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Fall Wildlife Report

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.

A Yellow-Bewllied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with circular sap wells (Photo from All About Birds)

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.

Carolina Mantid Ootheca with Young Mantis.
Carolina Mantid Ootheca with Young Mantis.

In Bloom

In Bloom this Month. - Be on the lookout for some striking September flowers:

In Bloom:

  • 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.

In Fruit:

  • PERSIMMON - Diospyros virginiana
  • HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ - Euonymus americanus
  • MUSCADINES - Vitis rotundifolia
Persimmon fruits
Persimmon fruits (Photo from

Wildlife Profile

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.

Arrowshaped Micrathena.
Arrowshaped Micrathena.

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.

White Micrathena
White Micrathena (from


  • 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:
  • 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 [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.

The Rocks Celebration

The Rocks Nature Preserve Celebration


The Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association (ECWA) is happy to invite you to the celebration of ECWA's newest nature preserve, The Rocks! The Rocks Nature Preserve is a 2-acre preserve which opened in the fall of 2016. It protects one of the prettiest parts of Ellerbe Creek and supports a wide variety of local wildlife.

Celebrate with us on Sunday, April 2nd from 1-4pm! This is a free, family friendly event. Experts will guide us through several different programs. Join us for one program or stay for the whole afternoon!


  • 1:00 - General information
  • 1:15 - Tour of The Rocks and its importance for the land
  • 2:00 - History of The Rocks
  • 2:15 - Tour of the creek and how The Rocks protects it
  • 3:00 - ~1 mile hike along the future West Ellerbe Creek Trail
  • 3:00 - Stay behind and talk with ECWA staff and volunteers, enjoy the new preserve, and take part in kid-friendly activities!

The Rocks Nature Preserve is located near Broad St and Stadium Dr.

Parking is available at the Central Professional Park, located at 2609 N Duke St near Stadium Dr. Signs will guide you! Google Maps Directions.

Let your friends know you are going on Facebook.

Questions? Contact Chris Sajdak
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. - (919) 698-9729

The Rocks Nature Preserve

Protected in the summer of 2016, The Rocks Nature Preserve is ECWA’s newest open to the public nature preserve. Located near Broad St. and Stadium Dr. this small, 1.8-acre piece of land protects one of the prettiest stretches of Ellerbe Creek. Named after its unique geology, The Rocks is special among ECWA nature preserves.

The Rocks features a nice, short loop trail that takes you around the property and gives great views of Ellerbe Creek. A second trail takes you down to the creek itself, allowing you to explore this rocky section of creek. The Rocks is accessible by foot and bike via the Stadium Drive Trail. A bike rack is located next to the preserve kiosk. A trail connects The Rocks to the Stadium Drive bicycle and walking trail via a public right-of-way access. The nearest parking to the preserve is located at Rock Quarry City Park. From there you may walk, run, or bike 0.6 miles along the Stadium Drive Trail. In 2018, the City of Durham will complete the West Ellerbe Creek Trail, which will extend from its existing location in Indian Trail Park and ECWA’s 17-Acre Wood Preserve to the Stadium Drive Trail nearby. This makes The Rocks a perfect stopping point for bikers or destination for walkers.

The Rocks montage

The Rocks is named after the ancient magma intrusions that lie underneath it, often called “Diabase.” Diabase magma intrusions are areas where magma rose to the surface and cooled to form rock. Most of the land surrounding Ellerbe Creek is sedimentary siltstone or sandstone formed by layers of sediment deposited more than 200 million years ago. Natural erosion by the stream and weather erodes away the softer sediments, exposing the harder diabase. The Rocks is one of a handful places where you can visit Diabase, and the only ECWA preserve with Diabase.

In 2013, the Birminghams, the family that developed many of the area neighborhoods, sold the property to ECWA Board of Directors President Steve Cohn, who generously bought the property to hold onto until ECWA acquired the necessary funds to purchase. Funding to acquire The Rocks was provided by the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative, the Clean Water Management Fund, and the Durham Open Space and Trails Matching Grants Program.

ECWA is working to restore the native habitat of The Rocks by eradicating the invasive exotic plants that are currently trying to take hold. However, this little preserve also hosts a surprising amount of native plant diversity. You will find many loblolly pine, river birch, southern red oak, paw paw, and many more species of trees. If you look down while you walk along the trails you will discover some beautiful herbaceous plants as well; cranefly orchids can be seen scattered throughout the preserve as well as the brilliant red flowers of the trumpet honeysuckle. Under the leaf litter in the late spring you will also find the strange red and brown jug-shaped flowers of the heartleaf plant. A section of open land near the kiosk will be the site of a prairie restoration project. Many different species of native grasses and prairie wildflowers have already been planted there to help attract bees, birds, and other local wildlife.

The Rocks sign

Google Map of The Rocks Nature Preserve

The ECWA 2016 Nature Tour

The 2016 Ellerbe Creek Tour is CANCELLED to ensure the safety of volunteers and attendees due to the weather conditions from Hurricane Matthew.

Thank you to the amazing volunteers who worked so hard to plan this event, and thank you to our sponsors, without whom this event would not have been possible.



Visit Category

17 Acre Wood

17 Acre Wood Category


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Pearl Mill

Pearl Mill Category

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Veasey Farm Category