On the Wild Side
Birds. - September brings winter residents back to the Piedmont, including the occasional red-breasted nuthatch, a number of wrens (winter, sedge, marsh), and sparrows (swamp and white-throated). Ruby-crowned kinglets, tiny olive-grey birds with bright red spots on their crown, returned to the Piedmont this month after spending the summer in the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern United States. Migrant warblers also continue to pass through North Carolina as they head towards the neotropics for the winter. Birders may even see snowy egrets, little blue herons and tricolored herons, which won’t return again to the Piedmont until early April.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) also return to the Piedmont this month. Ever notice those neat rows of holes along the trunk of the southern sugar maple? That’s the work of a yellow-bellied sapsucker. These migratory woodpeckers drill holes in over 250 species of trees in North America, especially maples and birches. The sapsuckers create two types of wells: deep, circular wells from which they sip sweet sap and capture insects, and shallow, square wells that also collect sap, attract insects and may provide nutritious cambium (inner bark) on which to snack. Sapsuckers maintain the shallow, square holes regularly, and they often need to guard their wells from pilfering hummingbirds.
Ever wonder how birds drink? Most birds drink to replenish fluids lost by breathing, excretion through skin, and waste production. Some submerge their bills into the water and simply suck it up (e.g., doves). Other birds dip their bills into the water and then point up to the sky, letting the water fall back into their throat. A number of small bird species drink dew-drops (e.g., hummingbirds, finches). The ruby throated hummingbird relies on sap and nectar to stay hydrated; they don’t drink water.
Butterflies. − This time of year, butterflies are often surprisingly abundant. Look out for the usual suspects, including hackberry emperors gleaning sap from trees, tiger swallowtails puddling to uptake salts and other nutrients, and pearl crescents, whose caterpillars feed almost exclusively on asters.
Expect to see a pulse of cloudless sulphurs, little yellows and sleepy oranges this month. Swallowtail sightings will likely drop-off by mid-month, with the exception of the black swallowtail. Butterfly watchers can also expect to see gray and red-banded hairstreaks, eastern tailed blues, gulf and variegated fritillaries, as well as an increased number of viceroy sightings. Monarchs may be seen as they migrate southward to their winter residence in Mexico.
If you’re looking for hairstreaks, check out the climbing hempweed (Mikania scandens), a bushy vine with tiny (¼” in diameter) white or light pink flowers found in wet habitats. According to naturalist Harry LeGrande, Jr., observing this Piedmont native affords the best chance of seeing great purple hairstreaks this month.
Reptiles & Amphibians. − Continue to keep an eye out for snakes and turtles, especially baby box turtles. Eastern box turtles also love to forage on mushrooms, which are prolific in September. Skinks and toads are also out in abundance. Although you may still hear frogs and toads calling this month, large choruses won’t start up again until January.
Other Insects. − This month, expect an increase in praying mantis and spider activity. Praying mantises exude their eggs in a frothy, hardened mass called an ootheca in September. Robber flies, also known as assassin flies because they attack other flies and insects, mate in September; look for them on garden plants and tree branches.
In Bloom this Month. - Be on the lookout for some striking September flowers:
- WINGSTEM - Actinomeris alternifolia
- WHITE SNAKEROOT - Ageratina altissima
- PARTRIDGE PEA - Chamaechrista fasciculata
- TURTLEHEAD - Chelone glabra
- BEECHDROPS - Epifagus virginiana
- DEVIL'S-GRANDMOTHER - Elephantopus tomentosus
- BONESET - Eupatorium perfoliatum
- CLIMBING HEMPWEED - Mikania scandens
- BLACK-EYED SUSAN - Rudbeckia sp.
- TRAILING WILD BEAN - Strophostyles helvula
- GREAT LOBELIA - Lobelia siphilitica
- DOWNY LOBELIA - Lobelia puberula
- SMALL SKULLCAP - Scutellaria parvula
- AXILLARY GOLDENROD - Solidago caesia
- GOLDENROD(S) - Solidago spp.
- PERSIMMON - Diospyros virginiana
- HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ - Euonymus americanus
- MUSCADINES - Vitis rotundifolia
This month’s wildlife profile considers Micrathena spiders, characterized by spikes or spines on their abdomens. In September, hikers often find spider webs stretched out across their favorite trails. Some of these webs are made by tiny, native spiders called Micrathenas.
Micrathenas pose no harm to humans. In fact, these small orbweavers reach no bigger than one centimeter long, and most individuals span only a half centimeter. In some species, only the females build the lovely, coiled webs, but the males use their silk to create mating strands from which they bounce and bob to attract the attention of the female.
A number of Micrathenas call the Piedmont home. For example, the Arrowshaped Micrathena (Micrathena sagittata) lives in forests, wet woods, and edges. While the Arrowshaped Micrathena is more common on the Coastal Plain, Piedmont residents can identify it by its six-spined abdomen, with the last set being very large and black.
Another species of Micrathena found in the Piedmont, particularly in open, mixed woods, is the Spined Micrathena (Micrathena gracilis). The Spined Micrathena has even more spines than its congener: 10! These spines are usually at the edge of a black and white abdomen. The White Micrathena (Microthena mitrata) is also found here, sporting a white abdomen with only two spines.
- National Audubon Society. 1980. Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders. New York, New York: Chanticleer Press.
- Bukowksi, T. C. and T. E. Christensen. 1997. Natural history and copulatory behavior fo the spiny orbweaving spider Micrathena gracilia (Araneae, Araneidae). The Journal of Arachnology 25(3): 307-320.
- Conant, R., and J.T. Collins. 1991. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA.
- Cook, Dave. 2001. The Piedmont Almanac. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Mystic Crow Publishing.
- Daniels, J. C. 2003. Butterflies of the Carolinas. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc.
- Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- LeGrand, H. E. Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina. Available at: http://126.96.36.199/nbnc/
- Palmer, W. M. and A. L. Braswell. 1995. Reptiles of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- “Yellow Bellied Sapsucker” online at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow-bellied_Sapsucker/lifehistory [last accessed 9 Sep 2012].
About the Author
Nicolette Cagle, Ph.D. is a passionate ecologist and environmental educator on the faculty of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke Univ
To learn more, please visit her website.