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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!

Hooded Merganser (What Time is it in Nature)

January 9, 2016

It’s winter, which means  that the variety of things you might see on a nature walk is somewhat diminished, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still interesting things to see outside!  At Prairie Ridge, we tend to see more ducks in the winter than in the summer, so now is a great time to see some of our winter aquatic visitors.  One of the showiest ducks we see is the Hooded Merganser.

Hooded Mergansers - one male and two females

Hooded Mergansers

As you can see from the photo, male and female Mergansers look quite different.  This species, as in many birds, is sexually dimorphic, which means that the males and the females are easily identified by their appearance.  Both sexes are relatively small for ducks with long, rounded tails and sit low in the water.  They also have large collapsible crests on their heads.  Male Mergansers are black on top, white on the bottom, and have reddish-brown sides with a black and white crest.  The females are mostly grey with some brown and have reddish-brown crests.

Hooded Mergansers are widespread ducks in North America, spending time in most areas of the country except the Great Plains.  They are relatively common ducks on small ponds and rivers and may be spotted in marshes and saltwater bays.  They feed primarily on fish, insects, crustaceans, amphibians, and plants they capture underwater.  Hooded Mergansers locate prey by sight, using special clear eyelids to protect their eyes underwater when they dive.  Their long, narrow beaks have a serrated edge that allows them to grasp slippery foods easily.

Hooded Mergansers are cavity nesting birds, so they breed in forested wetlands throughout their range.  Males court females by puffing up their crests, making a croaking call, and occasionally shaking or throwing their heads back.  You’ll often see a small group of males around one or more females, the males competing for mates.  Females do most of their nesting alone.  They find suitable nest cavities on their own and prepare it for eggs, but they also get no help from their mates during incubation as the males abandon their mates once they have completed their egg laying.  Merganser chicks hatch in about a month and jump from their nest to the ground when they are only one day old.  Their mother will lead them to the water where they will begin to hunt for themselves.

Like many other bird species, Hooded Merganser populations decreased hugely in the early twentieth century due to overhunting and the demand for feathers.  Since then, their population has rebounded and  is now stable.

The Hooded Mergansers are not on the Prairie Ridge pond everyday, but they are frequent morning visitors.  Next time you make plans to visit, consider coming right when we open at 9AM and heading straight to the pond.  You’re likely to see 10-15 of these gorgeous ducks swimming 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.

Dragonflies in December

January 2, 2016

One of the great things about participating in citizen science projects is the opportunity it gives you to see unusual things in nature. If you went outside at all in December, you probably noticed that it was unseasonably warm. That meant that a lot of strange things happened throughout North Carolina! At Prairie Ridge, we noted that the Eastern Redbud on our Nature’s Notebook Tree Trail put out a few flowers, even though it shouldn’t flower until spring. There were turtles out on the pond right up until the end of December when they would normally be hidden away out of the cold. And there were many insects out in a month where there is normally very little activity. Dragonflies in December are especially unusual, but we saw them this year – and it was quite exciting to our citizen scientists.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

We collect dragonfly data at Prairie Ridge for a variety of citizen science projects. Dragonfly Pond Watch is a project that studies the migration of five focal dragonfly species in North America. We collect data for this project year round because the dates where we report no dragonflies are just as important as those with dozens of dragonflies. However, we rarely see any of the migratory species beyond September. This year, we submitted a sighting for a Common Green Darner on December 11! December is well outside of this species’ normal season in our state, so it was very exciting – but strange – to see one flying at the pond so late in the year.

Other projects we report dragonfly data to aren’t specifically focused on dragonflies. We report a few select species, including the Common Green Darner, to Nature’s Notebook. This project is a phenology project, so it looks at the timing of recurring biological events. For the dragonfly species listed in the project, we count the number of individuals that are flying, feeding, migrating, etc. We submitted our December 11 Common Green Darner sighting to their database and reported that it was flying, but not feeding or mating. Active Green Darners in December are not a common occurrence in North Carolina, so our sighting could be important.

Autumn meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

We also photograph dragonflies and report them on our own Natural North Carolina project. We’re trying to document all the plants, animals, and fungi in the state with this project and dragonflies are an important species for many aquatic systems. We photographed Autumn Meadowhawks throughout a good part of December and will get our sightings uploaded to Natural North Carolina soon. Unlike the Common Green Darners, you might expect to see Autumn Meadowhawks out and about in December on occasion as they are active in the late fall. However, the sheer number of them this year made them conspicuous – it was very obvious that they were on the wing later and in much larger numbers than usual. And while we might expect to see a few Autumn Meadowhawks in December in North Carolina, you wouldn’t expect to see the same in, say, Maryland or Washington D.C. However, they were reported throughout New England well into December this year, a highly unlikely scenario!

We’re about to enter a period of relative cold, so the dragonflies will probably disappear for the rest of the winter. However, we’ll keep a sharp eye out for the fluttering of large, shiny wings in the coming months to see how many more out-of-season dragonfly sightings we can contribute to science.  While such sightings could indicate environmental problems, it’s still a lot of fun to see strange things and report them as citizen scientists.

Interning for Citizen Science at the NCMNS

December 12, 2015

This post is brought to you by Kylie Piper, current intern for citizen science based at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Kylie is currently a junior at NCSU and is pursuing a degree in environmental science.  She is also active in the ROTC and plans to go into the Army once she graduates. 

intern with monarch

Kylie Piper, Fall 2015 intern for citizen science/Prairie Ridge

Most college students have to participate in an internship to fulfill their degree requirements but finding something that you’re passionate about doing can be challenging. You want something that’s interesting, something that’s going to push you, something that’s going to teach you more about your field of study. Thankfully for me, I found all of that with a citizen science internship at Prairie Ridge through the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science.

I am a Junior at NC State pursuing an environmental science degree and interning at Prairie Ridge has given me hands on experience and insight on environmental science career opportunities. I got to work with many different citizen science programs where I learned a lot about biology, entomology, environmental science, and how to educate the general public on these subjects. Prairie Ridge is a great space for learning at all ages because of its ponds, stream, many nature trails, the outdoor classroom, the Nature Playspace, and most importantly, its many citizen science programs designed and run by the staff. The wonderful staff was very welcoming and knowledgeable; they were happy to include me in their projects and were always sharing their knowledge with me. They made this internship worthwhile because they took every opportunity to teach me about something new and gave me opportunities to lead citizen science programs.

One program I was fortunate enough to be a part of is called Nature Stories. Every Thursday a group of volunteers and employees gathers in the Nature Playspace amphitheater to read books about nature and then have some fun with activities designed to explain the concepts discussed. The program is tailored to engage young children and foster their interest for the world around them. We start the program by introducing ourselves and invite guests to greet their neighbors with a fun motion. For example on the day we learned about earthworms we greeted our neighbors by wiggling like worms. After our nature inspired greetings, we sing a song, read an interactive story, and then go out and play with the things we’ve learned about. One nature story was dedicated to wind and after the story we flew kites and let seeds float away in the wind. This program was especially rewarding for me because I got to be a part of something that inspires children to explore the world we live in and to develop an appreciation for it. Watching children come to understand what it means to be nocturnal or to see and identify the signs of fall was very exciting and inspirational to me because I got to share my love of the environment with young children and see their interest grow as well.

There were many other projects that I got to be a part of while interning at Prairie Ridge and each one was a learning experience. Each month I got to help move the camera traps that snap pictures of the wildlife. In doing this I had some run-ins with poison ivy and the notorious fire ants but I also got to see the Coyotes the cameras caught and even the Flying Squirrel! I’ve especially learned a lot about bugs at Prairie Ridge and I got a lot of hands on work with them as well. We’ve caught ladybugs for data collection, caught and tagged monarch butterflies, and I got to work the Dragonfly Detectives table at BugFest. I learned a lot about aquatic species as well by getting the chance to work with some very intelligent Raleigh Charter High School students who come out and collect samples of the pond water for a research project they’re doing with their mentor.

A lot of learning came from nature walks and exploring the grounds because it seemed that each time there was a species of plant or animal that was new and interesting to me. This was inspiration for the museum blog writings I’ve done throughout the semester. I got to explore Prairie Ridge and see what new things were happening to the environment as the seasons changed and there were always lots of interesting species. I would pick one, research it, and write about it. Most of the species I wrote about are native to North Carolina and that’s because Prairie Ridge was designed to include many of the species of plants that can be found all around the state.

I’m very grateful for the opportunity to intern at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation, I’ve gained knowledge and experience about the environmental science field and I had a great time doing it. I have gained valuable experience through this internship and I would highly recommend it to other students looking to further their education and understanding of the natural sciences. It’s a great place to intern but also a place for all ages to learn and explore. There are many volunteer opportunities and citizen science programs to get involved in and many trails to explore. This is a place that I really enjoy and I’m excited to keep coming back!

Thanks for all your help this semester, Kylie!  We appreciate all the amazing work you did.  The Museum’s citizen science program and Prairie Ridge have both benefitted greatly from your time with us.

Observing Bird Behaviors at Feeders (What Time is it in Nature)

November 28, 2015

We have a bird feeding station at Prairie Ridge just down the hill from the Outdoor Classroom that we keep stocked year round.  It’s a great place to watch birds and many people come to Prairie Ridge specifically to count, watch, and/or document the birds visiting the grounds.  If you find yourself with some time one day, try finding a place near the bird feeders and stand very still.  After the birds get used to your being there, you’re likely to start seeing some interesting interactions!

While all the feeders attract birds of various types, the peanut feeder is my favorite one to watch.  Peanuts are full of proteins and fats and are very popular with the birds at Prairie Ridge.  Some birds probably wouldn’t visit the feeders at all if it weren’t for the peanuts!  Watch long enough and you’ll start to see some interesting patterns among the species that visit.

Some birds like to hop onto the Prairie Ridge peanut feeder and stay in place until a more aggressive bird chases them off.  The House Finches are a great example of this:

House Finch

House Finch. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Both male and female House Finches will feed at the peanut feeder, though the males tend to leave when the females come in to eat.  Both sexes of finches cling to the feeder wire with their feet and use their heavy, thick beaks to pick apart the nuts.  They rarely get a whole nut meat out of the feeder and instead take small bites through the wire.  You’re also likely to see multiple House Finches at the feeder at one time, something you won’t see many other bird species do at our feeder.

House Finches generally stay on the peanut feeder for several minutes, but they are often chased away by other birds.  For example, they’ll almost always give way to the non-native European Starlings:

European starling

European Starling. Photo by Chris Goforth.

I rarely see more than two European Starlings at the peanut feeder at a time, but you may see many more on the ground under the feeder.  Starlings have long, thin beaks and can pick larger peanut pieces out of the feeder than the House Finches, but they are fairly messy eaters.  They drop lots of peanut pieces on the ground, where other Starlings are often waiting to take advantage of them.  While you may not see many Starlings on the feeder at one time, they form very large groups.  They are also aggressive and will actively chase away most other birds at the feeding station.  This aggressions makes them unpopular with a lot of bird watchers, especially because they’re not native to the US.

House Finches and Starlings tend to sit at the feeder and eat as many peanuts as they can.  Many other birds grab a peanut and immediately fly away to eat it elsewhere.  The Tufted Titmouse is one great example:

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse. Photo by Chris Goforth.

These birds are easily chased away by most of the other birds that make use of the peanut feeder.  You’ll often spot them hopping around in the Viburnum bush behind the feeding station, waiting for an opening before they swoop in, grab a peanut through the wire, and fly off to a tree nearby to break it apart and eat it.  It may go back for another peanut as soon as it finishes, but it won’t sit on the feeder and gorge itself the way some of the other peanut feeder visitors will.

Most birds, including the Starlings, will fly away from the feeder if a Red-bellied Woodpecker arrives:

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker. Photo by Chris Goforth.

These woodpeckers are relatively large, but like the Tufted Titmouse, they’ll take just one peanut at a time and then fly off to a tree to eat it.  They land high in the trees and take their time going back for seconds, thirds, fourths, or more.  The time between feeder visits is relatively high as well, but you can tell when a Red-bellied Woodpecker in inbound!  All of the other birds on the feeder scatter and the woodpecker will land on the feeder moments later.

Winter is a great time to see birds at the Prairie Ridge bird feeders.  We keep them stocked through the winter months, so they attract many species of birds and are heavily visited.  Consider a visit soon and see which birds – and which fascinating behaviors – you can see at our feeders!

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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