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Wood Duck (What Time is it in Nature)

August 22, 2015

We’ve recently had an unusual visitor at Prairie Ridge!  A Wood Duck has been spotted at our pond several times over the last few weeks.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Wood Ducks are part of the duck, goose, and swan family Anatidae and are found throughout about two-thirds of the US, parts of Canada, and a large part of Mexico.  They are easy to tell apart from nearly every other duck in the US.  Both males and females have crested heads and a distinctively boxy shape, but males are more colorful than females during the breeding season.  Breeding males have iridescent green feathers on their heads split by white stripes, chestnut breasts, red eyes, and colorful beaks.  Females are more drab with grey-brown feathers and chests speckled with white.  They also have a white patch that completely encircles each eye.  In the late summer, the males may lose their bright colors and take on an appearance closer to the females, but they keep the red eyes and brightly colored bills.  The Wood Duck in the Prairie Ridge pond is one of these, pictured above.

Wood Ducks are rather unique among waterfowl in that they are excellent climbers and nest in tree cavities.  Their webbed feet are tipped with sharp claws that allow them to grip tree branches and bark and their short, compact wings allow them to fly comfortably through wooded areas where few other ducks are seen.  You’ll typically spot them in wooded swamps, marshes, along streams, and sometimes small lakes where they tend to prefer areas with trees or extensive cattails.

These gorgeous ducks have a unique appearance, but they also exhibit some interesting behaviors.  Male and female Wood Ducks will search together for an appropriate cavity for nesting in a tree, though they cannot make their own cavities and must find holes excavated by other species.  Once a cavity is discovered, the female will build a soft nest, lining it with downy feathers she pulls from her own chest.  A typical nest will eventually contain 6-15 eggs, which will hatch into alert chicks covered in thick down.  The downy chicks will jump down from the nest the day after they hatch, sometimes falling 50 feet or more, then follow their mothers to a nearby body of water.

Wood Ducks will readily build their nests in nest boxes.  However, if the nest boxes are too close together or natural tree cavities are close to one another, female Wood Ducks will “egg dump” by laying eggs in the nests of other, nearby females.  Some exceptionally large nests that have been the victim of egg dumping have contained nearly 30 eggs!

The Wood Duck population crashed badly in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as hunting pressure for feathers for ladies’ hats and meat coupled with massive loss of habitat eliminated much of the population in North America.  Changes to the hunting regulations for waterfowl in the US and the addition of nest boxes to their preferred habitats have allowed their populations to rebound to the point that the Wood Duck population of North American is currently fairly stable.

If you’d like to see the Prairie Ridge Wood Duck, your best chance to see it is to visit the pond soon, either immediately after we open at 9AM and just before we close at 4:30PM.  Head down to the pond and look for lines of open water among the duckweed.  You’ll often see the Wood Duck at one end of the open line!

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.

Butterflies of the Butterfly Count (What Time is it in Nature)

August 15, 2015

Earlier this week, a few staff participated in the annual butterfly count in Wake County.  The count is a valuable undertaking each year, bringing butterfly enthusiasts together to document, count, and monitor the butterfly populations in our area.  The group started their yearly rounds at Raulston Arboretum and eventually moved on to Umstead State Park, but they always make a stop at Prairie Ridge.  Let’s explore some of the finds from this year’s count!

We found a lot of orange and black butterflies this year, though that’s normal.  The Variegated Fritillaries have been out and about in large numbers, nectaring at plants in the Nature Neighborhood Garden and other flowers on the grounds:

Variegated fritillary

Variegated Fritillary. Photo by Chris Goforth.

This species is commonly spotted in prairies, such as Prairie Ridge’s namesake habitat, and you’ll see the adults flying over the grasses or sitting on the ground along the edges.

The Monarch is probably the best recognized butterfly in the US, and we’ve had them on the grounds all summer:

monarch

Monarch. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Monarchs feed on milkweeds as caterpillars and store the toxins the plants produce within their bodies as they transform from caterpillars into butterflies.  The bright orange and black pattern of Monarchs let birds and other potential predators know that they taste bad and have nasty chemicals inside.  Viceroys have similar coloration for similar reasons:

Viceroy

Viceroy. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Monarchs and Viceroys are commonly cited as examples of Müllerian mimicry, a form of mimicry in which two toxic species take on shared characteristics (in this case, the black and orange pattern of the wings) to the benefit of both species.  The idea is that if a bird foolishly decides to feed on either a Monarch or a Viceroy and becomes violently ill because of it, it will avoid individuals of both species in the future.  You can easily tell the two species apart, however.  Viceroys are a little smaller than Monarchs and have a diagonal line that divides their hind wings into two sections.  The Monarchs do not have this line.

Common Buckeyes are, as the name suggests, quite common in our area, but they are quite beautiful as well:

Buckeye

Common Buckeye. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Buckeyes visit a wide variety of flowers, but you will often find them sitting on the ground.  Ground sitters are typically males looking out for females.  They will fly off to court a female if one comes near or will chase away other males.

Red-spotted Purples are spectacular butterflies:

Red spotted purple

Red-spotted Purple. Photo by Chris Goforth.

They look a lot like the many black swallowtail species we have at first glance, but a closer look will reveal a lack of the tails that characterize swallowtails.  The upper surface is iridescent blue and the species gets its common name from the series of red spots that line the outer edges of the wings and those at the bases of the wings.

Another “spotted” butterfly we documented is the Silver-spotted Skipper:

Silver-spotted Skipper.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Silver-spotted Skipper. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Skippers are a family of butterflies that are a little different from the stereotypical butterfly form.  They have thick, heavy bodies and relatively short wings.  Their antennae are also generally tipped with hooks instead of the clubs sported by most non-skipper butterflies.  Silver-spotted Skippers are large as skipper species go and feature a bright silver band on their hind wing that gives them their name.

Other species recorded included several skippers (Zabulon, Sachem, and Fiery, among others), Red-banded Hairstreaks, Gray Hairstreaks, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Summer Azures, American Ladies, Pearl Crescents, and Pipevine Swallowtails.  Though we didn’t see any during the official count, there have also been some Gulf Fritillaries spotted recently, large bright orange butterflies with metallic silver spots on the undersides of their wings.

Now is a great time to see butterflies at Prairie Ridge!  A visit to the Nature Neighborhood Garden is a must for any butterfly enthusiast, but you’ll find other species lurking in the Jesse Perry Arboretum and near the pond.  Come on out and see how many species of butterflies YOU can find!

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.

Soil Sidekicks – Star-nosed Mole

August 11, 2015

When you think of an animal that spends most of its life in the soil, what comes to mind? The next Soil Sidekick – the star-nosed mole – is a champion of the underground. Like other moles, it is quite at home among the earthworms, boasting an incredible sense of touch – possibly the best of all mammals.

Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata). Photo courtesy of US National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons.

Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata). Photo courtesy of US National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons.

The most distinctive feature of this mole is hairless, pink, starred nose. Highly specialized for hunting small prey such as worms, insects, and aquatic invertebrates, the mole’s nose is ringed by 22 fleshy rays that make up the star, which is used for touching and can feel as many as 12 objects per second. The star is equipped with over 25,000 tiny sensory receptors called Eimer’s organs, named after zoologist Theodor Eimer. These unique organs comprise many bumps or domes on the surface of the star.

Almost all moles have Eimer’s organs, but none approach the ultra-sensitivity of this mole’s star, which is about six times more sensitive than the human hand. This appendage is so vital to the star-nosed mole that over half of its brain is dedicated to processing its sensory input. Thanks to the star nose and Eimer’s organs, this champion of the earth has been called the “fastest-eating mammal” because it can take as few as 120 milliseconds to identify whether a food item is edible and consume it. The star’s tentacles can also be held in front of the nostrils to prevent soil from entering the nose, and they are almost constantly moving, feeling and sensing the environment.

Close-up of a mole’s specialized forelimb (European Mole). Photo courtesy of Muséum de Toulouse via Wikimedia Commons.

Close-up of a mole’s specialized forelimb (European Mole). Photo courtesy of Muséum de Toulouse via Wikimedia Commons.

Star-nosed moles are native to Eastern North America up to Canada, and can be found in North Carolina, mostly dwelling in the mountains and Coastal Plain. They live in lowland areas with wet soil such as swamps and marshes, and can also be found along streams or springs in more high-elevation areas such as mountains. They are semi-aquatic so they spend the majority of their lives underground or underwater and are powerful swimmers. Star-nosed moles can even smell in the water, breathing out an air bubble and then inhaling it with their highly sensitive noses to locate aquatic prey. They can do this as quickly as five to ten times per second in order to track prey.

A molehill shows where a mole has been.

A molehill shows where a mole has been.

During the winter, the star-nosed mole’s tail swells to 3-4 times normal size to store fat for the spring breeding season. They are active year-round, including during wintertime. Very little is known about these mammals select a mate, but they appear to be monogamous for one breeding season, mating in late winter or early spring. The female gives birth in late spring/early summer, with an average litter size of five pups. Offspring are born with their eyes, ears, and nose sealed shut, gaining the use of their sensory organs after about 14 days. They are independent after about 30 days, and mature after 10 months. Although not much is known about their lifespans, star-nosed moles are speculated to live about 3-4 years in the wild, and average about 2.5 years in captivity. They are thought to be more social than other moles in North America, forming small colonies of related individuals.

Star-nosed moles are voracious carnivores and are adapted to eat small prey such as earthworms, insects, and crustaceans, also consuming fish and amphibians in aquatic habitats. They prefer to hunt underwater when possible, feasting on a variety of prey including the larvae of pest insects. The star-nosed mole’s predators include birds of prey such as hawks and owls, other mammals such as weasels and skunks, large fish, and domestic cats. Their shallow surface burrows form telltale “molehills” as the mole pushes loose soil up onto the surface.

Contrary to popular belief, moles (including the star-nosed mole) are carnivorous, so they are not the ones munching on the vegetables in your garden – voles are typically the culprits. These master earth excavators are very much at home in the soil, especially in wet areas. If you happen to be in a marsh and see the star-nosed mole’s telltale molehill, one of these amazing mammals may be nearby, using its incredible nose to hunt its next meal. After all, the nose always knows best!

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil, through August 16.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Thanks to Lisa Gatens, Curator of Mammals for guidance.

First photo: By US National Park Service. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Second photo: By Muséum de ToulouseCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dragonflies on Perches (What Time is it in Nature)

August 1, 2015

There have been huge numbers of dragonflies at Prairie Ridge this year, and any visit to the pond will likely result in your seeing hundreds of individuals representing a dozen or more species.  However, not all of our dragonflies spend all of their time at the pond!  You’ll find hundreds more over the prairie and in the arboretum.  Sometimes you’ll see them sitting on the dirt, but you’ll also see a lot of dragonflies sitting like this:

Blue Dasher pair on perch

Photo by Chris Goforth

Those are perching dragonflies, dragonflies sitting on a high point in the landscape and looking out over the surrounding area.

Dragonflies are generally divided into two groups, the perchers and the fliers.  The flier group is made up of species that spend most of their active time during the day flying and rarely take breaks to sit on plants or other perches.  The fliers include many of the best known migratory dragonflies, such as the Common Green Darner and the Wandering Glider, unsurprising given that these species are known to fly thousands of miles and cross huge expanses of oceans without taking a break.  Many fliers have broad wings and they tend to be large relative to other dragonflies.

Perchers are a little less active than the fliers.  While fliers feed, mate, lay eggs, and protect their territories from usurpers while on the wing, perchers like to sit in one place and look out over their territories.  If a prey insect flies by or a male or female dragonfly of the same species enters the territory, the resident percher will fly from its perch and grab the prey, chase the challenging male away (or at least attempt to!), or mate with the arriving female.  Otherwise, you’ll find them standing still on a perch.

When you visit Prairie Ridge, look out over the tops of the grasses in the prairie or at the tops of twiggy trees.  You’ll often see dragonflies perched, such as this Blue Dasher:

Blue dasher on perch

Photo by Chris Goforth

Blue Dashers are a prime example of the percher lifestyle!  They’re relatively small and relatively weak fliers, so they spend a lot of their day perched.  The best males are able to claim and protect perches overlooking the water, but there’s only so much space at a pond and not every male will find a territory.  The inferior males are often found perching over the prairie, darting out from their perches to feed.  You may also see female dragonflies perching over the grasses.

Some dragonflies seem to prefer perching on the prairie grasses to spending their days at one of the Prairie Ridge ponds.  The Halloween Pennants are rarely spotted at either body of water or any of the vernal pools that occasionally form on the grounds, but you will see them sitting on prairie grasses:

Halloween Pennant on perch

Photo by Chris Goforth

Other species, such as this Slaty Skimmer, are found on perches along the edges of the ponds as well as in the prairie:

Slaty Skimmer on perch

Photo by Chris Goforth

This one has adopted a posture that helps him deal with the recent hot weather.  By pointing his abdomen down toward the ground rather than holding his body parallel to the ground, this dragonfly is reducing the amount of sun hitting his dark body and helping him stay cool.

Now is a fantastic time to see dragonflies at Prairie Ridge – they’re everywhere!  Look for them over the mown grassy lawns, in sunny patches along the Forest Trail through the arboretum, near the pond, and perching on the prairie grasses or trees.  You’re sure to see many of them on any upcoming visit!

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.

Soil Sidekicks – Trapdoor Spider

July 30, 2015

The way our next Soil Sidekick hunts may seem like something out of a horror movie, but don’t worry – unless you are a pint-sized arthropod, you have nothing to fear from the trapdoor spider.

The elusive trapdoor spider measures in at a little over 1” in length. These smaller relatives of the tarantula are black or brown with a glossy exterior. Like other arachnids, they have eight legs and two body segments. They have relatively long lifespans, and can live up to 20 years.

Cork-lid trapdoor spider (Ctenizidae: Ummidia). Photo courtesy of Greg Gilbert from Dahlonega Area, Georgia, USA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cork-lid trapdoor spider (Ctenizidae: Ummidia). Photo courtesy of Greg Gilbert from Dahlonega Area, Georgia, USA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like the tarantula, the trapdoor spider is a mygalomorph, a member of a smaller group of spiders characterized by downwards-oriented fangs. Trapdoor spiders can be found all over the world, including species in the genus Ummidia and one known species in the genus Cyclocosmia in North Carolina. Although they are elusive, trapdoor spiders are considered common and can be found in your own backyard. Due to their elusive nature, these masters of camouflage are not well studied in this area.

The trapdoor spider is venomous like most spiders, but its venom is comparable to a wasp sting, causing only minor pain and swelling. These arachnids are not aggressive and will only bite people in self-defense. If you find one in your home, it’s best to capture it in a container such as a jar and release it outdoors.

Spiders have many interesting adaptations for survival in a world that is often harsh to such small creatures. Arachnids and their other cousins in the subphylum Chelicerata, including horseshoe crabs and sea spiders, possess specialized jaws called ‘chelicerae’. In trapdoor spiders, these mouthparts are modified with a row of hardened digging spines on each chelicera called a ‘rastellum’. These tiny projections resemble teeth or hairs, and are designed to help move the soil as the spider constructs its underground burrow.

Cork-lid Trapdoor spider burrow saved intact in baking powder tin ca late 19th century. Photo courtesy of Jon Richfield, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cork-lid Trapdoor spider burrow saved intact in baking powder tin ca. late 19th century. Photo courtesy of Jon Richfield, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although they may resemble a fifth pair of legs, enlarged mouthparts called ‘pedipalps’ are specialized in all spiders, like the chelicerae. These parts are used for shaping their web silk and assisting them in feeding, but also for reproduction in males.

Trapdoor spiders are named after the special burrows that they construct. They create their homes by digging down into the soil, lining them with silk that keeps in moisture and provides a surface on which the spiders can more easily walk around. The ‘trapdoor’ entrance is created using a blend of silk, soil, and other materials such as moss or leaves found around the burrow. This recipe makes a door that blends in with the environment, camouflaging the spider’s home. It is hinged with stretchy silk, and its underside has holes so that the spider can grip with its legs or fangs and spring out at just the right moment. This also allows the occupant to hold the door tightly closed if a predator attempts to enter the burrow.

Trapdoor spiders lay silk ‘tripwires’ around the entrance of their dens, then lie in wait for unsuspecting prey to come along and accidentally touch the silk. They can feel the vibrations along the silk, judging the size and distance of their (typically arthropod) prey based on what they sense. Once the spider senses that there is a meal waiting outside, it springs open the door, grabs its prey, and retreats once again into the burrow.

Cyclocosmia sp. in burrow, from Appalachia. Photo courtesy of Marshal Hedin, via Wikimedia Commons

Cyclocosmia sp. in burrow, from Appalachia. Photo courtesy of Marshal Hedin, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ravine trapdoor spiders (Cyclocosmia truncata) have an interesting body shape. Unlike other trapdoor spiders, their abdomens are cut short to form a hard, patterned disc-like shape that serves as a stopper for their burrows. They use the width of their abdomens to seal themselves safely inside their dens, using their hardened backsides as a protective shield.

Certain species of native mud dauber wasps prey on any spider they can catch, including trapdoor spiders. A female wasp will paralyze the arachnid, bringing it back to the mud nest and laying her eggs in it while it is still alive so that her larvae have a fresh source of food when they hatch. The trapdoor spider’s other natural enemies may include mice or other spiders.

Although they can live longer, males often only live about nine months past maturity due to the fact that they leave their burrows and wander the landscape to find a mate in the springtime, placing them in much more danger than females.

Do female trapdoor spiders really eat males? That depends – sometimes a female spider will mistake a male for prey at her front door, so he must approach cautiously. Male trapdoor spiders have a special tooth-like hook on their first pair of legs used for hooking the female’s fangs to hold them back as he enters the burrow. If the female is not receptive to his advances, she could still decide to kill him, and he might become her next meal – however, this is not as common as you may think.

Although these interesting arachnids may be widespread, they are not often seen. Consider yourself lucky if you have the chance to see a trapdoor spider springing into action.

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Thanks to Dr. Colin Brammer, Coordinator of the Natural World Investigate Lab for information and guidance.

First photo: By Greg Gilbert from Dahlonega Area, Georgia, USA (Cork-lid trapdoor spider (Ctenizidae: Ummidia))
{CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)}, via Wikimedia Commons

Second photo: By Marshal Hedin (http://www.bio.sdsu.edu/pub/spiders/App/index.html)
{CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)}, via Wikimedia Commons

Third photo: By Jon Richfield (Own work)
{CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)}, via Wikimedia Commons

Nocturnal Insects (What Time is it in Nature)

July 25, 2015

It’s National Moth Week! To celebrate, we hosted our fourth annual Moths at Night program at Prairie Ridge last weekend. During the event, a few Museum staff did presentations about moths and the other arthropods we find at night, but the bulk of the event centered around moth observation and appreciation. We set up several blacklight stations and a mercury vapor light station and participants moved from station to station looking for moths and other insects. Many participants photographed the moths they saw so they can submit them our Natural North Carolina citizen science project as well.

Let’s explore some moths and other insects that you can find at Prairie Ridge! Many of these will only be visible at evening programs, but you can spot some of them during the day if you’re lucky.

A lot of the moths we get at Prairie Ridge aren’t what you would call “showy” moths.  This leafroller moth is a great example of the standard small, brown moths that you’ll find anywhere you look for moths:

Leafroller moth

Photo by Chris Goforth

That’s Argyrotaenia velutinana, also known as the Red-banded Leafroller, a member of the Tortricidae family of moths.  There is very little information available about them, such as what their host plants are, how they develop, etc, so there’s not a lot to learn about this particular moth yet.  There is generally a lot of work still needed on what many entomologists affectionately call “LBMs,” or little brown moths.  Someday we may know more about this LBM!

We get dozens of small moth species at blacklights at Prairie Ridge.  This moth was a little more distinctive and showy compared to the Red-banded Leafroller above:

Grass Veneer

Photo by Chris Goforth

This moth belongs to the grass-veneer genus, a genus made up of small moths that feed on grasses as caterpillars.  Given the amount of grass we have at Prairie Ridge, it’s no wonder that we see a lot of grass-veneers!  This moth is a Double-banded Grass-veneer, or Crambus agitatellus.  You can find adults of this species from about June through August throughout most of its range across the eastern 2/3rds of the US.

Some moths have excellent camouflage.  This moth looks like bird droppings:

Bird Dropping Moth

Photo by Chris Goforth

The Exposed Bird Dropping Moth, Tarache aprica, is well protected from predation as few animals want to eat something that looks like bird poop.  You’ll find the caterpillars of this moth feeding on hollyhocks and can occasionally flush an adult from a hiding place during the day.   They’re found throughout most of the eastern US except the northern Midwest.

One exciting find at our blacklights this year was a satiny white visitor:

Snowy Urola

Photo by Chris Goforth

Snowy Urolas (Urola nivalis) are thought to be a grass feeding species as caterpillars and are found throughout the eastern US, though they are a common sight in the southeast.  This species has a shiny white appearance with a small dark spot in the center of its back.  They fly throughout the summer and may have two generations a year.

One of our most showy moths at our National Moth Week celebration the last four years has been the Rosy Maple Moth:

Rosy Maple Moth

Photo by Chris Goforth

These large, brightly colored moths go against the generality that butterflies are colorful while moths are not.  Rosy Maple Moths feed on a variety of trees as caterpillars, including their namesake maples, but do not feed at all as adults.  These gorgeous, bright members of the silk moth family are found throughout the eastern US and can be spotted at lights at night from late spring into early fall in the south.

We saw a lot of moths, but you never get just moths coming to blacklights.  Some other visitors to the lights included caddisflies:

Leptoceridae

Photo by Greg Bryant

and scarab beetles:

Grapevine beetle

Photo by Greg Bryant

When you have a lot of insects coming to lights, you often attract non-insect predators looking to score an easy meal too.  A few of our citizen scientists spotted this lovely toad wandering around near one of the light rigs:

Toad

Photo by Greg Bryant

There were so many insects flying around the area that I suspect that this was a very happy, well-fed toad!

National Moth Week ends Sunday, but I encourage you to explore moths and other nighttime insects throughout the year.  By simply turning on your porchlight and looking to see what comes to the light, you can learn a lot about the hidden nighttime world around you.  We hope you’ll also consider attending an upcoming evening program at Prairie Ridge so that you can see some of the great moths featured here and other amazing nighttime animals!

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!

Soil Sidekicks – American Woodcock (Timberdoodle)

July 21, 2015

One of our Soil Sidekicks is particularly good at hiding. So good, in fact, that it can be almost impossible to spot one huddling in the grasses of a field at the forest’s edge.

Meet the AmericAmerican Woodcock (Scolopax minor)an woodcock (Scolopax minor), also known as the timberdoodle. This plump little bird’s beautiful gray, black and brown feathers serve as the perfect camouflage in its natural habitat of brush near the edge of the woods. The American woodcock’s chest and side feathers are characterized by a rich range of colors from yellowish-white to deep tan, and its legs are short and brown or gray.

This little scout has large, wide-set black eyes used for scanning the skies for predators. It has one of the largest sight ranges of any bird, and can see 360 degrees around its head – even behind it. The woodcock is usually solitary, and it is crepuscular, meaning it is most active at dawn and dusk in order to avoid predators.

American Woodcock (Scolopax minor)

American Woodcock (Scolopax minor)

One of the most noticeable features of the woodcock is its long, straight bill used for probing in the soil for prey. These inquisitive birds primarily feed on earthworms, which make up more than 90 percent of their diet, so they spend a lot of time searching in and around soft soils for their favorite foods. Their unique bills are prehensile, meaning that unlike most birds, the woodcock can flex the upper half of its bill (mandible) while using it to investigate the ground. This motion resembles a “yawn” and helps woodcocks hunt slippery earthworms in the soil, since the birds cannot fully open their long bills while they are probing underground. The tip of the bird’s bill also has nerves to help it locate worms crawling around in the earth. One study suggests that these earth detectives are even capable of ‘tasting’ the soil in order to find their favorite meals.

When searching for food, woodcocks will often walk with a funny ‘bob’ that resembles a dance. It is thought that this motion of rocking the body back and forth while stepping heavily with the front foot causes worms to move around in the soil, making them more easily detectable. This funny dance-like movement is also part of the male’s courtship display.

Specialized flight feathers on an American Woodcock specimen

Specialized flight feathers on American Woodcock specimens

The male woodcock’s famous courtship show begins with a distinct “peenk” call around dawn or dusk. After “peenking” and doing his dance, he will take off into the air to fly around while singing a song to attract a mate. While descending in an elaborate zig-zag pattern, the bachelor bird creates a twittering sound as air whistles through his highly modified outer flight feathers on his wings. When he lands, the male will “dance” for any females (hens) who have flown in to watch his display.

After mating, the hen will make a shallow nest on the ground in leaf litter, where she typically lays four eggs. When a predator approaches the nest, she will lie perfectly still, hoping that her excellent camouflage will keep her out of sight. If that doesn’t work, she will put on a show much like the woodcock’s cousin, the killdeer – the hen will flush from the nest and pretend to be injured in order to draw the danger away. Although male woodcocks put on quite a show for hens, they do not assist in defending the nest or raising the chicks – indeed, they continue to dance and display to attract other females.

When the chicks hatch, they are precocial, meaning that they are ready to leave the nest within just a few hours of emerging from the egg. At around two weeks of age, they are capable of flying short distances and look like adults. Young woodcocks will follow their mothers closely for about five weeks, learning to hunt for worms and survive on their own until they are fully grown and become independent.

American Woodcock specimen

American Woodcock specimen

Their closest relatives are shorebirds such as sandpipers and snipes, but woodcocks are found closer inland near wet thickets, brushy swamps, and agricultural areas. They can be found as far north as Canada during warmer months and as far south as Florida during the winter. These birds are present all across North Carolina year-round, but primarily live in the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont. They are sensitive to the cold, so populations migrate south as the weather turns chillier. However, as the weather warms again, their northward migration signals springtime in many areas of the Eastern United States.

Each February, the Wake Audubon Society hosts the annual Woodcock Watch to scout out this Soil Sidekick – watch their webpage for more information. If you hang around the edge of the woods at dusk or dawn this summer, you may be lucky enough to see this little bird dancing.

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Thanks to John Gerwin, Research Curator of Ornithology and John Connors, Former Coordinator of the Naturalist Center for information and guidance.

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