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Tracks in the Snow (What Time is it in Nature)

February 28, 2015

Like the rest of the Triangle area, Prairie Ridge got a lot of snow last week.  One of the best things about snow, I think, is all the stories it tells about the animals in the area!  The most recent snow preserved a lot of animal prints.  Let’s take a tour of some of the prints and see who was out and about in the snow!

This set of prints was in a little patch of snow between the Outdoor Classroom and the forest, near the bins where we store the bird seed:

squirrel tracks

Those prints are from an Eastern Gray Squirrel that had hopped into this spot, paused a moment, and hopped away.  We often see squirrels nosing around the bird seed bins behind the classroom, so I’d bet that this particular squirrel was headed over to check out the bins when it paused here.

These tracks are from another medium-sized mammal:

eastern cottontail tracks

The tracks of the Eastern Cottontail are distinctive in the snow and generally take the shape in the image above with a lot of space between them.  Apparently we had a lot of rabbits active at Prairie Ridge during the snowy weather because their tracks are all over!  I haven’t spotted a rabbit in months, but the tracks tell us that there are still quite a few of them roaming around.

These tracks are from birds:

bird tracks

As you may be able to tell from the sheer number of tracks present, these were found under one of the bird feeders at our feeding station below the Outdoor Classroom.  There were dozens of sparrows hopping around in the snow under the feeders this morning making even more tracks. Lots of hungry birds have been taking advantage of the seed in the snow!  If you look closely, you can probably see at least two sizes of tracks, smaller tracks made by White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, or Dark-eyed Juncos and larger tracks made by Northern Cardinals.

A much larger animal made these heart-shaped tracks:

deer tracks

White-tailed deer are our most commonly spotted and reported large mammals, so it’s not surprising to see their tracks in the snow.  Their hooves make a very distinctive mark, in snow or mud, and you can often follow deer tracks for quite a long ways, sometimes all the way to the animal that made them!  Based on the tracks I saw, most of the deer have wandered around on their own or in small groups of 2-3 over the last few nights.

Some tracks tell a more exciting story.  These muddy tracks were made by a fox, probably a Gray Fox:

fox tracks

It had clearly run across the muddy road and over the top of the snow after it had iced over, so these tracks were probably made the night before I found them.  If you followed the tracks for a ways, you could see why the fox crossed the road: it was hunting!  At one point along the tracks, there was a group of prints circling around a bloody patch in the snow.  You could tell that the fox had caught and killed something in that spot, then dropped the animal on the ice briefly before picking it up, running off, and presumably eating it somewhere else.  There were no feathers or fur present, just a few patches of blood and a dent where something warm had lain for a minute and melted the ice around it slightly, so it’s hard to say what the fox caught.  If you want to make suggestions for what the victim may have been, I’ve posted the slightly graphic image of the scene here.  (Please note that there is blood visible in the image, though no other remains.  It might not be suitable for all readers.)

Prairie Ridge is always an interesting place after a snowstorm!  If the roads are clear and you can drive here safely, it’s well worth a trip out to look for tracks in the snow after a storm.  It’s amazing how much you can learn about what is active and what those animals were up to by simply looking for tracks!

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)

Birds of the Great Backyard Bird Count (What Time is it in Nature)

February 21, 2015

Last weekend was the Great Backyard Bird Count, a four-day long citizen science celebration of birds that takes place during the beginning of the northward migration.  We held a birding open house at Prairie Ridge last Saturday and invited people to learn about birds, watch birds from our Outdoor Classroom deck, and do some citizen science.  It was cold and only a handful of hardy souls made it out to participate, but between everyone who participated, we amassed a pretty good list of birds!  For this week’s What Time is it in Nature, I’m going to highlight a few of the feeder birds we saw during the GBBC.

Some of the birds we see at the feeders in the winter are birds that are found on the grounds year-round.  The Northern Cardinals are commonly spotted at the feeders all year:

Northern Cardinal

Cardinals are the state bird of North Carolina, and given the number of them we see at Prairie Ridge, it’s no wonder!  They’re very common in our area.  You can’t miss them with their bright red plumage, black faces, and crests, especially in winter when their bright color really stands out against the drab landscape.

We also see many Tufted Titmice throughout the year:

Tufted titmouse

While they’re on the grounds year-round, we seem to see a lot more of them in the winter as they visit the feeders often.  Recently, they’ve been spotted feasting on suet and snagging seeds from the feeders that they carry off into the bushes to eat.  These are very active birds, almost always on the move!

Other birds have been taking advantage of the suet during the recent cold spell as well:

Chickadee and downy woodpecker

The smaller bird on the left is a Carolina Chickadee, one of our most common birds at Prairie Ridge.  They’re small birds that you’ll see near the feeders year-round.  Like the Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadees generally grab a seed and fly off to eat it alone in a tree or bush.

The larger bird on the right is a Downy Woodpecker, our most commonly observed woodpecker.  Even though they’re here all year, the Downies tend to take greater advantage of the feeders during the winter and spend more time in the woods in the summer.  It’s easier to spot them now than it will be in the warmer months because they’re right out in the open at the feeders.

Blue Jays have been very common recently!

Blue jay

It’s not unusual to see five to seven Blue Jays near the feeders at a time, squabbling over access to the peanut feeder or the best seeds on the ground.  Even if you don’t SEE the Blue Jays, you can often hear them up in the trees!  Their loud, squawking calls are easy to remember and often one of the first calls beginning birders learn.

The Pine Warbler is another showy species that brings a pop of color to the feeders:

Pine Warbler

The bright yellow plumage is hard to miss!  The Pine Warblers are often seen feeding on the suet cakes, so look for them clinging to the sides of the suet cages.  Now is a great time to see them!  During the summer, they spend most of their time in the tops of pine trees and can be hard to spot.

Not all of the species we have visiting our grounds are native!  The European Starlings have been out in droves at Prairie Ridge recently:

European starling

European Starlings are, as their name suggests, native to Europe, though they’ve been in the US for a long time.  Lore tells us that a group of bird lovers in the late 1800’s released a small flock of Starlings in an attempt to establish populations of every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays in the US.  That small flock grew and spread and now Starlings are found throughout the US and into Canada and Central America.  A lot of people consider them pests, but they are quite beautiful, especially in the winter when they sport their white spots.

By combining the bird lists of everyone who participated in our bird open house, we came up with a list of 33 birds that we contributed to the Great Backyard Bird Count (in no particular order):

Carolina Wren White-breasted Nuthatch Blue Jay
American Bittern Eastern Towhee Tufted Titmouse
American Robin European Starling American Crow
Carolina Chickadee Northern Cardinal Mourning Dove
House Finch White-throated Sparrow Downy Woodpecker
Dark-eyed Junco Turkey Vulture Eastern Bluebird
Red-bellied Woodpecker Brown-headed Nuthatch Hermit Thrush
Winter Wren Song Sparrow Field Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow Red-tailed Hawk Mockingbird
Rock Dove Brown Thrasher Red-winged Blackbird
Pine Warbler Yellow-rumped Warbler Blue Jay


Not bad given the cool temps and low visitation!

There’s still time to see a lot of our winter visitors before they head north for the summer and many more opportunities to get involved in bird citizen science!  Next week’s Citizen Science Saturday will feature birds, for example, so come out from 10:30-11:30 next Saturday (Feb 28) to get involved!

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)

iLabs: Video and Interview of the Micro World iLab!!

February 20, 2015

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall of’s “Go Ask Mom” feature, visited our Micro World Investigate Lab yesterday and interviewed Christy and I about our lab.  If you want to ready the article and catch the video, check out:

Destination: Nature Research Center’s Micro World Investigate Lab's Go Ask Mom visits the Micro World Investigate Lab’s Go Ask Mom visits the Micro World Investigate Lab

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iLabs: We DID it!!! 100,000 Visitors in the Micro World iLab!!!!!

February 16, 2015

Originally posted on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Education Blog:

Who would believe it but on a usually quiet Monday morning we received over 60 visitors in the morning and among them, these two lucky students!  They are our 100000th and 100001st visitors to our lab.  We opened April 12, 2012, and in less than 3 years we hit 100,000!  Here’s to our next 100000!!!!  Deb & Christy

Micro World Investigate Lab's 100000th visitors Micro World Investigate lab’s 100000th visitors!!!!

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Birding – for Science! – During the Great Backyard Bird Count

February 12, 2015

This post is brought to you by Sehdia Mansaray, intern at Prairie Ridge this fall.  She is a student at NC State University.  Thanks Sehdia!

Carolina ChickadeeEvery day, billions of people around the world tune themselves into the song and flight of birds. Citizen science projects such as NestWatch, Project FeederWatch, and eBird allow people to take their passion for birds and turn it into valuable scientific data. The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is one global citizen science project that takes place annually during the month of February. This year, the GBBC will take place Friday, February 13, through Monday, February 16.  During the event, participants gather data by counting the number of birds observed in one location for at least fifteen minutes. These observations can be done on just one day, or on each day of the event. Data can be entered through the GBBC website or the GBBC BirdLog app. The GBBC is a great citizen science project to get involved with because you don’t have to travel anywhere special to participate: you can count birds in your backyard, at a park, or even in the supermarket parking lot!

February is a great month to observe birds as they migrate between their overwintering and breeding ranges. Bird migrations are driven by the need to feed and breed. In the winter, cooler weather decreases the food supply for birds and birds migrate to find warmer areas for food.  In the spring, they migrate to find more space to breed. Located along the Atlantic Coast Flyway between the cooler climates of Canada and the warmer climates of Central and South America, North Carolina functions as a prime site to see and hear a variety of birds as they migrate between the north and south. The geography of the Piedmont, Mountains, and Outer Banks also provide a great diversity of nesting and breeding grounds.

Redwing Blackbird maleThe amazing feat of bird migrations is how generation after generation, birds are able to journey to the same region without ever taking the same path twice. Birds use several methods to navigate from one area to another. Using the sun by day, the stars by night, and topographic features such as rivers and mountains, birds are guided to their seasonal feeding and breeding grounds. Birds can also use their sense of smell and Earth’s magnetic field to determine which direction to head.

The information gathered from bird banding and citizen science projects help scientists understand bird distribution, feeding habits, and breeding habits. The information is also important in understanding how environmental conditions might be affecting a bird population or species. Numerous bird species have been documented by volunteers with a wide range of birding experience.

American Bittern

Here at Prairie Ridge, we will be participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count on Saturday, February 14, from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm in the Outdoor Classroom.  You’ll learn how to identify some of our common winter birds, help us document the birds on our grounds, learn how to participate in bird citizen science projects in your own backyard, and have a chance to interact with other bird enthusiasts. We’ll loan you a pair of binoculars and a field guide so you can observe and identify the birds visiting our bird feeders from the comfort of our classroom deck.

Are you an experienced birder?  We hope you’ll leave a copy of your bird list with us so we can keep a running tally of all the birds spotted.  With your help, we will develop a complete list of birds on the grounds on Valentine’s Day and contribute valuable information to scientists who use the data we collect in their research. Be sure to come out to Prairie Ridge to experience this once a year event!


February 9, 2015

Originally posted on Research & Collections:

Jupiter: giant planetary overlord of our solar system. From Earth, Jupiter’s gargantuan presence is hardly evident on a daily basis; to us it is a far-away dot in the night sky (albeit the third-brightest after the Moon and Venus).

But, Jupiter is special and significant. With a mass equal to 2.5 times that of all the other planets combined, it is by far the largest planet in the solar system. Light from Jupiter can be bright enough to cast shadows on Earth, which is impressive given that its average distance from us hovers between ~ 460 million and 510 million miles. And, while it is the great giant of our planets, Jupiter is made up primarily of the lightest of gases: hydrogen (primarily) and helium. While it may have a rocky core, it has no solid surface to speak of, rendering it most difficult to imagine as either a haven for extraterrestrial life, or a destination…

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Yellow-rumped Warbler (What Time is it in Nature)

February 7, 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! Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology.

The winter birds are lively and jubilant here at Prairie Ridge, darting around and enjoying the beautiful weather!  Between the cheerful chirps and fluttering activity, the colorful yellow flashes of the Yellow-rumped Warbler are easy to spot and a wonderful sight to see!

Yellow-rumped warbler

The Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) is from the wood warblers family or birds and is large compared to most.  They range in size from 5-6.5 inches in length and have a wingspan of about 8-10 inches.  These warblers have a long and narrow tail that is 2-3 inches long and a sturdy half-inch long bill.  The most notable characteristic of the Yellow-rumped Warbler is in it markings.  In winter, these birds are pale brown with a bright yellow rump, just as their name suggests.  However, during the spring these birds will molt, turning shades of gray and black with bold flashes of white and bright yellow markings on their rump, sides, and face.  As with many bird species, the males are more striking while the females tend to be duller in color.  Males also have a signature soft and slow warble or trill consisting of up to 21 notes that lasts for about 1-3 seconds.

In the summer, the Yellow-rumped Warbler can be found mainly in coniferous forests and mountainous areas, especially in the western US and Appalachian mountains.  In the fall and winter they will move to open shrubby areas such as parks, residential areas, and dunes.  These warblers can also be found in tropical regions during the winter, where they frequent mangroves and shade coffee plantations.

Compared to other warblers, the Yellow-rumped species is a versatile forager.  Their main source of food is insects such as caterpillars, leaf beetles, weevils, ants, aphids, grasshoppers, gnats, and even spiders.  In fact, they will even grab insects off of manure or from spider webs!  However, most of the time these birds hunt for insects from tree canopies, catching them in midair while in flight.  Another staple food source for this warbler is berries, especially during the winter months.  They eat a variety of fruits that include poison ivy, poison oak, juniper berries, and grapes, however this particular warbler has a special feature that the others do not.  The Yellow-rumped Warbler can eat bayberries and wax myrtles due to their unique gastrointestinal trait that allows them to digest the waxes found on these fruits.  This feature provides them with a wider area to travel during the winter months, allowing them to fly further north than the other species, where these berries are abundant.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler breeds in monogamous pairs.  The males court the females by fluffing their colorful feathers, fluttering about, and through their calls.  The females build the nests, which are shaped like cups about 3 to 4 inches across and 2 inches deep.  The females use twigs, pine needles, grasses, rootlets, and even animal hair or moss to build these nests, which takes about 10 days to make.  Warblers tend to build their nests upon a horizontal branch anywhere from 4 to 50 feet from the ground in conifer trees that include hemlock, spruce, pine, and Douglas firs.  On average, these birds will lay 4 to 5 creamy white eggs with brown and gray specks twice a year.  When the nestlings arrive, both parents take responsibility in feeding them.

Prairie Ridge is a great place to check out the colorful Yellow-rumped Warbler!  You will most likely find them near the bird feeding station below the Outdoor Classroom and in the Arboretum.  You can also attend a Citizen Science Saturday walk where we track bird sightings for eBird in the winter and look for nests, eggs, or baby birds for NestWatch in the 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 Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)


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