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What Time is it in Nature: Early Signs of Fall

October 10, 2014

It’s starting to look a lot more like fall at Prairie Ridge and signs of cooler weather are all around.  Today, let’s explore some of the many early signs of fall you might see during an upcoming visit to Prairie Ridge!

Changing leaf color is one of the most obvious signs of fall, and one that most people look for to tell them when fall has begun.  Several of our tree species have been experiencing leaf color changes and falling leaves.  The Red Maple produces bright red leaves:

Red maple leaf

These trees are one of the first to bloom in the spring and one of the first to start changing colors in the fall.  You can easily pick out the Red Maples in the forest by looking for the flaming red, tall trees along the margins as you walk the Forest Trail.  There is also one massive Red Maple that shades the picnic tables outside the Nature Play Space that produces a particularly lovely display.

The Winged Sumac is also starting to change:

Winged sumac turning red

I’ve written about Winged Sumac before, but it is similar to the Red Maple in being one of the first trees to change color in the fall and changing to a deep, vibrant red.  Look for the bright red compound leaves to the left of the wooden walkway to the Outdoor Classroom, but do it soon!  The Winged Sumac is also one of the first trees to lose all of its leaves in the fall, so the red leaves won’t last long.

Some trees start to produce their fruits in the fall.  The Flowering Dogwood develops bright red fruits in late summer and early fall:

Dogwood berries

These fruits provide an important food source for birds and mammals, one that helps them survive through the winter.  You can see a few Flowering Dogwoods along the Forest Trail as well as one with fruits just to the left of the wooden walkway to the Outdoor Classroom that you can see over the railing just before you go through the door.

While springtime is generally thought to be the primary flower season, many native plants bloom in the fall instead.  The Tickseed Sunflowers are just about finished for the year:

tickseed sunflower

You’ll find them along the road into Prairie Ridge and in the prairie.  Look out for Monarch Butterflies on the flowers!  They seem to be a popular flower for the butterflies as they make their way south for the winter.

There are plants blooming in the garden as well, including the Eastern Aromatic Aster:

Eastern aromatic aster

These bright purple flowers add a bold splash of bright color right before winter sets in, making it a popular garden plant in the southern US.  It is also attractive to a variety of butterflies and bees and is an important source of nectar for the insects that linger until winter sets in.

Fall is a time when many grasses flower or produce seeds.  Purple Muhly Grass is one of the most striking fall blooming grasses with its clouds of pinkish-purple flowers:

Purple muhly grass

Purple Muhly Grass looks like a pretty standard, nondescript grass for most of the season, but it really shines in the fall.  Look for it around the base of the wind turbine and in the garden beside the gate to the road as you drive into the Prairie Ridge parking lot.

The start of fall is a great time to look for mushrooms:

Stinkhorn mushroom

We have a variety of stinkhorn mushrooms at Prairie Ridge, including this big grey beauty.  You can often find them by following your nose!  They’re called stinkhorns because they produce a foul stench to attract flies and other carrion loving insects that help spread their spores to new locations.  You’ll often find stinkhorns growing in mulched areas and along the upper part of the Forest Trail between the office trailer and the Natural Playspace.

There are even some insects that are associated with fall!  Woolly Bears are very commonly spotted at this time of year:


Woolly Bear caterpillars start moving around as they look for places to overwinter in early fall, so you’ll see them crawling across the road into Prairie Ridge or along the Forest Trail.  Legend has is that the amount of brown banding on Woolly Bears will tell you how severe the winter will be.  Whether this is actually true or not… Only time will tell!

Another caterpillar makes a big appearance at this time of year, the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars:

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

These caterpillars feed on the Woolly Pipevine along the fence to the right of the entrance to the Nature Neighborhood Garden, so take a look!  If you flip up enough leaves, you’re bound to see caterpillars munching happily away.  If you *listen* very closely, you can even hear them chewing!  These caterpillars often pupate on the underside of the green roof above the entrance to the garden, so look up and you might see a pretty golden brown pupa attached to the ceiling as well.

Fall is a great time of transition at Prairie Ridge, one in which the plant life undergoes major changes, the summer only birds are swapped out for the winter only birds, and the insects begin to disappear from view.  The weather becomes cooler and the sky becomes a little bluer as the sun sinks lower on the horizon.  Pretty soon it will be getting dark shortly after we close in the evening, at which point I encourage you to take a moment to look out over the prairie about a half hour before sunset.  During that “golden hour,” the sun slants across the landscape and the grasses, trees, and flowers begin to glow:

The prairie during golden hour

Currently, the late afternoon light on the Goldenrod is quite spectacular, but even the dead grass will to look beautiful in the winter sun as the days get shorter.

What other signs of fall will you see on your next visit to Prairie Ridge?  Things will start changing fast, so come on out and explore before it gets cold!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

What Time is it in Nature: Stick Mantid

October 4, 2014

Fall is approaching, and with the cooler weather comes a really cool insect: the Stick Mantid (Brunneria borealis)!  They and other mantids become very abundant, and therefore more obvious, in the prairie at this time of year.

Stick Mantid, Brunneria borealis

The Stick Mantid, also known as Brunner’s Mantis or Northern Grass Mantid, is a member of the mantid order of insects and share the long, narrow body common of many of our North American mantid species, typically reaching lengths of 2.5-3.5 inches.  Unlike the other American mantids, however, the forelegs are long and thin and give the Stick Mantids the appearance of walkingsticks.  This characteristic is reflected in their common name.  Stick Mantids also have broad segments at the base of their antennae, fine serrations along their thorax, and very short wings.  Though many mantid species are quite capable of flight, this species is flightless.

All but one species within the genus Brunneria are found in South America in the tropics or subtropics.  Brunneria borealis is the only Brunneria species in the US and is found in many areas of the southeastern US from North Carolina west to Texas.  It also reaches into northern Mexico.  The species name, borealis, refers to the fact that this species has the northernmost range of the Brunneria: borealis is Latin for “northern.”

Like other mantids and in spite of their spindly looking forelegs, Stick Mantids are fierce predators, stalking other insects as food within their habitats.  They prefer meadows with tall grasses, especially those containing the grass Little Bluestem, where they blend in quite well.  Stick Mantids are often found lurking among grass stalks as they hunt.  They are thought to feed primarily on grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets, but surprisingly little is known about these charismatic and unusual insects, including their typical diet.

Stick Mantids have a very interesting form of reproduction: parthenogenesis.  Male Stick Mantids have never been found, so females lay unfertilized eggs that are clones of their parent and all offspring produced are girls.  The eggs are laid inside a foamy secretion that hardens into an ootheca (often called an egg case), like other mantids.  However, the Stick Mantid ootheca has a distinctly pointed end unique to this species.  The egg cases are laid in the fall, and the immatures will hatch out of the egg case through the pointed tip the following summer.  Mantid enthusiasts report that, at least in captivity, Stick Mantid immatures do not hatch all at once like most mantids and instead hatch just a few at a time over a period of 2-4 months.

Stick Mantids are quite abundant in the prairie at this time of year!  They’re hard to see due to their incredible camouflage, but you can find many of them on the grounds if you look hard enough.  Looking out for other large insects, the Stick Mantid prey, can help you find them more easily.  You never know when you’ll see a mantid reach out and grab a grasshopper.  The Stick Mantids are typically only active for about a month from mid-September through mid-October, so be sure to look our for them on your next visit to Prairie Ridge!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photo by Chris Goforth

Sauropods: Feats of Engineering

October 2, 2014

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

On October 11, 2014 the NC Museum of Natural Sciences will open its special exhibition doors for our new traveling exhibit, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs. The exhibition explores how scientists study fossils and living animals to understand sauropod biology, and what we can learn from these extinct animals about what it means to be big; like, really BIG. For those like me who are not a dinosaur expert by any means, I did some background research on what exactly a sauropod is.  When we hear the term dinosaur it might evoke mental images of voracious beasts like Tyrannosaurus rex or a Velociraptor. However, the sauropods, while viewed as gentle giants, and sometimes even regarded as stupid creatures, have a very complex story that is intriguing and impressive.

Described as ‘feats of engineering,’ the largest sauropod dinosaurs weighed close to 100 tonnes — almost ten times the record weight of a modern…

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Training the Trainers in Citizen Science

September 30, 2014

leavesThe annual meeting of the Environmental Educators of North Carolina is a great place for environmental educators to network, exchange ideas, learn from one another, and form new collaborations.  This year, three Museum staff from Prairie Ridge attended to present a pre-conference workshop on citizen science.  Our goal: to give attendees the confidence, skills, and tools necessary to implement citizen science at their schools or environmental education centers.  By sharing some of our lesson plans, our methods, and the lessons learned from developing and implementing citizen science programming at the Museum, we hoped to encourage environmental educators and teachers across North Carolina that citizen science is worth incorporating into their own lesson plans.  Ultimately, we want to train a corps of teachers to go out and get people involved in real scientific research through citizen science!

The morning started like many others, with copious amounts of coffee, but we quickly got down to business.  After group introductions and covering our workshop goals, we dove into citizen science.  We defined citizen science and did a quick introduction to the field to familiarize our participants with some of the many, many options available to them so that everyone was on the same page. 

But then we spent most of the day actually doing citizen science.  We took everyone outside and began collecting data, giving a demonstration of how they could use the citizen science projects we covered in their own lessons and programs.  We observed trees for Nature’s Notebook and noticed that fall was just starting to creep into the trees in central NC.  We looked for birds for the eBird project and learned that there weren’t many birds in the forest behind the conference center.  Before breaking for lunch, we showed everyone how to enter the data we collected into the project websites so everyone had observed trees and birds, collected data, entered our observations, and explored the data available on the project websites – all before lunch!

After lunch, we took everyone through a ladybug identification activity.  The Lost Ladybug project is a great one for kids, but a lot of people feel uncomfortable when they realize they’re supposed to try to identify the ladybugs they find.  The ladybug ID activity gives educators the confidence they need to bring this wonderful project to their classes and programs, and everyone was getting most of their identifications correct after just 30 minutes of practice.  Then it was back outdoors to look for ladybugs.  We also did a nature scavenger hunt for Natural North Carolina, the Museum’s biodiversity citizen science project.  We challenged everyone to find and photograph 10 different species, including a tree, a reptile, a toad, a ladybug, and a butterfly, in just 20 minutes.  It was a difficult list and only one group documented all 10 species, but everyone was able to see how they could use the project in their teaching and started coming up with ideas for how to incorporate it.

We uploaded the afternoon’s data to the project websites, then broke everyone into groups to discuss how they could incorporate the things they’d learned at the workshop into their teaching.  The groups came up with some stellar ideas for how to use citizen science and it gave us, as leaders, some ideas for how we can better promote and educate about citizen science in our own teaching.  We revisited our goals and had everyone do a quick evaluation before we gave away some swag to get them started in citizen science and sent everyone on their way for the evening.

This was the first full-day citizen science training workshop we’ve offered, and we felt it was a success.  Shortly after the workshop, we started to notice new Natural North Carolina members and new NC sightings for Nature’s Notebook from our group, a good sign that people will use what they learned.  Based on our experiences in the workshop and the feedback we got from participants and others, we realized that there’s a need for this sort of training program in North Carolina.  We’d already planned to offer a three-day Museum teacher trek April 17-19, 2015, but we’ll be offering another single day workshop at the end of March.  We’ve even started the process of seeking Criteria I certification for the NC Environmental Educators Certification Program and plan to start offering the workshop regularly.  If you have an interest in citizen science and teach either formally or informally, we hope you’ll join us at a future workshop!

What Time is it in Nature: Summer Storms on the Prairie

September 19, 2014

If you’ve lived in the Triangle Area for almost any length of time, you know that the weather can change rapidly without a lot of warning. A perfectly sunny day can devolve into a nightmarish storm in the blink of an eye. Prairie Ridge is subject to the same sorts of storms that you see anywhere else in the area and weather changes like rain, high winds, and cooler temperatures can impact the species living on and using the grounds. If a storm is big enough, it can even cause damage to trees or structures on the grounds. Let’s take a look at the sorts of things we see during and after storms, when few visitors are here to see them!

Before I do, however, let me say that in the event of severe weather or lightning, we encourage our visitors to seek shelter or leave the grounds immediately. There’s simply no reason to risk your safety by remaining on the grounds during storms! Pay attention to all weather alerts on your phone and please keep an eye on the sky while you’re here. Make immediate preparations to leave before storms, such as this, set in:

Storm over the prairie

Summer storms at Prairie Ridge vary from light sunshowers that drizzle a bit of water over everything while the sun is still out to intense storms where the blackened sky unleashes a fiery deluge of rain and lightning. Some animals might stay out during some of the lighter storms, such as the squirrel in this admittedly terrible photo:

Soggy squirrel

You’ll see soggy birds, soggy squirrels, soggy rabbits, and other wet animals emerging from whatever shelter they sought and return to their normal activities shortly after a storm passes by. If the rain lasts a while, you might even see an increase in animal activity immediately after storms as they make up for the time lost while they sheltered from the rain. If it’s safe to be outside, a trip to Prairie Ridge soon after a storm passes through can yield some interesting wildlife sightings!

In the more severe storms, the ground becomes quickly saturated and you’ll start to see the excess water runoff. The water runs downhill, over the slopes and into the low areas of the grounds, such as the stream and the pond. In the case of severe storms, the water can knock over plants and move mulch. In fact, immediately after many bad storms, you can often see evidence of little river systems that formed in the mulch as the water rushed downhill toward the stream:

rivulets in the mulch

If a storm is big enough to start pushing mulch around, it’s also big enough to make the stream flood, and you should not be there to see it! Our stream drains a huge amount of impervious surfaces in our area (parking lots, roads, and buildings primarily), and a lot of the water that runs off these surfaces ends up running through our grounds. The normally calm, clear, and shallow stream can turn into a roiling, muddy mess capable of carrying large rocks downstream and knocking whole trees over.  These floods develop quickly and can occur after only a few minutes of hard rain, but they also pass quickly. The water may look muddy for several hours after a storm:

Stream before and after a storm

… but the water levels will return to nearly normal within a few hours. After a few days, you probably won’t be able to tell it flooded at all!

While some of these storms can cause damage and might drive you away from your planned outdoor recreation, they are also responsible for a lot of the beauty you see at Prairie Ridge. The rain helps keep the pond full for frogs, insects, snakes, and birds and helps the flowers in the Nature Neighborhood Garden grow. The prairie is wholly dependent on rain for its water, and some species use rains as cues to reproduce or feed, such as Spadefoot Toads, fireflies, and dragonflies. Everything is clean and alive after a storm, and the light glittering off every surface can be quite stunning. You’re likely to see some of the best views as soon as the sun comes back out after a storm.

We do not encourage anyone to remain on the grounds during storms, but after a storm has passed and it is safe to go outdoors again, consider making a visit to Prairie Ridge! You can often see things that you might not see on your average nice day as storms disrupt the everyday activity of many species. You might get wet and muddy on a post-storm visit, but that’s all part of the fun, especially if you see something amazing!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth

What Time is it in Nature: Eastern Cottontail

September 13, 2014

It’s been an interesting summer at Prairie Ridge this year. The Purple Martins arrived a little early and migrated southward early this year. We normally find mostly Eastern Bluebirds in our observation nests, but this year we saw mostly Carolina Chickadees. We’ve had a greater than average number of Eastern Box Turtles spotted on the grounds. One species that been incredibly abundant this year can still be regularly seen on the grounds, the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Let’s explore the lives of these furry prairie dwellers!

Eastern cottontail

Eastern Cottontails are found throughout the eastern and southern US, Canada, and even parts of Mexico and South America. They are compact members of the rabbit group and sport the large hind feet and long ears common to their relatives. They are reddish or greyish brown on top and white underneath and have a short and fluffy white tail, the “cottontail” in their common name. They often become more drab in the winter and replace their brown fur with grey that blends in with the bleak surroundings more effectively.

Like other rabbits, Eastern Cottontails prefer open grassy areas and old fields surrounded by brushy habitat. They like to forage in open areas, but because they do not dig burrows, they require brushy areas to protect themselves from predators and will dash into shrubs, hedges, or brushpiles when threatened. They are known to eat a variety of food, though they are largely herbivorous and only occasionally eat insects or other animals. During the summer, Eastern Cottontails feed primarily on grasses and other herbaceous plants, and are sometimes known to venture into agricultural fields to feed on crops. In the winter when most of the green plant material disappears for a few months, they will switch their diet and feed on the twigs, buds, and bark of woodier plants. Regardless of the season, rabbits do not digest their plant-based diet very effectively and they produce two types of fecal pellets to ensure proper digestion. The green pellets consist of partly digested plant matter and are re-consumed by the rabbits so that they can complete digestion of the materials they contain. Brown pellets are mostly waste and are not eaten by the rabbits after they have been expelled.

Most rabbits do not live very long and Eastern Cottontails are no exception with an average lifespan of just 15 months in the wild. The primary source of mortality for Eastern Cottontails is predation and they are fed on by many animals, including foxes, coyotes, bobcats, domestic dogs and cats, raccoons, owls, hawks, and snakes. Rabbit meat is enjoyed by some people and they are one of the most commonly hunted animals in the US. Because many open fields are along roads, they also frequently succumb to collisions by cars.

Scientists have estimated that only 20% of the entire Eastern Cottontail population survives each year, though the rabbits that do survive are more than capable of rebuilding the population. Like other rabbits, Eastern Cottontail breeding is promiscuous and the males are not involved in rearing young. After a brief mating, the male rabbits will move on, often mating with other females. Once pregnant, a female Eastern Cottontail will dig a small, shallow hole in a protected space in a brushy area and line it with soft plants and fur. After a 28 day gestation period, a litter of blind, fine-haired kits are born. Their eyes open in less than a week and they are weaned and become independent after another 3-4 weeks, dispersing from the nest just 7 weeks after their birth. Most females will breed the spring after their birth, but some that are born early in the year will begin producing litters the same year. Female Eastern Cottontails can have up to 7 litters of 12 kits in a year, but more typically have 3-4 litters with an average of 5 kits each.

You’re most likely to see Eastern Cottontails shortly before Prairie Ridge closes in the afternoon as they are crepuscular (late afternoon-early evening) or nocturnal feeders, but you can often see them other times as well. Look out for medium-sized brown shapes on the trails alongside the prairie and you may see a rabbit munching on grasses. Step too close and it will dart into the prairie and disappear! They are on the grounds all year and you could potentially see an Eastern Cottontail even in the middle of winter, but this has been a boom year for bunnies at Prairie Ridge. Now is one of the best opportunities you’ll have to see one, so wander down the Prairie Trail soon to have a great chance to see one!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photo by Chris Goforth

What Time is it in Nature: Common Green Darner

August 30, 2014

It’s the time of year where many animal species start to move about the world. Some very long and impressive migrations are about to happen or are currently in progress, but most people tend to think about birds or mammals on the move if they consider migrations at all. There are some impressive insect migrations as well, and one species, the Common Green Darner (Anax junius) is currently making its way through North Carolina as it moves from its cooling summer habitats to more favorable climes further south.

Green darner dragonfly

Common Green Darners are dragonflies in the insect order Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) and family Aeshnidae (darners). Within the US, they are one of the larger and more distinctive dragonflies. They have huge yellow-brown or greenish eyes that wrap around most of the top and sides of their heads with an eye or bullseye-shaped mark on the face just in front of the eyes. The thorax, the middle section, is vibrant green. Depending on whether you are looking at a male or a female, the abdomen can be a variety of colors. Males have a bright blue abdomen while the females have a green or purple-brown abdomen. The differences in colors make the Common Green Darner sexes easy to distinguish, even from afar.

Like other dragonflies, Common Green Darners have a complicated method of reproduction. Females choose their mates not by any merits of his own, but on the quality of the egg-laying habitat in which he resides. Males will fight with one another for the best locations and the strongest individuals with the best egg-laying habitats generally mate with more females than other males. When a female, who normally spends most of her time feeding away from the water, decides she wants to mate and approaches a pond to find a suitable place to lay her eggs, the male who protects that location will swoop in and grab her behind the head. The female will then have to curl her body up and under his to mate. After a brief mating session, they will together find a place where she will lay her eggs in the pond. In order to ensure that no other males have a chance to mate with the female before she lays her eggs, the male will continue to hold onto his mate’s head until she has laid her eggs and leaves the pond entirely.

Many dragonfly species spend the bulk of their lives in water as either eggs or immatures (called nymphs), and the Common Green Darner is no exception. After some time in the water, the nymphs will hatch from the eggs. The young dragonflies are tiny at first, but fierce! They are amazing predators that use a long, extendable mouthpart to reach out and grab prey (insects and small crustaceans, fish, or tadpoles) and pull it back to their face to eat. As they feed, they’ll grow, often going through over 20 molts over 1-3 years before they mature enough to leave the water. At that point, they’ll crawl out of the water, break open their final nymphal exoskeleton (they “shed their skin”), pull their bodies free, puff up their wings, and fly off in search of food. They’ll spend about a month on land as adults, hunting insects on the wing.

Only a handful of dragonfly species are known to migrate (though there may be others we’re not yet aware of), but Common Green Darners are one of the best known dragonfly migrants. In the fall, cues in the weather drive the dragonflies south. Scientists don’t really know where the Green Darners go once they leave the US, but they follow the east coast and the large midwestern rivers along the way, eventually striking out across the Gulf of Mexico and disappearing into Central or South America. They likely mate, lay eggs at their final destination, and die, with their children making the return trip in the spring.

We have Common Green Darners at Prairie Ridge throughout most of the late spring and into the early fall, but their numbers may increase dramatically as the migration begins. Next time you visit, take a trip down to the pond and look for the large brilliant green and blue dragonflies flying out over the open water. You’ll likely spot a mating or a duel between males, but if you’re lucky you just might get to see dozens of Darners, weary travelers taking advantage of the abundant prey in the prairie grasses as they rest on their long trip south.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photo by Chris Goforth


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