Dedicated to protecting and restoring Ellerbe Creek.


Welcome to the bimonthly natural history update from the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.  This update lists up-coming events and describes what to expect from the wildlife and wild plants in the watershed this month.  We hope you enjoy this feature.


October 2013


Ellerbe Creek



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On the Wild Side




Birds.− October marks the beginning of food-caching -- a food storage strategy developed to sustain year-round avian residents throughout the lean winter. Caching strategies vary by species: Red-Bellied Woodpeckers might store acorns in holes high up in the cracks and cavities of trees, while American Crows might simply thrust a left-over meal into the loose soil on the ground. Great Horned Owls have even been known to thaw out cached meals of mice and insects by sitting on them like eggs!


This month, a number of winter residents also return to the Piedmont. Lucky observers might discover a Brown Creeper spiraling up a tree while probing for insects or you might spy a Hermit Thrush -- a rich brown bird with a red tail with the shape of a small robin -- kicking through the leaf litter in the woods. Migrant warblers continue to pass through North Carolina as they head towards the Neotropics for the winter, often flocking with food-hoarding Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. 


Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)

Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)


Moths.- This month, you may see fuzzy caterpillars, covered with dense tufts of hair-like setae and adorned with extra long tufts referred to as “hair pencils.” These strange looking caterpillars are the larvae of TUSSOCK MOTHS (Family: Erebidae, Subfamilies: Arctiinae & Lymantriinae), and they range in color from cream with white and black tufts (like the Banded Tussock Moth, Halysidota tessellaris) to bright orange and black with white hair pencils (like the Spotted Tussock Moth, Lophocampa maculata.) The Banded Tussock Moth caterpillars feed on hackberry and oak, among many other trees, while the Spotted Tussock Moth larvae feed mostly on willow and poplar.


Some setae of these wild caterpillars produce a painful and poisonous sting, such as the White-Marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma) with its distinctive red head, black and white striped body and four dense tufts (in white, gray or yellow) on its first four abdominal segments. White-Marked Tussock These larvae occasionally defoliate maples and elms in urban areas, although they feed on a wide variety of both deciduous and coniferous tree species.


White-Marked Tussock Moth caterpiller (Orgyia leucostigma)


Other tussock moth caterpillars are found in the Triangle this time of year as well, including the Sycamore Tussock Moth (Halysidota harrisii), the Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle)  and the Variable Tussock Moth (Dasychira vagans).


Other Insects.− This month, keep an eye open for garden spiders and praying mantis egg cases. Also, the work of Twig Girdlers (Oncideres cingulata) becomes evident in the form of neatly broken twig ends - especially pecans and hickories - littering the forest floor. In late summer, female twig girdlers – large, dusky beetles – lay their eggs at the tip of a branch, and girdle the twig so that it eventually falls off, allowing her offspring to overwinter in and eventually feed on the twig and surrounding debris. 


Twig Girdler (Oncideres cingulata)



Plant Profile.− This month you may notice a bright green shrub with 4-sides stems adorned with finely serrate leaves and a strange warty magenta capsule bursting with vivid red seeds that gives this plant its moniker, Hearts-a-Bustin’ (Euonymus americanus, Celastraceae). Hearts-a-Bustin’ can be found across the eastern United States, south of New York and west to Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. In North Carolina, it occupies moist, bottomland forests throughout the state. Deer readily browse this unusual plant, so you won’t find Hearts-a-Bustin’ in areas over-populated by deer. And those strange seeds? Our native songbirds and wild turkeys will only eat them occasionally.


Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus)

Hearts-a-Bustin' (Euonymous americanus)

Image by Will Cook


In Bloom:

WINGSTEM – Actinomeris alternifolia

BLUE MISTFLOWER - Conoclinium coelestinum

COMMON SNEEZEWEED - Helenium autumnale

SCARLET ROSE-MALLOW – Hibiscus coccineus

BLACK-EYED SUSAN – Rudbeckia sp.

APPALACHIAN BLAZING STAR – Liatris squarrolosa

GREAT LOBELIA – Lobelia siphilitica
DOWNY LOBELIA – Lobelia puberula

ROSINWEED(S) – Silphium spp.

GOLDENROD(S) – Solidago spp.

INDIAN GRASS – Sorghastrum nutans

IRONWEED(S) - Vernonia spp


In Fruit:

HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus

MUSCADINES – Vitis rotundifolia


Wildlife Profile.− This month’s wildlife profile is the Lady Bug (Family: Coccinellidae), in honor of the many that you might find in your home at the end of the month, trying to survive the winter. Lady Bugs are tiny, domed insects (ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm long) with bright red or orange wingcovers and black wingspots, legs and antennae. Some species are entirely black or brown.


Lady Bug (or Lady Beetle)


Over 450 species of Lady Bugs, also known as Coccinellids, are found in the United States. Most of these beneficial insects feed on common garden pests, such as scale insects and aphids. Horticulturalists often use them as part of an integrated pest control program.

Some Coccinellids have developed curious mechanisms for warding off predators, including bright red coloring (indicating to predators that they taste bad) and “reflex bleeding,” which describes the toxic excretion Lady Bugs release through the joints of their legs when handled.


Did you know?

  • The number of spots on the back of a Lady Bug sadly does NOT indicate its age.
  • Many Lady Bug species overwinter as adults, but some, especially species in California, are known to migrate!
  • Lady Bugs beat their wings an average of 70 to 90 times per second.
  • A female Lady Bug will lay more than 1000 eggs in her lifetime.

Nicki Cagle

Nicolette L. Cagle, Ph.D.
North Carolina Science Leadership Fellow (2012-2014)
Director of the Environmental Science Summer Program at Duke
Lecturer, Nicholas School of the Environment
Duke University, BOX 90025 Durham NC 27708
nicolette.cagle (at)

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