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Another Great “Moths at Night” Event at Prairie Ridge

July 27, 2019

It’s National Moth Week! This international, week-long celebration of moths and other nighttime insects gets people outside to appreciate an often overlooked part of our natural world. The Museum has participated in National Moth Week every year since its beginning in 2012, hosting a big public moth night each year at Prairie Ridge – and 2019 was our best year yet!

How do we celebrate National Moth Week? By taking advantage of moth biology and behaviors! Our Moths at Night event is centered around highly attractive light stations. Everyone knows that moths come to lights, and we put up special kinds of lights that they like the best. Then we shine the lights onto white sheets. The lights attract the insects and the sheets give the insects something to hold on to when they come to the lights. All our light stations had this same basic setup, but we had a lot of different styles of lights this year.

Most of our light stations are ultraviolet (UV or blacklight) lights of some sort:

CFL UV light station

These lights emit UV light that moths and other insects love! We tried three different types of blacklights this year: compact fluorescent UV bulbs, UV floodlights, and a battery powered LED blacklight strip light. The latter was new this year and we were really pleased with it! We plugged it into a phone charger battery and it ran easily through the entire program – no electrical outlets/generator or extension cords required!

We also used a mercury vapor light. These emit a wide range of light wavelengths – both visible and UV – so that they are very attractive to a wide range of species. Mercury vapor lights are very popular with entomologists because they’re a really big bang for your buck in terms of attracting night insects. Our mercury vapor light almost always has the greatest variety and abundance of insects, so it’s always a good bet for bring in amazing insects.

We saw some great moths this year! This Blind-eyed Sphinx was the highlight of the night for a lot of people:

Blind-eyed Sphinx Moth

It arrived early for a large moth, shortly after dark, and it hung around through the whole event, so everyone was able to see it. They have a really beautiful pink underwing with a large eyespot that’s hidden when they keep their wings closed like in the photo.

These moths were very common, as always:

Elegant Grass Veneer

Elegant Grass Veneers live in grassy areas, like the lawn surrounding our classroom, so it was no surprise to see a large number of them.

This Brown-shaded Gray illustrates why it’s always worth taking a second look at the drab moths:

Brown-shaded Gray Moth

How beautiful is this moth? It’s not obvious at all unless you get up close and really look, but then you get to see all the lovely swirls and patches of color.

The lights were the focus of the event, but we had other things to keep people engaged. The North Carolina Entomological Society brought several live insects, some pinned specimens, and a craft and most people at the event asked them insect questions. Their table was a big hit! We also had an assortment of moth crafts and Moth Bingo. People who got a bingo by seeing at least 5 of the species on their bingo card won a moth button to take home at the end of the night.

We don’t just look at moths at Moths at Night – we participate in science too! The National Moth Week organizers partnered with iNaturalist this year to gather data on moth sightings all week, so we encouraged people to photograph the moths they saw and share them through iNaturalist. We also offered a variety of resources that people could use to identify the moths they saw, including some they could take home to continue their mothing adventures on their own.

The moths were the star of the event, but there were a lot of other insect species attracted to the lights. However, the most popular non-moth animals had to have been the Southern Flying Squirrels! Apologies for the bad photo, but it’s hard to photograph a small, moving mammal in the dark:

Southern Flying Squirrels

Two squirrels took advantage of the seed in the bird feeder near the mercury vapor light station, so many people were able to get a good look – and sometimes a first ever look – at these adorable little squirrels while they gorged themselves on seed. They eventually glided off into the woods, but we were so happy they stopped by!

Overall, we had nearly 100 people join us to enjoy moths, other insects, crafts, live insect displays, and flying squirrels. Another successful, fun National Moth Week event! If you missed it, you’ll have to wait to join us next year, but National Moth Week runs through tomorrow, Sunday, July 28, so you still have a few nights to celebrate on your own. We’d love to hear about what you see, so comment below if you find any moths!

Nature’s Notebook: An Uncommon Occurrence

December 15, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert, 2018 fall intern at Prairie Ridge.  She is a senior at NC State and is graduating with a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife concentration in a few days.  Thanks, Morgan!

Here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation, we do periodic checks of trees for Nature’s Notebook, a citizen science project that collects phenological data on plants and animals nationwide.  (Phenology is the study of the events that occur in the annual life cycle of a species.)  Tree phenology research is focused on the leaves, leaf buds, flower, fruits, etc of the trees. You may ask who does the collection, scientists, researchers, or dendrologists (scientists who study the structure and characteristics of trees)?  Well anyone can, including you! All you need is a basic knowledge of native trees (easily learned!), a data sheet, and a pencil.  For very tall trees, you may also need binoculars. Then print a packet for each of the trees you want to monitor from the Nature’s Notebook website to help you identify the tree, answer all the questions, and record the data for that tree.  

For example, say I am trying to find out whether a tree I want to monitor is a Black Cherry or not.  How do I start? First I look through the Nature’s Notebook packet for Black Cherry, where the first few pages will explain what the Black Cherry looks like, including a few photographs with the leaves and bark (Black Cherry has noticeable horizontal etches on the bark – see photo below).  Once I figure out if the tree is a Black Cherry, I then look up at the branches and answer a series of questions to determine how many leaves, buds, flowers, and fruits are on it. This is all quite easy to figure out since the packet gives you steps to follow. After collecting these data, I move on to the other trees on my list.  Here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation, we collect data from Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Pecan (Carya illinoinensis), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Boxelder (Acer negundo), Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

bark of black cherry
This is an older Black Cherry with scraggly bark.  Younger trees will have smoother bark with more notable horizontal etches (those are actually lenticels, which are used for gas exchange in trees).  Photo by Morgan Gilbert.

Usually trees will bloom and grow leaves during certain times of the year. However, two of our native trees here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation have been doing odd things from October through December.  For instance, our Eastern Redbud has bloomed in November and December for the past four or five years. This tree will go into full bloom early next year, but blooming at all in the fall is strange. 

This timeline shows when the Eastern Redbud at Prairie Ridge has flowered in 2016 (top) and 2017 (bottom).  This year it is blooming right now!

Our other oddity, the Boxelder, has started to show opening leaf buds and leaves during November.  Boxelder breaking leaf buds and leaves do not usually start showing until the beginning of the year.

This timeline shows the random leaf buds on the Boxelder opening up during November of 2017 (top).  This same tree also started showing some leaves this year in November (bottom, though the most recent data has not been entered yet, so it does not appear on this timeline). Weird!

Now a big question we are asking is why exactly is this happening? Is it that weird spurt of warmth, does this always happen, or is this something new? Looking through the data from the past 10 years, I found that the Eastern Redbud did not bloom during October-December of 2009 but did bloom in during October of 2010.  The Eastern Redbud continued to bloom off-and-on up until 2014, where has bloomed in November and December every year. Unfortunately we do not have any data prior to 2008.  With more data we could figure out why these plants are blooming or growing leaves during the winter, which is part of why we collect data for Nature’s Notebook.  By sharing data with Nature’s Notebook over the long term, we will be able to detect trends in the future.

If you would like to collect data on your trees or learn more, head on over to Nature’s Notebook and begin your adventure!  Or, attend a Citizen Science Saturday or a training at Prairie Ridge to get some hands on experience with us in the project.  We’d love to help get you started!


WeDigBio 2018

November 17, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert.  Morgan is a senior at NC State and is majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife concentration.  She is interning for the Citizen Science Unit at Prairie Ridge this semester.  Thanks, Morgan!

wedigbio_edited_600

A WeDigBio participant learns about CitSciScribe, the Museum’s data transcription citizen science project, from fish collections manager Gabriela Hogue.

WeDigBio is a citizen science event that collaborates with the public to transcribe data labels of biological specimens and event information into online databanks.  Once transcribed, this digitized data then becomes readily available to scientists and the public, allowing everyone access to information all around the globe. The information being digitized focuses primarily on specimen samples, such as fish in jars, pinned insects, pressed plants, and fossils.  Another common focus is on dragonfly swarm appearances, which involves the location, how many were seen, what time of day, what the weather conditions were during the swarm, information on surroundings, and who collected the data. These labels can be very intensive depending on the focal point.

WeDigBio was launched in 2015 by a group of representatives from iDigBio, Florida State University, University of Florida, the Australian Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. These representatives realized the importance of involving the public to make things happen faster and more efficiently, while also promoting awareness and research.  With this focus, they created a global effort that allowed anyone to log in to a website and then transcribe however much they want.

Originally it was difficult for museums, universities and collectors to provide information on the vast amounts of specimens and information they harbored.  Scientists would have to check in with the manager for each collection they needed information from and wait until they received word back. It also took time to search through the files to find the specific creatures needed.  Then they had to process the specimen and make sure it was ready to travel. Just finding the information added on to the amount of time it took to process the specimen, which could take days up to months depending on where the specimen needed to be sent.  Thanks to WeDigBio, information on specimens is now readily available to scientists and researchers all around the world.

Now, each year during a four-day event, hundreds of people around the world join in and work on transcribing as much as possible.  Just this year, over 43,000 specimens have been transcribed to digital. That is quite a lot, but there are still many more to be worked on.  At these events, a few scientists involved with the collections will show up and speak to the attendees about what they do with the collections and some of the current research being done with the help of the specimens.  This aids to the growing interest and creates an increasing need for more information.

Tagging Monarch Butterflies

October 6, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert!  Morgan is a senior at NC State and is majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife Concentration.  She is interning for the Citizen Science Unit at Prairie Ridge this semester.  Thanks, Morgan!

With nets in hand, today’s Citizen Science Saturday started out with a bang, chasing after Monarch butterflies along the prairie.  The intent this time not just to observe them up close, but to place a minuscule sticker on the hindwing. On this sticker is an ID number that helps researchers track the migration flight of the butterfly.  The sticker is also specifically made light and with a strong adhesive so as to minimally affect the butterfly during migration.

Catching these lepidopterans was quite an excitement, with each being caught in unique ways.  The first of our hunt was patiently sitting on a flower and barely reacted when a net was placed over it.  Once within the net, the catcher then gently pinches the top of the base of all four wings close to the butterfly’s body (as seen in the picture below).  In this position, the butterfly is immobile and will not be injured. The scales will not come off easily either. A sticker is then attached to the largest cell located on the hindwing.  After a sticker is attached, the butterfly is then released. A total of three Monarchs were caught and tagged during this expedition. One of those tagged crawled right onto someone’s hand. The other had to be chased.

Monarch male, before tagging

Monarch male, before tagging. Photo by Morgan Gilbert.

Monarch male, after tagging

Monarch male, after tagging. Photo by Morgan Gilbert.

Other than placing a sticker, we also recorded information on each Monarch, including the tag number, sex, status, and date and location where the butterfly was captured.  To tell the males apart from the females, we look for a large black spot on a vein on their hindwing.  You can see this scent gland on the hindwing of the male in the image below.

Monarch male sitting on Ironweed.

Monarch male sitting on Ironweed.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

The migration of the Monarch butterflies was discovered by Dr. Fred Urquhart, who developed the first method of butterfly tagging in the 1940s and called on the help of hundreds of citizen scientists to track the migration.  After nearly 30 years of tagging and research, Monarchs were finally discovered overwintering in the fir forests of the mountains of Mexico by citizen scientists. Since then, over a dozen sites have been discovered within the area.  

The butterflies we tag here will make their trip into Mexico starting in November.  Come next March, the butterflies will then migrate back into the United States to lay eggs and begin a new generation.  

The ID’s of the three caught on September 20 at Prairie Ridge were YXA 829, YXA 832, and YXA 837.  You can follow our butterflies on https://www.monarchwatch.org/tagmig/recoveries.htm in late spring or summer of 2019!

Featured Creature: Monarch Butterfly

September 28, 2018

Monarch about to lay egg on common milkweed. Photo: Mike Dunn.

Monarch on milkweed. Photo: Mike Dunn.

Monarch butterflies are iconic and easily recognized residents of the Americas. They are widely distributed across North America, from Mexico northwards to southern Canada, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts.

What’s special about them?

One of the most notable characteristics of these butterflies is the remarkable 3000-mile journey they make to their overwintering grounds in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico in the fall. From mid-September through mid-October migrating monarchs pass through North Carolina, most prominently in the mountains and at the coast.

See live monarchs today!

Here at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, we fly monarch butterflies in the Living Conservatory, commonly thought of as the “butterfly room”! While they may look the same as the monarchs you see outside, our monarchs are raised on butterfly farms and belong to a non-migratory subspecies generally found throughout the Caribbean, Central America and south to the Amazon River.

Did you know that migrating monarchs are declining in number?

Population surveys are conducted annually at monarch overwintering grounds. This past winter showed a 14.8% decline from the previous year and an overall 90% decrease in population from just 20 years ago. Several factors play a role in monarch population decline, including habitat loss and climate change.

What can you do to help?

It’s as simple as planting a garden with native milkweed and nectar plants. Then take it a step further – participate in citizen science projects such as the Monarch Watch tagging program and support local and national conservation organizations to preserve this amazing natural phenomenon.

Scientific Name: Danaus plexippus

Taxonomy

  • Class: Insecta (insects)
  • Order: Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths)
  • Family: Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies)
  • Subfamily: Danainae (milkweed butterflies)
  • Genus: Danaus
  • Species: plexippus

Photo Gallery

By Martha Flanagan
Head, Living Conservatory
martha.flanagan@naturalsciences.org

Citizen Science Saturday’s eBird: A Firsthand Experience

August 31, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert!  Morgan is a senior at NC State and is majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife Concentration.  She is interning for the Citizen Science Unit at Prairie Ridge this semester.  Thanks, Morgan!

For nearly 10 years, Museum staff at Prairie Ridge Ecostation have conducted public citizen science eBird walks and submitted their sightings.  eBird was developed as a way for birdwatchers, or birders for short, to provide information on where and when specific species of birds are found.  This information is then used by scientists and researchers to, among other things, track the migration of birds around the world and to see what impacts climate change has had on birds.  eBird now receives millions of sightings each year, many of which are generated through citizen science programs.  Along with eBird, Prairie Ridge also organizes various other citizen science programs such as Natural North Carolina, Lost Ladybug, and many more.

The eBird Walk was the first Citizen Science Saturday event I had ever attended at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Being new to bird watching, I was quite worried that my limited knowledge of native birds might make it difficult to enjoy and assist in identifying birds for the eBird data.  However, within a few minutes, it became apparent to me that this program was built to bring people in, whether new to birding or seasoned in the field, and that I was not the only person there that could at best recognize a Northern Cardinal.  I was also about to find out why this location is so popular for birders!

After a short introduction about Prairie Ridge Ecostation (I had no idea just how large this place was!) and the purpose of Citizen Science Saturdays, we moseyed down to the birdfeeders to find out what granivorous (seed/grain eating) birds we would find.  At these feeders, I saw Red-winged Blackbirds, Carolina Chickadees, a Pine Warbler, and lots of Northern Cardinals.  I was also excited to see a few Purple Martins hanging out around hollowed-out gourds.  Everywhere I looked there was a new bird to identify!  The only difficulty was that we had to make sure they were properly identified before marking them down in our datasheet.  Marking down improperly identified birds will provide inaccurate information to eBird.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Next we wandered off towards the pond counting murmurations of European Starlings and trying to figure out if we were seeing Song Sparrows or Chipping Sparrows.  A good way to find this out is to look for patches of black on the head.  Song Sparrows have some black lines near the eye and a black spot on the head, Chipping Sparrows have only brown. At the pond we looked for birds in and around the water.  I was able to spot a few Hooded Mergansers.  Someone spotted a Canada Goose and another Chipping Sparrow.  After identifying all the birds we could find, we then headed back to the bird feeders to see if any more birds had come out in our absence.

The popularity of Prairie Ridge Ecostation for birders is due to the vast variety of bird species found during each month of the year.  Just in the first hour of Citizen Science Saturday, we saw and identified over 20 species!  I have never seen that many birds in a week!

At the end of this session I felt like I had a better grasp on identifying birds and that I learned quite a few things about their characteristics.  For example, Eastern Towhees preferred to forage on the ground under the feeders and the Blue Jay intimidates all the other birds off the feeder.  I also had no idea what a challenge it was to tell birds apart while they are flitting around the ground.  Oftentimes birds will stick in pairs or groups, such as female Northern Cardinals staying close to the males or the Mourning Doves hanging in groups of 2-3.  This actually made it easier for me to count them.  Did you know that the European Starling was brought here by Eugene Schieffelin, who wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays?  I did not.  Now the starlings are highly invasive and have been negatively affecting our crops and local nesting birds.

It is very easy to fall in love with Prairie Ridge Ecostation and to become interested in the various events that are held here.  I was originally supposed to complete only 10 hours of Environmental Education volunteer experience for one of my classes at NCSU, but I enjoyed this so much that I continued volunteering after the 10 hours were finished.  I hope you will come join us and appreciate this program as much as I have!

Birds of Prairie Ridge (Part 1)

July 7, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

On the dim, early morning of June 23, I arrived at Prairie Ridge Ecostation at 6:30 AM to observe that week’s bird banding. I thought I was up early, but, upon reaching bird banders John Gerwin and Holly Ferreira, I learned that banding leader Keith Jensen had arrived long before to set up the mist nets. Former NCMNS intern Hanna Rogers wrote a great primer on how mist nests are used and bird banding is done at Prairie Ridge, which can be read here.

Once all of the expected banders arrived, regular rounds were made to check on all of the mist nets scattered around the prairie and arboretum. The first bird found was a beautiful male Indigo Bunting at a net near the lake. Further along, a Red-Bellied Woodpecker was also picked up during the round.

Male Indigo Bunting held in a photographer’s grip. This Bunting had a previous band, indicating it had been caught and banded before. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

Here, in its breeding plumage, this Indigo Bunting is an iridescent blue, an indicator that it’s a male. Female Indigo Buntings, on the other hand, are a light brown, although some do have a tinge of blue. A juvenile will look similar to a female, with the addition of faint white streaks on its back and breast. Once breeding season is over, this Indigo Bunting will molt for the winter until it becomes predominantly brown again. An interesting thing to note is that there is no blue pigment in the feather of these birds; the bright blue you see is actually created by a refraction of light. If it’s cloudy, an Indigo Bunting may appear black instead!

Left: Bander Holly Ferriera posing with the woodpecker.  Right: Checking the molting of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

Where the Indigo Bunting remained calm during the health measurements, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker was feistier. The red patch on the woodpecker’s head indicates that this young bird is most likely a male, as female Red-Bellied Woodpeckers usually just have red on their napes. A closer look at its abdomen would show a small patch of pale reddish-orange feathers that give the bird its name.

Around thirty minutes after the first round, another round was made. This round brought forth a northern cardinal and a brown thrasher.

Brown Thrasher being held in a bander’s grip for health measurements. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

This surprised looking fellow is a Brown Thrasher. These birds are reddish brown and the adults, like the one above, have yellow eyes. These birds eat acorns, wild fruits, and berries, but they also dine on lots of beetles and caterpillars. Although acorns are a significant part of their diet, the thrashers’ beaks are not well adapted to shelling them, so they often dig the acorns into the ground to break them open, just as if they were using a tool!

A Northern Cardinal getting its wings measured (left) and being prepared for release (right). Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably seen a Northern Cardinal before (or twenty!). Northern Cardinals are the state bird of North Carolina and a common permanent resident. These are our only red birds in the Carolinas to have a prominent crest, which are the feathers on the top of its head, like a funky hairstyle. The one captured above is a male, which have brighter, redder feathers than the brownish females. Listen carefully when you see one! They’re calls are often found to sound like “pretty-pretty-pretty,” which, when you see one, you can’t disagree!

These weren’t the only birds banded that morning! Make sure to keep your eyes out for Part 2 of Birds at Prairie Ridge, and, as always, keep up with the things happening at Prairie Ridge Ecostation on our Facebook or the Museum’s event page.