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Celebrate Citizen Science With the Museum

April 3, 2016
nest watching for science

Photo by Chris Goforth

In October 2015, the federal government welcomed several citizen science leaders to Washington D.C. to discuss expanding the role of citizen science in federal agencies. The meeting pushed citizen science as a reliable means of collecting data necessary to developing national policies and management decisions and by the end of the meeting most national agencies agreed to make citizen science a greater priority going forward, including increasing national funding for projects and research through the National Science Foundation. One additional outcome of the meeting was the declaration of a National Citizen Science Day by the White House.


April 16, 2016 is the first ever nationally recognized day of citizen science, and you can celebrate with the Museum! We are hosting what we hope will become the first annual Citizen Science Fest at Prairie Ridge Ecostation from 10am-4pm on National Citizen Science Day. Our outdoor celebration will give everyone a chance to get involved in citizen science and learn about some great local citizen science efforts.

birdwatching for science

Photo by Chris Goforth

The festival offers three primary components. One is a showcase of local citizen science projects. Visit project tables to learn more about what various groups in the Triangle area and beyond are doing to engage the public in research at their sites. You can learn about several Museum-based projects, but we’ve brought in non-Museum groups as well. Meet the scientists first-hand and learn from the experts! Most of the local showcase participants will be available throughout the festival.


We will also offer a variety of scientist-led nature hikes and hands-on experiences. These will be scheduled throughout the day so that you can visit our pond and learn about the aquatic insect research conducted by a local high school, look for ladybugs, bird watch for science, or learn how to survey leaves for the tasty insects that birds love to eat. The guided walks will give you a chance to collect some data and see the inner workings of local and national citizen science projects, many of which you can do on your own right in your own backyard.

Not everyone can get to Prairie Ridge easily, however, so we’ve partnered with other groups to offer the 2016 North Carolina Bioblitz-off statewide on National Citizen Science Day. Each site is competing to see who can document the most plants, animals, and fungi for our Natural North Carolina project. While the winning sites will earn bragging rights, we’ve got some great prizes for the top three individuals in the state, including a Hydroflask water bottle, your choice of field guides, and a hat to support additional outdoor adventures.

green darner dragonfly

Photo by Chris Goforth

Prairie Ridge is competing in the event, so visit our Bioblitz-off table to participate while you’re at the festival, or find another site on the event listing on the Museum website that’s closer to home. You can also participate completely independently if you wish – just register using our online form to let us know you intend to compete!

Please join us for National Citizen Science Day and learn about the many ways that you can get involved in scientific research locally. For more information about the event or the other Bioblitz-off sites, visit the event listing on the Museum’s calendar.  We hope to see you at one or more sites on April 16!

Another Great Backyard Bird Count in 2016!

March 1, 2016
Great egret

Great Egret. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Mid-February is a time to celebrate birds and get involved in citizen science with the Great Backyard Bird Count!  Bird enthusiasts worldwide head outside and identify and count birds in their area, then report them to the GBBC.  The event has taken place every year since 1998 and has generated an amazing dataset representing bird populations  in their winter habitats (at least in the northern hemisphere), shortly before they begin their northward migration.  The event takes place over 4 days and is both very popular and successful, with records for the number of participants, the number of checklists submitted, and the number of species broken nearly every year.  2016 saw several records break with a whopping 161,746 checklists submitted, 5386 bird species reported, and 18.5 billion birds counted!

North Caroling has a lot of birders, so it’s no surprise that our state is well represented in the GBBC each year.  In 2016, we broke our all time high for the number of species with a total of 212.  We also came in sixth in the nation for the number of bird species reported and seventh for the number of checklists submitted (5508).  Within the state, we see some differences in the top counties depending on whether you’re looking at the total number of bird species reported or the total number of checklists submitted.  If we go by checklists, the top counties were Wake, Mecklenburg, Durham, Orange, and Forsyth, no surprise given the number of people who live in these counties.  Tops for the number of species, however, were Dare, New Hanover, Cartaret, Onslow, and Wake, mostly coastal counties where you might see lots of overwintering birds.  The best specific locations in the state this year included Arlie Gardens, Lake Mattamuskeet, Schenck Forest, and Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge.


Vultures. Photo by Chris Goforth.

For the past several years, we’ve had a low-key GBBC celebration at Prairie Ridge.  We offer extra bird walks and loan out binoculars, give lessons on how to identify common birds, and share resources.  We also collect data throughout the weekend that we submit to the GBBC website as we go.  It’s a fun way to celebrate birds and share the excitement with our visitors, give people a chance to participate in citizen science, and get people outside.

This year’s Great Backyard Bird Count weekend was very cold, with a high of 32 degrees at Prairie Ridge with a 25 degree wind chill.  These conditions meant that we had fewer birders than we might have liked, but we still managed to collect data several times during the day.  Partly because we had such low attendance, our species count for the year was a little low, just 21 species.  Our total number of birds (172) and checklists (7) were also lower than usual.  I suspect that the windy conditions and chilly temps resulted in lower bird activity than we typically see at Prairie Ridge in the winter.

Pine warbler

Pine Warbler. Photo by Chris Goforth.

However, low species counts doesn’t necessarily mean we didn’t see any fun birds!  The birds we saw might not have been particularly uncommon, but we saw some showy birds like Pine Warblers and Downy Woodpeckers.  We saw common birds such as White-throated Sparrows and Northern Cardinals.  We saw many Dark-eyed Juncos and Song Sparrows, two species that we often see at our feeders, but not always in large numbers. Perhaps the highlight of the day was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that we spotted on the maple trees in front of the Research Lab building.  What a gorgeous bird!


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Our top five species at Prairie Ridge this year were about the same as in years past.  Northern Cardinals are almost always the most abundant species, and this year we spotted 38.  They were followed by White-throated Sparrows (35), Dark-eyed Juncos (20), Song Sparrows (17), and Carolina Chickadees (15).  We also saw an unusually large number of Pine Warblers, a total of 9 counted on Saturday.

All in all, in spite of the cold, it was another fun and successful Great Backyard Bird Count in North Carolina. At the Museum, we enjoy participating in this event at Prairie Ridge and look forward to many more GBBC weekends in the future!

Redhead Duck (What Time is it in Nature)

February 13, 2016

It’s always exciting to see a new bird for the first time at Prairie Ridge, and last week we got to add a new species to our ever-growing bird list!  Two female Redhead Ducks have been spotted on the pond.

Redhead Ducks. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Redhead Ducks. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Redhead Ducks are medium-sized ducks with smoothly rounded heads and medium-sized bills.  The males give the species their common name: they have cinnamon red heads, a black breast and tail, and grey bodies.  Females, like those we saw at Prairie Ridge, are less colorful and are mostly brown, though their heads can have a faint ruddy hue.  Both males and females have grey bills with a black tip, a great field mark to use to distinguish them from the similarly colored Canvasback Duck.

Redheads are classified as diving ducks and you will see them dive underwater in ponds, wetlands, and reservoirs to grab food.  However, they also behave like dabbling ducks, tipping upright in the water so that they can reach into the shallows and grab food without having to submerge entirely.  They feed mostly on aquatic plants, such as algae, pondweed, and bulrushes, but they will also take fish eggs, snails, mussels, and aquatic insects when they can get them.

These beautiful ducks only visit North Carolina in the winter and do not generally breed in our state.  In the winter, however, you may see many of these ducks in groups on ponds.  They are highly gregarious and in some locations along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico the “rafts” of Redheads can reach 60,000 or more birds!  They may also join other ducks, such as Lesser Scaups, Canvasbacks, Northern Pintails, and American Coots, to form even larger feeding groups.

Because they do not breed in North Carolina, we unfortunately do not have an opportunity to witness the Redhead mating behaviors and nest-building that occur in Midwestern prairie pothole habitats.  Male Redheads attract females by throwing their heads back exuberantly, making a sort of “meow” call as they do.  Males and females investigate nest sites together, but the female will ultimately build her nest and rear the eggs alone.  Redhead nests are made from aquatic plants and feathers and float on the surface of the water.  A female may brood 7-8 eggs in her nest, but this species is known to deposit eggs in the nests of other ducks as well.  This “brood parasitism” is especially common when the water levels of a pond are low or food is scarce and is thought to improve a duck’s chance to produce successful offspring.

We don’t know how long they’ll stick around, so visit Prairie Ridge soon for a chance to see our latest addition to our bird list!  Look for the Redheads on the pond, but don’t get too close.  Our visitors spook easily and you may only get a glimpse of them flying away if you get too close!

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 EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

Praying Mantis Oothecas (What Time is it in Nature)

February 6, 2016

This week’s post is brought to you by Julie Hall, citizen science educator for the Museum.  Julie coordinates our Dragonfly Detectives program and does a variety of other programs and activities at Prairie Ridge.  Thanks Julie!

On a recent walk at Prairie Ridge Ecostation on a beautiful sunny winter day, I started noticing how many praying mantis egg cases, or oothecae, there were on small branches not only out in the middle of the prairie, but also in the forest edges. Reaching 37 on my count of egg cases, I got really curious and started to formulate questions. How many babies come out of these cases? When will they emerge? Is there more than one species of mantid? I broke open the bug guides and learned a lot!

The ootheca most commonly found at Prairie Ridge looks about the size of a ping-pong ball, made of a foam-like material which hardens to prevent water loss:

Chinese Mantid

Chinese Mantid egg case

This egg case is made by a non-native species, the Chinese Mantis.   This species has been found in the US since at least 1895. If the egg case has the look of tiny horizontal blinds, then the approximate 200 inhabitants have hatched and moved out:

Chinses mantids hatching

Chinese Mantids hatching. Photo by Julie Hall.

The other ootheca I found is less common and smaller in size with a more elongated shape:

Carolina Mantid egg case

Carolina Mantid egg case

This one is made by a native species, the Carolina Mantis.

A third species of mantid has been found at Prairie Ridge, the Brunner’s Stick Mantis. Its ootheca is similar to the Carolina Mantis case but has a thorn-like spike on one end.

For best luck in an ootheca search, stick to open sunny areas such as fields and roadsides where there is no mowing. Mantids are attracted to sunny areas because they can move better when they are warm, so this is where they end up laying eggs.

Now it may seem like a good idea to collect or purchase oothecae to place in your garden for pest control, but don’t do it. Mantids are generalist predators, so they will eat beneficial bugs right along with the pests! If you go around collecting oothecae and relocating them to your garden, you may end up losing all of your butterflies for the year. (Don’t ask me how I know!)

Winter is best for ootheca viewing at Prairie Ridge, when bare twigs abound. The next time you are out on a nature jaunt, keep an eye out for these fairly conspicuous eggs masses and see how many you can find! Another tip: warm temperatures will initiate hatching… so don’t bring an ootheca inside your house unless you know it’s tiny inhabitants have come out.  Otherwise you might end up with hundreds of hungry babies scattered about!

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 EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

Dragonfly Detectives Results for Year 1 Are In!

February 3, 2016

We’re about to start the second year of our Dragonfly Detectives project, so it is a great time to think about what we’ve learned so far. Over the past year, over 100 kids in grades 4-8 have participated in the 6-week Dragonfly Detectives program. The first meeting is our primary training time as the kids learn how to identify the focal dragonfly species and read the equipment they will use in the field. The last week, the kids analyze their results and create a poster to share their findings. In the 2nd-5th weeks, the kids travel from their schools to a nearby NC State Park or Museum facility. There, they study dragonflies in the field and collect data that will help us answer an important question: how weather impacts the flight activity of the Common Whitetail Dragonfly.

storm at Prairie Ridge pondAt first glance, this might not seem like something anyone should care about, but this is an important question. It has been well established in the scientific literature that dragonflies are strongly impacted by the weather around them. This isn’t surprising when you remember that dragonflies are insects and are therefore exothermic (aka, they do not generate their own body heat). They are also large and have big, flat wings. Those big wings can get caught in gusty conditions and blow a dragonfly off course or raindrops hitting the wings might cause it to fall out of the air and become injured. However, we don’t know the intricacies of how weather impacts more than a few species. If a person is, say, studying the feeding behaviors of a particular species, but that species has a hard time flying if the wind speed surpasses 4 mph, then any scientific analyses that include observations from days with a wind speed of greater than 4 mph might not be accurate or tell a complete story. Because weather has a huge impact on flight activity in many species of dragonflies and damselflies, the relationship between weather and how much they fly is well worth studying in detail.

Dragonfly Detectives making observations at pondsAnd that’s exactly what our Dragonfly Detectives are doing with the Common Whitetail! Our participants are using a weather measurement device called a Kestrel to measure the air temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, and barometric pressure. They use a light meter to measure the light intensity and they make direct observations to determine if it’s raining or not. They also count the total number of Common Whitetails that fly past an imaginary straight line that extends from their position on the shore as far as they can see across the pond. Every time a Whitetail passes the line, they put a tick mark on their data sheet. Each group of Dragonfly Detectives collects data for the project 12-24 times during their 4 visits to the field. Then on the last day, they graph their findings, compare what they observed to what they hypothesized they would see on the first day, and think about the implications of their results. We take it one step further at the end of the year when we combine all the data from every group at every site and use statistics to look for patterns in the data.

By and large, the students in year 1 used their graphs to determine that wind speed, temperature, light intensity, and relative humidity mattered most to the dragonflies. Their data suggested that the barometric pressure, wind direction, and presence or absence of rain did not have much of an impact on the flight activity they observed. They also considered the pattern of their data and concluded that…

  • The number of Common Whitetail flights increased with increasing temperature
  • The number of flights increased with increasing light intensity
  • The number of flights increased with increasing wind speed, and
  • The number of flights decreased with increasing humidity.

Common WhitetailNow one important thing to keep in mind is that each group only visited the field 4 times. Not all groups observed rain or high winds during their observations. Some groups also saw very few dragonflies overall due to the time of year they participated in the project. These are important considerations as we compare the analyses of our Dragonfly Detectives based on their graphs to those made by scientists using statistical methods.

At the end of the season, we looked for relationships between the counts with each of our measured weather parameters. Like the Dragonfly Detectives, we learned that temperature, humidity, and light intensity were the weather factors that showed the strongest relationships with flight activity. However, we found that the relationship was weak for wind speed, wind direction, barometric pressure, presence and absence of rain. We still have at least two more years of data collection planned for this project, but our preliminary results suggest that…

  • Common Whitetail flights increase with increasing temperature
  • Flights increase with increasing light intensity, and
  • Flights decrease with increasing humidity.

Girl with damselflyOur findings differ from those of our Dragonfly Detectives in that the statistics do not support a strong relationship between wind speed and flight activity. Additionally, the statistics show a slight decrease in the number of flights with an increase in wind speed, a pattern that has been observed in several dragonfly species in the past. The fact that our results say something a little different than what our Dragonfly Detectives discovered doesn’t mean that our kids are wrong or that we are wrong. If you look at the graphs the Dragonfly Detectives made, you can see that it is visually unclear how wind speed actually impacts flight activity in Common Whitetails.  Our kids are also working with small data sets. We, in contrast, are working with much bigger data sets and our tools are better at examining visually ambiguous relationships in much finer detail.

As we begin year 2 of the project, it will be interesting to see if the relationship between wind speed and flight activity becomes stronger. When you have more data points, you can sometimes see subtler patterns in the data than you can with a smaller data set. I suspect we will see only minor changes in how temperature, light intensity, and humidity impact flight activity and that we will continue to see that barometric pressure and wind direction won’t matter much. Very few groups got to observe dragonflies in the rain, so we could potentially see a shift in that relationship as well as the overall dataset grows. Only time and more data will tell, so we’re excited to collect more data with the help of our fabulous Dragonfly Detectives this year!

Winter Berries (What Time is it in Nature)

January 16, 2016

Winter is a tough time for a lot of animals. Many small mammals – and even some large ones such as bears – simply avoid the harsh winter weather by hibernating, but not all animals have that luxury.  Birds tend to remain exposed to the elements throughout the year, regardless of the weather, and have to fend for themselves.  Given that there are so many fewer insects available in the winter, not only do birds have to suffer through the cold weather, but they must also find food in a comparatively bleak landscape.  Happily, many plants produce fruits late in the year that persist well into the winter.  These fruits are vitally important to many bird species to sustain them through the winter.  There are many fruit-bearing plants at Prairie Ridge, so let’s explore some of them!

American Beautyberry

American Beautyberry

American Beautyberry

The berries of the American Beautyberry peak in the fall and disappear entirely in the early winter, but they represent a tremendous food source for birds while they last. Beautyberry berries are clustered in dense clumps along the length of branches near the top of the shrubs.  You’ll find many birds feasting on the berries, including Northern Cardinals, Mockingbirds, and various sparrows.  You’re most likely to see Mockingbirds eating Beautyberry fruits at Prairie Ridge, especially on the two bushes near the Outdoor Classroom.

Wild Raisin

Wild Raisin

Wild Raisin

The berries of Wild Raisin appear at about the same time as the Beautyberry fruits and they’re just as splashy! The bush just downhill of the bird feeding station produces heaps of pink and purple fruits in the late summer that shrivel and turn inky blue over time, but they persist well into the winter.  You’ll see a variety of birds eating Wild Raisin berries at Prairie Ridge, including Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Northern Cardinals.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy with Eastern Bluebird

Poison Ivy with Eastern Bluebird

Though certainly not everyone’s favorite plant to encounter, Poison Ivy produces a big crop of tasty berries that birds love in the fall. There’s a particularly dense area of poison ivy climbing up the trees just behind the Prairie Ridge office trailer where you can see many birds feeding on the berries in the late fall and early winter.  Among them, you’re likely to see Yellow-rumped Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds.

Red Cedar

Red Cedar

Red Cedar

Red Cedar belongs to the juniper group, which means that its “berries” aren’t really berries, but cones. However, the birds make heavy use of the juniper cones in the winter!  Red Cedar is a favorite winter perching spot for many birds as it provides a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet for many species while the dense foliage provides excellent shelter from the wind.  You can find Red Cedar across much of Prairie Ridge, including some large trees down the hill from the bird feeding station.  Red Cedar attracts many birds, but some of the showier species you’re likely to see at Prairie Ridge include Cedar Waxwings, Blue Jays, and a variety of woodpeckers.

Winterberry Holly

Winterberry Holly

Winterberry Holly

Hollies are one of the last things birds will eat, closer to spring than the fall. Holly berries contain some very bitter chemicals that are distasteful to birds (and, in many cases, toxic to humans), but these start to break down once the berries have been frozen and thawed a few times.  Winterberries produce many large berries at the tips of their branches, making them easily accessible to birds.  Winterberries are also one of the few deciduous holly species, so they lose all their leaves in the winter and expose their bright fruit to the worst of the weather.  You might see Catbirds, woodpeckers, or Brown Thrashers on the Winterberry shrubs in the Prairie Ridge Arboretum starting in a few months.

While all of these species produce vital food for birds in the cooler months, many of these plants benefit from their fruits being consumer by birds. Seeds pass through the digestive system of the birds and are deposited in other locations, helping many berry-producing plants spread across the landscape.  Some species, such as Red Cedar, see a marked increase in sprouting success when a seed has passed through a bird rather than simply falling to the ground.  The birds rely on the plants for food and many of these plants rely on the birds to transport their seeds to new locations.  It’s a great relationship for both parties!

There are many trees and shrubs with berries visible now at Prairie Ridge. Take a walk soon and look for pops of bright color to find berries on the grounds.  You’re likely to see a huge variety of birds making use of them!

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 EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

Yellowstone in Winter packing list

January 13, 2016

by Megan Chesser

From the Yellowstone in Winter blog


How many wool socks is too many?

Warm socks and boots – check!
Long underwear – check!
Hats and gloves – check!
Excitement building – check!

Packing our boots and every scrap of cold weather gear we can muster. Reviewing travel plans and itineraries. Checking the weather … rechecking the weather … Rechecking the weather. Excitement and nerves escalate as we anticipate bison, elk, wolves, geysers, and snow, beautiful snow!

By the look of today’s webcam at Old Faithful and the latest weather report, we should be greeted with all the magic and splendor that nature and Yellowstone have to offer. We have a 40% chance of snow to look forward to upon our arrival tomorrow with highs in the lower 20’s — not too bad, really … Just slightly chillier than our recent North Carolina mornings.

We’ll hit the airport bright and early tomorrow with a big day of travel ahead of us. So, stay tuned, blog readers, there’s much more to come!


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