacock butterfly nectaring on ubiquitous largeflower pusley. Multiply this view by 20 for a more accurate representation of what I was seeing…
Cupid’s shaving brush, Emilia fosbergii. Also called Florida tasselflower. Non-native annual in the Aster family, considered a lawn weed.

 

White peacock butterflies took advantage of the carpet of exotic largeflower pusley, Richardia grandiflora,  blooming on dike bank tops.  This annual, also called Mexican clover, was everywhere, with clusters of delicate white blooms attracting equally delicate clusters of white peacocks. Quite a show. Slightly lower and wetter areas contained the fantastically-named exotic, Cupid’s shaving brush, Emilia fosbergii. 

Common / spreading dayflower, Commelina diffusa.
Fall color in an Angle-stem flowering primrose, Ludwigia leptocarpa, I think…this plant had flowers with both 5 and 6 petals.

Common spreading dayflower, Commelina diffusa, a fleshy-leaved exotic scrambler, was mixed in to nearly all of the pond and shrub margins. Angle-stem primrose willow, Ludwigia leptocarpa, was both blooming and drying out along the pond edges. Its stiff woody stems were popular hiding places for the palm warblers. The Ludwigias are well-represented in SW Florida with both exotic and native species, but this particular native was a bit easier to identify since it has very long floral tubes and  a number of the flowers have 6 petals.

Southern river sage, Salvia nisella, or S. riparia.
Bitter melon, Momordica charantia. – unripe spiky fruit visible near top center, orange ripe split fruit barely visible lower right.

In slightly shadier margins, you could find clumps of the native southern river sage, Salvia misella (syn. S. riparia),  and scrambling bits of bitter melon, Momordica charantica, (also called balsam apple, or pear) a member of the cucumber family that has escaped cultivation. This plant has a long history in herbal medicine – in fact, one of its many other names is leprosy gourd. The fruit in the photo will eventually turn bright orange and split open, revealing bright red seeds.

Splitting seed pods  and climbing foliage of rosary pea, Abrus precatorius. (seed pods are nestled in Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides)
Brazilian pepper tree, Schinus terebinthifolia – hard to miss the roadside monoculture!.

Rosary pea, or crab’s eye, Abrus precatorius, is another climbing import sporting red seeds and serious toxicity.  The entire plant is poisonous, particularly the pretty seeds that were historically used for weighing, and are still used for jewelry. This species is on the Florida Noxious Weed List. A walk around suburban SW FL wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Brazilian pepper, Schinus terebinthifolia. another red-berried invasive exotic that belongs to Anacardiaceae, taxonomic home of poison ivy, oak, and sumac. This tree is aggressive colonizer of disturbed areas (most of Florida, these days!) and forms a thick canopy that shades out other species.

West Indian meadowbeauty, Rhexia cubensis – I think. The stems have glandular hairs, which distinguish it from the equally pink-flowered smooth meadowbeauty, Rhexia alifanus. (2)
Think this is wild coffee, Psychotria nervosa, one of 2 species of Psychotria found in central Florida. Despite the name and kinship to actual coffee (Coffea spp., also Rubiaceae family)  this plant does not contain caffeine, although many birds favor the berries.

Some of the pond areas have what appear to be conservation buffers that contain some species that might’ve been original to the area. One particularly ‘weedy-looking’ area contained West Indian meadowbeauty, Rhexia cubensis, and Wild coffee, Psychotria nervosa, a native woody shrub species that superficially resembles coral ardisia when squinting. (Coral ardisia has crenate leaf margins, among other distinctions.)

Fragrant water lily, Nymphaea odorata.
Heart-shaped leaves, yellow flowers of spatterdock, Nuphar advena. An exposed rhizome makes a good platform for the giant feet of a juvenile common gallinule

A couple of native aquatic species were still blooming – fragrant water lily, Nymphaea odorata, as well as larger masses of spatterdock, or cow lily, Nuphar advena. 

This looks like an empty Paper pondshell mussel. There were a number of these scattered along the pond edges, some that had been opened by impaling.
Damsels not in distress. Or maybe they are, who knows. Males on top, clasping females behind heads. Females reach up to males’  2nd segment, where sperm has been transferred to a storage vesicle from the 9th segment. (3)

Some of the pond banks revealed remnants of shellfish meals – not sure who was eating these paper pondshell mussels (i think), and if they were harvested from the adjacent ponds, or just eaten here.  Other activity was more evident – damselflies appeared to be reproducing in some kind of synchronicity. If you stared at the pond edge vegetation long enough, dozens of these mating damsels (possibly Ischnura / Forktail sp.) were visible.

 

Pretty in pink, and scarlet. Roseate skimmer male, top, and Scarlet skimmer, male bottom (FL’s only non-native dragonfly.(3)
Sandhill cranes, early morning. These birds are yuge.

Roseate skimmers were also in present, along with Scarlet skimmers, although neither were spotted in flagrante delicto. Most just seemed to be basking or hunting. Finally, a visit to SW FL wouldn’t be complete without a suburban Sandhill Crane sighting. Apparently, there is a year-round population of around 5000 smaller individuals (‘Florida’ Sandhill Cranes) which is augmented during the winter by larger flocks of migratory ‘Greater’ Sandhill Cranes arriving from the Great Plains. Not sure which group the birds in the photo belong to, but this neighborhood does have some resident breeding birds. Ok, enuf.

 

Sayonara, says the Little blue heron on the left. The Tri-colored heron on the right is unpeturbed.

Sources:

  1. Nelson, Gil. The Ferns of Florida a Reference and Field Guide. Pineapple Press, 2000.
  2. Hall, David W., et al. Wildflowers of Florida and the Southeast. DW Hall Consulting, 2011.
  3. Paulson, Dennis. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. Princeton University Press, 2011.

 

 

 

 

It wouldn’t be Halloween without…

coming to a landscrape near you! (image from a series of tubes.)
this one required a level.

…the sound of a chainsaw. Or maybe hedge-trimmer, mixed with chainsaw and leaf-blower.  Here in good ole’ SE NC, you can’t go outdoors in October without a  soundtrack of revving yard equipment. Squared-off hedges and precision edges are the goal. Never mind the cloud of exhaust  enlivened by aerosolized pollen and animal turds. Fun times!

Here’s a clip we recorded of neighborhood sounds this morning, from our patio…

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