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Chimney Swift Tower, Now Under Construction!

November 21, 2014

Construction of the Prairie Ridge Chimney Swift tower began a few weeks ago and great progress has been made so far!  Though it’s too late for the birds to use it this year, the tower itself has been completed and awaits the arrival of the birds next fall:

Chimney Swift Tower against forest

The brick tower, designed by local architect Frank Harmon and funded by Wake Audubon, provides habitat that the birds seek as they aggregate in the fall prior to migration.  It is hoped that the tower will attract a large aggregation of Chimney Swifts each fall.

While the tower structure has been completed, the technology that will allow researchers to study the birds inside the tower has not yet been installed, nor have the viewing areas for the tower.  Once installed, the viewing areas will allow visitors to relax on benches as they watch the Chimney Swifts return to their roost inside the tower during evenings in the fall.

We eagerly look forward to completion of the rest of the tower complex and hope that Chimney Swifts will colonize their beautiful new structure next fall!

Student’s Discover…..the wisdom of 6th graders!

November 21, 2014

Originally posted on EXPEDITION LIVE!:

Here at the paleontology lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and NC State University, we’ve been working on bringing North Carolina kids to the forefront of science.  We’ve been fortunate to partner with an extraordinary group of people and institutions to develop citizen science projects with middle schools as part of the NSF funded Student’s Discover project, the brainchild of Dr. Robert Dunn at NCSU.  By citizen science, I mean partnering with the public to collect real scientific data that is publishable, answers questions about our natural world, and allows the students to participate in the whole of the scientific process.  Our first run at this involves using middle school kids to collect data from fossil shark’s teeth.  The kids at Exploris Middle School in Raleigh presented on their own shark tooth research this morning.  It was extraordinary!  Today we wanted to share this reflection from one of…

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Winter Sunsets Over the Prairie (What Time is it in Nature)

November 15, 2014

With the arrival of winter comes a real change in the sunlight we experience.  Sure, it gets darker earlier in the evening, as you expect given the abrupt switch from the late, bright evenings of Daylight Savings Time to the much earlier sunsets of Standard Time, but nights also become longer as we move toward the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice in late December.  At the same time, the Earth tilts on its axis so that we see a shift from the intense summer sun pouring down on us from directly overhead to the sharply angled winter light that glances over the surface of our planet.  The low, angled light gives winter a unique look with long shadows and a dullness that results from the sunlight taking a longer, less direct route through our atmosphere.

Even though our days are shorter and the sunlight we see isn’t quite as bright as it is in summer, the low winter sun can create some spectacular light displays that are well worth looking out for.  The “golden hour,” the hour before sunset where the sun sinking low on the horizon casts a yellow hue over everything, can bathe the entire landscape in warm, golden light that is cherished by sunset enthusiasts and nature photographers everywhere:

Golden hour at Prairie Ridge

The low sun also produces some amazing sunsets.  And because it gets dark early in the evening now that we’ve returned to Standard Time, you might be able to see a sunset at Prairie Ridge over the next few months!  Sunsets like this:


Or this:


Or this:


Or even this!:


Winter sunsets can be amazing and, combined with any sort of clouds in the sky, the low winter sun makes for one of the most brilliant spectacles of nature.

Next time you’re out at Prairie Ridge close to closing time, I encourage you to take a look out over the prairie as you head back to the parking lot.  Have a camera ready!  The late afternoon sunlight can produce some gorgeous landscapes that you won’t want to miss!

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)

Revolutionary Image of Planet Formation Around a Young Sun-like Star

November 10, 2014

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

A few days ago, astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array telescope (or, ALMA) released this astonishing image:

Protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HL Tau (Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF).

Protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HL Tau (Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF).

This is an image of a protoplanetary disk — the ring of gas and dust that astronomers think surrounds most forming stars (or, protostars). The image amazes for a few reasons. It is the first image to show the detailed concentric rings indicative of planet formation in a protoplanetary disk. This visualization of real-time planet formation looks startlingly like artistic renderings of protoplanetary disks often used in interpreting fuzzy astronomical images.

Artistic rendering of a protoplanetary disk around a young star, much like HL Tau. Planets are shown forming in the gaps in the disk (Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan).

Artistic rendering of a protoplanetary disk around a young star, much like HL Tau. Planets are shown forming in the gaps in the disk (Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan).

Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the protostar, HL Taurus (often referred to as HL Tau)…

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Making History: Rosetta Catches its Comet Next Week!

November 10, 2014

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

It’s an exciting time for solar system scientists, as next Wednesday, November 12, 2014, the European Space Agency‘s Rosetta mission will become the first spacecraft in human history to land on a comet — one of the primitive, icy bodies that are left overs from our solar system’s formation about 4.6 billion years ago.

Rosetta is scheduled to touchdown on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (“67P/C-G” for short) at 10:35 AM Eastern Time, with a signal confirming the landing reaching Earth at 11:03 AM. A live-stream of the landing available on NASA TV, and a special free public program will be held in our Daily Planet Theater, including the live stream and presentation by Dr. Rachel Smith, Director of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab at the Museum.

Artistic rendering of Rosetta's robotic lander, Philae, touching down on Comet 67P's surface (Credit: NASA).

Artistic rendering of Rosetta’s robotic lander, Philae, touching down on Comet 67P’s surface (Credit: NASA).

Rosetta first made history on August 4, 2014, when…

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American Beautyberry (What Time is it in Nature)

November 8, 2014

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science intern at Prairie Ridge!  Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and is minoring in Environmental Toxicology.  She has spent her semester at Prairie Ridge developing walks for our Citizen Science Saturday series and educational programs and materials for our future pollinator garden.

Fall has arrived at Prairie Ridge and the abundance of oranges, yellows, and reds are in full swing. Amongst the fall backdrop one plant presents its striking purple berries, the American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana.

American beautyberry

American Beautyberry is a perennial shrub in the verbena family (Verbenaceae) that grows anywhere from 3-10 feet in height. The light green leaves are oval in shape with a blunt tip and serrated margins. They grow in groups of two or three on the branches and turn a stunning shade of yellowy green in the fall. The bark of the plant is smooth and studded with lenticels, raised pores that allow for gas exchange. Younger plants exhibit reddish-brown bark while that of older plants turn light brown in color.

American Beautyberry blooms from late spring to early summer. The small clusters of flowers only appear on new growth between the leaves and can range in color from light blue, to violet, pink, or white. The most impressive characteristic of this plant though is in its fruit. After the leaves have dropped, around August or September, the Beautyberry reveals its showy clusters of small purple to blue berries, called drupes. Each berry is about 4-5 mm in diameter and contains two to four seeds. These berries will last well into the winter and are an important survival food source for wildlife such as birds, foxes, opossum, raccoons, squirrels, and deer. In return, these animals help to disperse the seeds of the plant for future propagation.

The native range of the American Beautyberry spreads as far west as Texas to Maryland in the east and south to Florida. Other native areas for the American Beautyberry include the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, northern Mexico, and the West Indies. The shrub grows best in moist soils, such as woody regions, coastal plains, or swamp edges, and can withstand a wide pH range. It prefers climates with hot and humid summers and mild winters, and grows best in full sun, but can handle some shade. In addition, the plant is tolerant to drought, cold, heat, and even fire. Regular pruning should be maintained in order to encourage new growth for maximum fruit production. In the winter to early spring, prune the plant to about 12” above the base.

There is a long history of using the American Beautyberry for medicinal purposes. Native Americans used the roots, leaves, and branches of the plant to treat malarial fever and rheumatism. They also used the roots to combat dizziness, stomach aches, and dysentery, and made a concoction out of the berries and roots to reduce colic. It has also been found that the leaves of the American Beautyberry contain at least two compounds, callicarpenal and intermedeol, that repel mosquitos. Farmers would crush the leaves of the plant then place them on their horses and mules (as well as themselves) to fend off biting bugs such as mosquitos. Current research is being conducted on this use of the plant. Another great usage for the berries is in making jellies and wine, however due to the astringent properties of the berries it is best not to consume them raw.

American Beautyberry is a wonderful prairie plant, and as the name implies, the berries are a sight to see! If you would like to check out the American Beautyberry in action, come out to Prairie Ridge and observe the plethora of wildlife that these shrubs attract. Two fine examples are located in the field near the Outdoor Classroom and are currently booming with birds, quite a spectacular sight to see!

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)

eMammal Program at Prairie Ridge is Yielding Results

November 5, 2014

In October 2013, staff from the Biodiversity Lab and Prairie Ridge set out a series of 8 eMammal camera traps on the Prairie Ridge grounds to answer some basic questions about mammal populations, particularly how the large mammal population changes seasonally, whether the large mammal population is influenced by the small mammal population of the grounds, and whether different habitat types influence which species use those areas.  Our 8 traps have been maintained for over a year so far by a combination of staff and volunteers who move the cameras monthly, swap out the batteries, and replace the memory cards.  Volunteers then process the majority of the data before uploading it to the eMammal project.  So far, over 250 citizen scientists have participated in tagging the images with species data at Prairie Ridge, and hundreds more have taken part through an eMammal console in the Visual World Investigate Lab in the Nature Research Center.

So what have we found so far?  In the first four months of data collection, we captured 4158 pictures of wildlife, 407 of people, and 9 of domestic animals (mostly cats).  Prairie Ridge is being heavily used by wildlife.  White-tailed Deer are, unsurprisingly, the most common species we’ve spotted, followed by Eastern Gray Squirrels, Gray Foxes, and Eastern Cottontails.  Northern Raccoons, Virginia Opossums, and Coyotes were also commonly spotted on the grounds, though not quite as often as the top four.  Southern Flying Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks, however, were only spotted a few times over the first four months and are not very common at Prairie Ridge.

Species detection rate graph

Some species are more commonly found in specific areas than others. Preliminary analyses suggest that habitat type does influence the biodiversity and activity of mammals on the grounds.  The White-tailed deer roam about the grounds and heavily use both the forested and open areas:

Deer map

Coyotes, Eastern Cottontails, and Gray Foxes show similar patterns, though they did not appear on every camera trap in every location.  Our Eastern Cottontails seem to avoid the woods along the creek, for example, and the Coyotes tend not to visit the forest along the upper part of the Forest Trail.  Other species are clearly restricted in their habitat preferences, such as the Eastern Gray Squirrels:

Squirrel map

The squirrels are frequently spotted in the forested areas, but avoid the other areas almost entirely.  The Virginia Opossums avoided the open bottomland of our arboretum entirely and seem to prefer the perimeter of the grounds to the interior.

Though we have only analyzed the data from the first four months so far, there were some interesting changes in mammal detection rates as fall transitioned into winter last year. White-tailed Deer, Gray Squirrels, Eastern Cottontails, Northern Raccoons, and Virginia Opossums all decreased during the winter compared to their fall levels.  The canines (Coyotes and Gray Foxes), on the other hand, were detected more often in the winter than in the fall.

Seasonal shifts graph

It’s interesting that the predators increased in the winter while the herbivores and omnivores decreased.  Could the predators play a role in the decreased detection rate of prey species?  We’ll need more data to find out!

The camera trapping program at Prairie Ridge is part of a multi-year study of mammal populations, so the data presented here from the first four months of data collection are still very preliminary.  We can’t, for example, really link mammal detection rates to seasonal shifts with only one season represented in the data analyzed so far, so it will be interesting to see if the same patterns hold this year.  The habitat information presented here may also change as we add more seasons to the analysis and collect data over multiple years.  We haven’t started to compare the large mammal population captured on our camera traps to the small mammal population, monitored quarterly by the Museum’s mammal collection curators, so we can’t even speculate on how the small mammal population may influence the large mammal population.  Every bit of data added to the analysis will add a little more to the overall story of our large mammal population at Prairie Ridge and help us understand how our natural wildlife haven in the heart of the Triangle Area is used by a variety of species.  It will be interesting to see whether the initial trends hold true from season to season and year to year.

Would you like to get involved in the Prairie Ridge eMammal project?  We are offering our next camera trapping program at Prairie Ridge on November 15th from 1:00-4:00pm! Details are available in the program listing.


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