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Cedar Waxwing (What Time is it in Nature)

May 16, 2015

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former intern at Prairie Ridge.   Thanks, Terra!

It is a wonderful time for bird activity and birdwatching here at Prairie Ridge!  If you listen, closely you can hear the shrill chatter of the many Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) lurking in the trees.

Cedar Waxwing adult

Cedar Waxwings are sleek and shiny birds that range from 6 to 7 inches long and weigh about 30 grams.  They have large crested heads that are pale brown, which fades to soft gray along the body and a short, wide bill.  They also have dark masks outlined in white on their faces that are characteristic of the Cedar Waxwing.  The bellies of these birds are pale yellow, while the wings are soft gray with bright yellow tips on their squared tails.  The secondary wing feathers have unusual red waxy deposits on the tips, but their purpose is not known.  Male and females Cedar Waxwing look alike, though juveniles are mottled gray-brown with black masks and yellow tail-bands like the adults.  As the bird ages, the red waxy wingtips increase in both number and size.

Cedar Waxwings can be found in the northern United States year round and in the southern half of the United States into Mexico in the winter.  During the summer they fly north to Canada for breeding.  They prefer open deciduous, coniferous, or mixed woodlands, especially those along streams or in shrubby areas that produce berries.  They are also present in grasslands, sagebrush, wetlands, and residential areas.  The main food source for these birds are fruits such as serviceberries, strawberries, mulberries, raspberries, Russian olive fruits, honeysuckle, and cedar berries, which their name comes from.  Cedar Waxwings will also feed on insects during the summer for protein, including mayflies, dragonflies, and leaf beetles.  Because their diet is so high in fruit, they are susceptible to alcohol intoxication if they consume too many fermented berries.  Severe intoxication can even lead to death.

Both the males and females choose the site for nesting, but the females build the nests using twigs, grasses, blossoms, hair, and even materials from the nests of other birds.  The nests are about 5 inches across and 3 inches high and are placed in the horizontal forks of trees such as maples, pines, red cedar, white cedar, and hawthorn.  Females lay between 2 to 6 pale blue or blue-gray eggs that are occasionally spotted.  They incubate the eggs for about 12 days and then brood them for another 3 days.  During this time, the male is in charge of bringing food to the nest.  The nestlings will stay with the parents for about 21 to 25 days, upon which they will leave to join a flock of other young birds.  Cedar Waxwings are highly social and will form large flocks that often nest close together.

The Cedar Waxwings enjoy the delicious berries that are currently abundant on the mulberries at Prairie Ridge.  Whether attending a Citizen Science event on Saturday to watch birds and their nests or spending a relaxing afternoon taking a stroll along the trails, make sure to look for the beautiful Cedar Waxwings on your next trip out!

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)

Fragile Forktail (What Time is it in Nature)

May 9, 2015

Summer is almost here and the dragonflies have been very active at the Prairie Ridge pond recently! One species of damselfly has been active for a few weeks already, the Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita).

Fragile forktail damseflies, male and female

Fragile Forktails are easy to tell apart from other damselflies at the pond. They are tiny dragonflies, less than an inch long, with long and slender bodies and clear wings. Males, pictured at the above left, are mostly dark iridescent black on top with bright yellow-green markings, including exclamation marks at the shoulders.  Females are bright blue with black markings when they are young and become a deeper blue as they age, but they have blue exclamation marks at the shoulders.  Both sexes usually have black markings at the tip of the abdomen.

These small damselflies prefer ponds or marshes with a lot of vegetation around them and you will often fund both sexes flying over or among grassy areas alongside bodies of water.  Due to their small size, they are readily hunted by other dragonflies, so they generally stay hidden among vegetation, remaining still and blending well with their environment.  Like other dragonflies and damselflies, the Fragile Forktail is predatory and hunts small insects near or over ponds and in their grassy habitats.

Fragile Forktails are very common dragonflies throughout most of their range in the eastern US, southeastern Canada, and eastern Mexico through Guatemala.  They can also be found throughout most of the flight season for dragonflies and damselflies.  At Prairie Ridge, they are often one of the earliest damselflies to appear in the spring and the last to disappear in the fall.  They are also one of the most commonly spotted damselflies in cloudy, cooler weather, which may be a predator avoidance behavior as other dragonflies and damselflies are less likely to be active in such weather.

Fragile Forktails abound near the Prairie Ridge pond and have been very active there over the last month.  On your next visit, take a close look in the vegetation near the pond.  You are likely to see many of the gorgeous little Fragile Forktails hunting and hiding in the grass!

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)

Nesting Birds (What Time is it in Nature)

May 2, 2015

At Prairie Ridge, we participate in over 40 citizen science projects. One of the most popular with our visitors is Nest Watch, one of the projects that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology makes available to the public. To participate, citizen scientists either find a bird nest or put a nest box in their yard and then monitor the progress of any eggs and chicks that result.

At Prairie Ridge, we have a couple dozen nest boxes, platforms, and cups that we monitor regularly each year with the help of visitors attending programs, our volunteers, and our interns. Recently, we’ve had a lot of activity! The Purple Martins started returning to the grounds just over a month ago, but they have already laid several eggs that will soon become naked chicks:

Purple martin chicks

Purple Martins, like many of the birds that use the artificial nest structures we provide, are cavity nesting birds. Because people tend to cut down soft or dead trees in urban areas for aesthetic reasons, there are limited nesting sites available for Purple Martins. They have come to rely heavily on nests provided by people, like the Purple Martin condo and gourds they have colonized at Prairie Ridge.

Eastern Bluebird are bright blue birds, but so are their eggs!

Bluebird eggs

Even before the eggs are laid, however, you can often tell when a Bluebird has built a nest. They favor nests made of long pieces of grass or pine needles that they wrap around the interior of the nest boxes, forming a nest with a sort of basket-like appearance.  Sometimes they will line the nests with soft materials, but we typically see the eggs sitting right on the needles and grasses.

While many people provide Bluebird nest boxes in the hopes of having Bluebirds nest in them, they are sometimes used by other birds. The Brown-headed Nuthatch is another bird species that relies on cavity nests and finds them in short supply in the pine forests they prefer. They will sometime take advantage of Bluebird boxes if they are not too far from the forest edge and build a nest inside:

Brown headed nuthatch chicks

If they’re lucky, the nest will go unnoticed by Bluebirds in the area until the chicks fledge and leave the nest. However, Bluebirds will occasionally take over a nest box in which a Brown-headed Nuthatch has built a nest, destroying the nest and any eggs or chicks inside.  If you have Brown-headed Nuthatches in an area and want to give them a chance to use a Bluebird box, you can help protect them fairly easily! Bluebirds are quite a bit larger than Nuthatches, so simply affixing a commercially available metal plate to the nest entrance that decreases the size of the opening is sufficient to exclude the Bluebirds (they can’t fit through the smaller hole) while allowing the Nuthatches to nest undisturbed. There are also nest boxes available made specifically with Brown-headed Nuthatches in mind that come with a smaller diameter opening.

Another bird that will sometimes use a Bluebird box is the Carolina Chickadee:

Carolina chickadee chicks

Chickadee nests are easy to tell apart from Bluebird nests! In contrast to the grassy/pine needle nests favored by Bluebirds, Chickadees create soft, plush nests. The nests we encounter at Prairie Ridge are frequently filled with soft mosses and plant materials, then lined with downy feathers. You may also see rabbit hair lining the nests.

House Finches are a relatively recent arrival in the eastern US, having moved across the country from the west over the last few decades. We find them nesting at Prairie Ridge now:

House finch chicks

The freshly hatched chicks are quite fluffy, with the appearance of dandelion fluff! You will often find these birds nesting in the nest cups on the four corners of the bird blind near the pond.

It’s always fun to see the baby birds in the nests at Prairie Ridge! We do ask, however, that you leave the birds alone during your visit. We only open the nest boxes a few times a week to minimize the disturbance to the adult birds and their young and opening them when it is too cold can injure the helpless chicks. If you would like to see the babies, you can do so during our spring Citizen Science Saturday walks! The next nest program is coming up on May 9th, so please join us for a great chance to see some local bird nests, eggs, and chicks!

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!

(Purple Martin photo by Chris Goforth; other photos by Sehdia Mansaray, Prairie Ridge Spring 2015 intern)

Public Participation in Scientific Research

April 27, 2015

Observing, collecting, recording and interpreting of data — in fields as varied as archeology, astronomy, botany, geology, meteorology, mineralogy, ornithology, paleontology and zoology — by those without formal scientific training has led to many research advances.

In England, where countryside pursuits have long been a tradition, colorful stories of such activities abound. For example, in Lyme Regis on the English Channel coast, tourists learn about Mary Anning (1799-1847) who first collected ammonites, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs as a teenager from local cliff outcrops of Jurassic strata. American Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), a renowned evolutionary biologist and popularizer of science, noted: “Mary Anning is probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology.”

In the US, for example, an annual Christmas Bird Count began in 1900 and, today, Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology reports that its eBird database enables birders to track any of the Earth’s 10,005 bird species. Almost worldwide observations on 8,650 bird species have helped to document the declines of some species, range expansions of others, and spread of avian diseases.

In her book “Planet under Stress,” physicist Ursula Franklin advocated: “The task of the future is to build knowledge and understanding among and between citizens and scientists, so that the distinction between the two groups vanishes — so that both become citizen scientists, potentially able to solve our problems together.” A quarter century later, her vision is busily unfolding. Rising public interest and anxiety are conjoined with the invitation of scientists in rapidly growing numbers to assist with research in the natural sciences. Surges in environmental awareness, community volunteerism and social media, plus the ubiquity of Internet access and cameras, have exponentially advanced what is possible in this exciting and needed arena. The frontier of citizen science work also now includes biochemistry, entomology, microbiology, cancer research and climate change. In today’s world, it is often concerned members of the public who spur the interest of researchers, not the other way around, especially in ecological or environmental matters.

A new Citizen Science Association ( has recently been formed to encourage and promote public participation in scientific research. Its inaugural conference was held in San Jose, CA, and free memberships are currently available. I am delighted to inform you that the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in partnership with the Office of Public Science in the College of Sciences at North Carolina State University and the Greater Raleigh Visitors and Convention Bureau, will be hosting the Citizen Science Association’s second conference in February 2017.

Given the phenomenal history of public participation in scientific research, it is ironical that citizen science — a term introduced by the scientific community — is not yet widely known by the public! As supporters of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, please help to get the word out. I welcome your publicity ideas. To learn more about the citizen science movement and to discover opportunities for doing research together, visit the Citizen Science Center on the first floor of the Museum’s Nature Research Center, or explore online resources such as, and (for a list of current Museum-run projects).

Welcome to the engaging world of citizen science!

Emlyn Koster, PhD
Museum Director

Eastern Redbud (What Time is it in Nature)

April 25, 2015

Spring is here and with it comes big changes in the landscape. Many things bloom at Prairie Ridge during this time of year, including several plants in the Nature Neighborhood Garden, the prairie, and the woods. One tree species is particularly showy currently, the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis).


Eastern Redbuds are native to most of eastern North America, from central New England west to the lower Great Plains. Though Eastern Redbud is found across a huge area, it is not an especially common tree in any one area and is instead scattered across the landscape. The trees are small, topping out at about 30 feet, with irregularly shaped trunks.  They are typically found in the understory of wooded areas.

Redbuds get their name from their showy reddish or pink flowers:

Redbud flowers

The flowers bloom early in the season, before the leaves of the Redbud appear and well before many other trees begin to leaf out. They grow in clusters of 4-8 flowers along old twigs and branches, even occasionally growing out of the main trunk. The leaves are relatively large (3-4 inches long), dark green, and heart-shaped. Even after the flowers have fallen from the tree for the year, the short stature, irregular trunk, and heart-shaped leaves let you know that you’re looking at a Redbud.

Eastern Redbuds are pollinated by a variety of bee species, including some bees that conspicuously appear early in the year, such as Eastern Carpenter Bees. Once pollen is transferred from one flower to another, a seed pod starts to develop. Clusters of flat, green pods are visible through much of the summer, but the seeds are not released until the fall when the pods have hardened and turned brown. The seeds need a period of cold to germinate the following year, and some seeds that fall to the ground may lie dormant for a few years before a new tree begins to grow.

Though many parts of the tree are edible to a variety of species, Eastern Redbud is not a favorite food of nearly any animal. A variety of wildlife makes occasional use of the seeds, leaves, or flowers, including White-tailed Deer, Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Northern Cardinals. It is occasionally attacked by moth larvae and weevils sometimes eat or otherwise destroy seeds, but outbreaks of insects are rarely fatal to the trees. Humans have used the bark to treat whooping-cough and dysentery and the flowers are sometimes consumed in salads or fried and eaten. Because they do not produce many foods favored by people, their short and irregular trunks are worthless as lumber, and they are somewhat intolerant to shade and very moist soils, Eastern Redbuds are more highly prized as an ornamental species than as a useful one.

There are several Eastern Redbuds currently in bloom at Prairie Ridge! One excellent specimen is to the left of the road as you walk toward the Outdoor Classroom from the entrance and you can find several others in the Jesse P. Perry Arboretum. The bloom seems to be happening very quickly this year, so if you want a chance to see the Redbuds, plan a visit to Prairie Ridge soon!

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)

Blue Corporal Dragonfly (What Time is it in Nature)

April 18, 2015

Spring has returned to Prairie Ridge and you can once again see insects out and about on the grounds!  Eastern Carpenter Bees are excavating nests and Black Swallowtail caterpillars have started to appear in the garden.  Near the pond, you can find a variety of dragonflies flying around.  One species of dragonfly you are most likely to spot in the spring, the Blue Corporal (Ladona deplanata).

Blue corporal adult

Blue Corporals are one of the first dragonfly species we find near the pond every year.  They are small by dragonfly standards, about 1.5 inches long.  When they first emerge as adults in the spring, they are brown with hairy thoraxes and yellow markings on the sides of their abdomen.  Over time, the males will develop a waxy layer over their thorax and abdomen that will turn them a deep blue color.  Both males and females have black markings at the base of their wings.

Like other dragonflies, Blue Corporals spend most of their lives in water.  After mating, females deposit their eggs in the water.  The nymphs that result are important pond predators, eating other insects and small tadpoles and helping control their populations.  After they have molted several times and grown to the proper size, they will crawl out of the water, break open their last nymphal exoskeleton, pull their body and new wings out, and become adults on land.  Blue Corporals are hunters as adults as well, whizzing about the shores alongside ponds in search of insects to eat.

Blue Corporals are one of the earliest dragonflies to emerge throughout much of their range and are often gone by late May or early June.  You’ll often see them perched on logs in ponds or on the shoreline, with males fighting vigorously for the best positions.  You can also find them sitting on the ground in open areas near the water or basking in the sunny patches on roads, buildings, or tree trunks.

On your next visit to Prairie Ridge, take a stroll down to the pond and look for dragonflies.  You’re most likely to see newly emerged Blue Corporals flying weakly over the grass along the shore.  Soon we’ll start to see blue individuals around the grounds, hunting insects and adding a splash of color to the increasingly green landscape!

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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

Spring Returns to Prairie Ridge (What Time is it in Nature)

April 11, 2015

It’s spring once again at Prairie Ridge!  The strange weather over the past winter has resulted in some strange things happening on the grounds this spring, but there is a lot of new activity to see next time you visit.

The Red Maples are blooming.  The huge female near the picnic tables is currently covered in tens of thousands of bright reddish-orange flowers.  If pollinated, these flowers will eventually develop into green seeds that will change colors as they age from peach…

Maple seeds

… to red. Each seed has the potential to become a new tree if it finds the right conditions.

There have been a few dragonflies near the pond recently!  The Common Green Darners made an earlier-than-usual appearance this year:

green darner dragonfly

The timing of the Darner appearance suggests that the individuals we’ve been seeing are migratory individuals who are currently traveling through North Carolina on their way further north.  The Dragonfly Swarm Project has been reporting migratory activity south of us, so we will likely continue to see migratory Green Darners in the area for a while before the local Darners emerge from the pond later this spring.

We have been hearing frogs again at Prairie Ridge!  The Northern Cricket Frogs have been active in the temporary pools scattered across the grounds, calling loudly for mates.  We’ve spotted some massive tadpoles in the pond, so we’re likely to start hearing Bullfrogs and Green Frogs calling soon too!

The Wild Columbines are blooming in the Nature Neighborhood Garden and along the paved portion of the Forest Trail:

Eastern columbine

These gorgeous flowers are an important nectar source for a lot of our earliest bees.  Some of the bees active on the grounds now, such as the Eastern Carpenter Bees, are too big to fit inside the flowers.  Several large bees are known to “nectar rob” Columbines, chewing a hole into the base of the flower and taking the nectar from the outside rather than crawling inside.  Bees that nectar rob provide minimal pollination to the plants, reaping all of the rewards with little of the work.

And finally, the Purple Martins are back!

purple martins

The Martins were first spotted on the grounds on March 10 and we are seeing more and more individuals flying in each week.  Soon, we’ll have our usual vibrant summer colony of Martins flying around the prairie, swooping over the pond, and calling out with their distinctive chirps.

Spring is a great time to visit Prairie Ridge!  There is always something interesting to see and something new happening.  Things change so fast you could see something different everyday.  Make a trip out to Prairie Ridge and see what YOU can see this spring!

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!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)


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