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Autumn Meadowhawk (What Time is it in Nature)

November 21, 2015

The recent cool weather has driven many of the insects away from Prairie Ridge, but there are still a few cool weather insects visible on the grounds.  One showy example is the Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), a dragonfly you may find lurking around the pond.

Autumn Meadowhawk.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Autumn Meadowhawk. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Autumn Meadowhawks are fairly small as dragonflies go, reaching a little over an inch in length.  Their long, slender bodies start off pale yellow and brown and turn more and more red as they age.  At this time of year and late in their season, most male Autumn Meadowhawks sport bright red abdomens with brown thoraxes tinged with red.  Females, such as the one in the photo above, are also reddish, but are generally duller red and they have brown markings along the sides of the abdomen.  Both sexes, however, have pale legs, a characteristic that distinguishes them from other similar dragonflies.  In fact, this species used to be known as the Yellow-legged Meadowhawk due to its pale yellow legs.

Autumn Meadowhawks are active from the summer through the late fall or early winter, making them one of the last species of dragonflies you’re likely to see before they disappear entirely for the winter.  They’re common across most of the US apart from the southwestern states, though the northwestern and eastern populations may eventually be recognized as two separate, distinct populations.  Within their native distribution, you’ll find Autumn Meadowhawks near marshes, permanent ponds, and occasionally very slow-moving streams, though look for them away from water.  They’re most likely to be spotted at the tops of vegetation or high in bushes a little further from the water’s edge than you might expect.  On warm fall and winter days, you might also find them basking in sunny spots close to the ground.

This species is behaviorally different from most of the dragonflies.   They tend to rest higher off the ground, and you’ll usually find them away from water.  Unlike most dragonflies, this species completes most of their courtship away from water, only visiting a pond or marsh after mating has already taken place and the female is ready to lay eggs.  Males and females will fly around in tandem (i.e., with the male grasping the female behind her head with clasping appendages at the end of his abdomen) and lay eggs together, the female dipping her abdomen in the water repeatedly as they fly.  Autumn Meadowhawks are relatively tolerant of other individuals of their own species, perhaps because males are not competing for territories near the water.  Sometimes you’ll find large groups of Autumn Meadowhawks in an area, a very unusual behavior among dragonflies.

We’ve seen a lot of Autumn Meadowhawks near the Prairie Ridge pond lately!  Look for them sitting in sunny patches of bare dirt between the bird blind and the pond or you may spot one sitting on one of the wooden platforms near the water.  In spite of the cooler daytime temperatures and frosty nights, the Autumn Meadowhawks have put on a good show recently.  We hope you’ll stop by soon to see 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.

Binturongs: Pivotal Personalities in Rainforest Conservation

November 16, 2015

Source: Binturongs: Pivotal Personalities in Rainforest Conservation

An interview with Mindy Stinner, co-founder and Executive Director of the Conservators Center in Burlington, North Carolina.

Eastern Broom (What Time is it in Nature)

November 14, 2015

The landscape of Prairie Ridge is transitioning into its typically drab winter appearance, but there are still a few pops of brightness on the grounds!  One late-blooming plant, Eastern Broom (Baccharis halimifolia), is putting on a great show currently.

Eastern Broom

Eastern Broom. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Eastern Broom is a shrub belonging to the sunflower family, Asteraceae.  Though some taller plants are known, most individuals of this species top out at about 6 feet and reach about equal width.  The leaves area oval in shape, with leaves near the tips of the stems smooth along the edges and leaves further down with a few broad teeth:

Eastern Broom leaves.

Eastern Broom leaves. Photo by Chris Goforth.

The plant is found naturally in most states along the eastern coast of the US, the Gulf of Mexico coastal states, and into Mexico and the Caribbean.

Eastern Broom is know by a variety of other common names, including Eastern Baccharis, Silverling, Sea Myrtle, and Saltbush.  Many of these names describe some of the plant’s interesting characteristics.  For example, the name Silverling refers to the flowers of this plant.  Eastern Broom is dioecious, which means that individual plants are either male or female and produce different types of flowers based on their sex.  Male flowers are 5 lobed and have a slightly yellow coloration.  They produce a lot of nectar, but do not produce seeds since they are male.  Females produce dense clusters of long, thread-like flowers and these flower clusters are found in clusters themselves:

Eastern Broom flowers.

Eastern Broom flowers. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Female flowers are bright white and slightly shiny, giving them a silvery appearance in the right light.  The common name Silverling refers to the huge abundance of silvery flowers that female plants exhibit when they bloom in the fall.

Two other common names of the Eastern Broom hint at another characteristic of the plant: Saltbush and Sea Myrtle.  Eastern Broom is unusually salt tolerant and grows readily along the coastal plains of its native range.  It can survive sea spray and salty, sandy soils, making it an ideal plant for people who live in coastal areas and want to add a shrub with fall blooms to their landscaping.  Eastern Broom is also tolerant of a variety of soil types, soil moisture levels, light levels, and fire regimes, making it a highly versatile plant.

Eastern Broom is an important source of nectar for the last few insects that persist into the fall.  The male flowers are full of nectar and attract many butterflies (including Monarchs), bees, and other late season nectar feeding insects.  Because insects visit the flowers in abundance, the plant is also indirectly attractive to songbirds who feed on the insects.  It is, however, fairly toxic to humans and other mammals.  Foraging animals avoid it, which in some cases lead to Eastern Broom becoming overabundant in pasturelands and other areas that are heavily browsed by animals.

The Eastern Brooms at Prairie Ridge are currently weighed down by masses of bright white flowers.  They are just starting to go to seed, so now is a great time to make a trip to see these beautiful shrubs in their showiest form.  We hope to see you 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 EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

Flies on Fall Flowers (What Time is it in Nature)

November 7, 2015

Fall is setting in and with it comes a lot of changes across the Prairie Ridge landscape.  Leaves are changing colors, many plants are disappearing, and there are far fewer insects out and about than there were just a few weeks ago.  However, there are still some insects active at Prairie Ridge!  One group, the hover flies, has been especially abundant recently and have been taking advantage of the last of the available flowers before the cooler weather sets in.

Take a look at any Frost Aster or Aromatic Aster at Prairie Ridge and you’re likely to find at least one species of hover fly!  Hover flies belong to the insect family Syrphidae, a huge family with about 6000 species described so far.  Because the hover fly family is so large, there is huge variation among species.  Some hover flies are small and slender while others are big and broad.  However, most hover flies have spots of bright color on them and many species mimic bees or wasps.  Almost all hover flies also share a strange wing vein, called the spurious vein, that no other insects have.

There are quite a few species flying around Prairie Ridge these days and they show some remarkable variation.  This fly is very small, just shy of 3/16th inch:

Hover fly.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Hover fly. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Just a few flowers away, however, you might find this much larger hover fly:

Hover fly.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Hover fly. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Both of these flies have the characteristic black and yellow patterns you’ll see in many bee and wasp species.  This individual bears a striking resemblance to a Honey Bee:

Hover fly.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Hover fly. Photo by Chris Goforth.

On first glance, it is easy to mistake this fly for a bee!  It’s got similar coloration and has a rather fuzzy body.  However, notice that the fly has only two wings.  Flies belong to the order Diptera, which means “two wings.”  Flies have modified their hind wings into structures called halteres, which are thought to act like gyroscopes to let a fly know how it is positioned in the air.  The fly in the photo above also has short antennae of a typically fly like style.  Bees, on the other hand, have four wings and much longer antennae:

Honey bee.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Honey bee. Photo by Chris Goforth.

You can also tell the two apart based on how they fly.  Hover flies get their common name from a rather unique flight ability: they can hover in place.  You’ve probably come across these flies before hovering 2-4 feet off the ground and dashing away as you approach.

Many people are scared of hover flies because they either mistake them for bees or wasps or think they can sting, but they are harmless to people.  Hover fly adults tend to feed on nectar and pollen, so you’ll often see them at flowers.  Their larvae feed on a huge variety of things.  Some are detritivores and help break down dead plant materials.  Some species live in water (including the aptly named rat-tailed maggots) and break down aquatic materials in the bottom of mucky ponds.  Still other species feed on dung or plants.  Most hover fly larvae, however, are predators and perform an essential role in controlling populations of plant pests such as aphids.  In fact, many gardeners will plant flowers to attract hover flies and encourage them to lay eggs in their garden so that they can benefit from the natural pest control services provided by the hover fly maggots.

Cooler weather is coming and the hover flies will disappear along with the flowers soon, so come on out to Prairie Ridge in the next few weeks for a chance to see these amazing and charismatic flies.  You may be surprised by the variation and abundance of flies you’ll find out and 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.

biotraNsC – Coming Soon to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences

November 4, 2015

WeDigBio2 At the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, we love to bring our visitors (whether on site or online) new opportunities to get involved in research as citizen scientists. As part of a grant we received earlier this year from the National Science Foundation, we’re working to bring you a new project, called biotraNsC, that will allow citizen scientists everywhere to get involved in the massive and important task of digitizing scientific collection records.

Why is this important?  Well, scientists have been collecting specimens for research collections for hundreds of years.  Until very recently, all of those records were handwritten on paper.  Handwritten collection logbooks and specimen labels are priceless, containing essential information about research specimens housed at museums worldwide.  However, we now live in a technological age.  Not only are handwritten logbooks and labels at risk from fire, water damage, rodents, mold, and other hazards that could destroy them, but we have an unprecedented opportunity to give everyone far greater access to research collections than ever before.  By transcribing and digitizing this precious data, we not only protect the irreplaceable information stored in handwritten records, but we allow researchers to do research without expensive travel. The public will also be allowed to interact digitally with collections that they have never been allowed access to before.

WeDigBio3This is what we plan to do with the biotraNsC project. Our Museum has over 130 years of records, but only part of our holdings have been brought into the modern age through digitization efforts.  The Museum has also recently acquired several large and historically important collections from other museums that need to be incorporated into our own.  We have the staff to physically sort, catalog, store, and maintain the specimens from these collections, but the logbooks and data labels are another matter entirely.  It would take years for these records to be digitized by staff alone – but YOU can help by participating in biotraNsC!  We’re building an online portal where you can create a free account and help us transcribe the massive backlog of logbooks and data labels, starting with the herpetology (reptile and amphibian) and ichthyology (fish) collections.  We hope to eventually offer similar opportunities for other collections in our holdings as well.

Because we are building our own digitization citizen science project, we recently jumped at the chance to be a part of a worldwide data transcription event called WeDigBio. Developed by staff at iDigBio, an organization dedicated to the advancement of digitization of scientific research collections, the event consisted of numerous satellite “transcription parties” hosted by museums and universities across the globe.

We held our satellite party during the Museum’s member’s open house on October 24. During our event, we showcased our upcoming project while also giving visitors a chance to participate in some of the current digitization citizen science projects available online.  Throughout the day, we had about 75 people help us transcribe data labels for crab, bumble bee, and other biological collections available through Notes from Nature and the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  Worldwide, the event engaged hundreds of citizen scientists who transcribed over 30,000 labels and other specimen information over the four-day event.

WeDigBio1We’re already excited about getting involved in WeDigBio again next year! If all goes well, we’ll be able to get people involved in our own project, biotraNsC, so that we can enlist volunteers worldwide to help us digitize North Carolina’s unique biological research collections.  With your help, the huge process of digitizing our collection information will become simple as hundreds to thousands of citizen scientists each do a small part individually to huge effect collectively.  We hope you’ll join us!

We’re hoping to offer biotraNsC online in late spring 2016. We’ll also have beta testing opportunities.  Keep and eye out here and on the Museum’s Google+ page for those and other behind the scenes opportunities to help us make biotraNsC great!

Blackgum (What Time is it in Nature)

October 24, 2015

This week’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Kylie Piper.  Kylie is junior at NCSU, majoring in environmental science and she is currently interning with citizen science at Prairie Ridge.  Thanks Kylie!

Fall is a time of change, especially change in leaf colors. Prairie Ridge is a great place to come and see the fall transitions. One brilliant display of this currently is the Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica).

Blackgum tree.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Blackgum tree. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Blackgum is a medium to large tree that typically reaches heights of 60-80 feet. It is densely leafy and the canopy grows in a conical shape with clusters of leaves at the tips of the branches.  The leaves are leathery and positioned opposite one another along the stems.  During the spring and summer, the leaves are a shiny, deep green, but they turn vibrant shades of yellow, orange, red, and/or purple in the fall:

Blackgum leaf cluster.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Blackgum leaf cluster. Photo by Chris Goforth.

The Blackgum ranges from the east coast states to parts of eastern Texas. It can survive in a variety of habitats from creek bottoms to altitudes of 3,000 ft and can survive mild flooding to drier soil conditions. Trees that live in wetter areas tend to grow much larger than trees in drier conditions and this enables them to have a wide range. The Blackgum is also well adapted to fire with its thick bark and high moisture content. This is important because some habitats, like prairies, depend on periodic burning and this adaptation increases the survivability of the Blackgum in more areas.

The Blackgum, sometimes also referred to as the Black Tupelo, depends on animal consumption of its fruits for seed dispersal. The tree grows purplish-blue fruits that are a great attractant for many birds and mammals:

Blackgum berries.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Blackgum berries. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Animals who eat the fruits pass the seeds somewhere else, spreading the trees across their range naturally. Additional trees have been planted by humans because of the vibrant fall colors and its attractiveness to animals.

This tree is primarily used by humans as an ornamental tree in gardens or for shade but other uses include honey production and some wood products. The Blackgum aids honey production because in the wild, bees liked to use hollow places in the trunk to build their hives. The wood from the Blackgum is heavy, hard, and difficult to split after it’s been dried, so it has been used for products like mauls, pulleys, and agricultural rollers. In gardens it’s a great alternative to non-native species. It adds aesthetic value with its spectacular leaf color changes and adds biological value to a garden because it attracts a lot of wildlife. Planting native species is also advantageous because they require less maintenance since they’re already adapted to the climate and moisture conditions of the area. This saves money, water, and energy on your part and provides habitat for animals in your area.

The Blackgum tree could be a great addition to your garden or yard, so make a trip to Prairie Ridge soon to see its show of fall colors. We have a couple of Blackgums near the entrance kiosk to greet visitors. Fall is an exciting time of change in the environment and Prairie Ridge is a great place to enjoy all the beauty that nature has to offer!

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.

Return of the Bittern (What Time is it in Nature)

October 10, 2015

It’s official: our overwintering American Bittern has returned to Prairie Ridge!  This is the third fall it has appeared at Prairie Ridge and we hope that it will stick around all winter the way it has the last two years.

Bittern standing in the pond

American Bittern at Prairie Ridge. Photo by Chris Goforth,

This gorgeous bird is a member of the heron family, though it’s one of the smaller, stockier members.  Their feathers are mostly brown and cream and their long legs are yellow. They’re hard to see because their feathers and legs blend in so well with the surrounding vegetation.

You’ll most often see the Bittern at Prairie Ridge doing one of two things, hunting or hiding.  Bitterns eat a variety of aquatic animals, including the frogs, tadpoles, and insects that are abundant in the pond.  Once it spots something it wants to eat, it will very slowly walk toward it, swaying from side to side a bit as it moves. When it comes within striking range, it will poke its beak into the water with impressive speed and clamp down on its prey before tipping its head back and swallowing it whole.

Hiding is relatively easy for Bitterns given that their coloration so closely resembles their preferred habitat, densely vegetated marshy areas. A Bittern sitting still is hard to see and a Bittern moving slowly is only slightly easier to spot.  Bitterns will also point their beaks skyward and stretch out their necks to their full height, then sway gently back and forth.  By doing this, the bird looks so much like a clump of dry cattails blowing in the breeze that they’re very difficult to see.

The Bittern that overwinters at Prairie Ridge, however, is often out in the open where you can spot it easily.  On your next visit, head down to the pond and scan the banks and marshy areas of the water.  You may find the Bittern lurking in the cattails or hunting in the shallows under the willows.  If you happen to see someone with binoculars or a camera, it might be worth asking what they’re looking at!  Finding the Bittern is a lot easier if someone’s already done the hard work for you and can simply point it out.

If you haven’t seen our winter visitor the last two years, now is the perfect time to head out to Prairie Ridge to look for the Bittern!  It might be a little hard to find at first, but this charismatic and beautiful bird is well worth the effort.

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.


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