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Dedicated to protecting and restoring Ellerbe Creek.


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


December 2013

January 2014


Ellerbe Creek



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On the Wild Side




Birds.− The quiet stillness of winter affords us ample opportunity to brush up on our bird skills, either by listening carefully to the birds calling around us or by cuddling up with a bird field guide and a cup of hot cocoa.


This time of year, vultures still soar overhead, hoping to pick up the scent of carrion below. In the Piedmont of North Carolina, we see two types of vultures with almost equal frequency: the black vulture and the turkey vulture. You can distinguish the two by the shape they make when flying. Black vultures soar with flat wings, while turkey vultures soar with v-shaped wings. When watching vultures soar, you may notice that some have shorter, squared tails and silvery patches only at the tips of the underside of their wings. These are black vultures. Turkey vultures have longer tails, and most of their primaries are silvery beneath.


V-shaped flight of the turkey vulture.


Winter is a good time to distinguish between some common bird songs and calls. This time of year, you can hear the cherry “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea” song of the Carolina wren echoing throughout neighborhoods and forests. You might also hear male wrens issuing a robust, rising “chhurrr” or hear their loud, ascending single note call.


In the cold winter months, consider making your own bird feeder. Find a pine cone and cover it in a mixture of 2 parts peanut butter and 1 part oats using a spoon or butter knife. Then roll the sticky pine cone in bird seed. You can secure the pine cone to a branch outside using a bit of yarn.


Reptiles & Amphibians.− Expect to hear chorus frogs and spring peepers on warm, wet days in December and January. The calls of upland chorus frogs resemble the noise of someone running their thumb over a plastic comb, while spring peepers charm with distinctive “peeping”.


Upland Chorus Frog (Pseudacris feriarum feriarum)

Upland chorus frog, Durham, NC.


Spotted salamanders will appear in breeding ponds towards the end of January on warm rainy nights with plenty of moonlight. Found in the Piedmont’s deciduous and mixed forests home, spotted salamanders spend most of summer and winter below ground. However, in late January and early February, they emerge to begin their courtships in ponds and slow streams.


Plants.− Winter allows us take a close look at the few plants that remain verdant in our local woods. Christmas fern often adorns the forest floor with thick clumps of evergreen fronds. Some people say that Christmas fern is so named because it is green and obvious during the Christmas holiday, others point to the shape of its pinnae (leaflets) that resemble Christmas stockings.


Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern)

Christmas fern with stocking-shaped pinnae.


Other herbaceous plants may be green this time of year as well. During winter, the cranefly orchid can be located in forest litter, with its distinctive oval-shaped, dark green leaf with parallel veins and purple undersides. The leaf shoots up in fall, and disappears before the orchid blooms in mid- to late-summer.


In Bloom (in some years):


BLUETS – Houstonia sp.


In Fruit:

BEAUTY BERRY – Callicarpa americana

SUGAR BERRY - Celtis laevigata

HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus



Animal Profile.- The Carolina wren is loud and showy throughout the year, but its petite cousin, the winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is often overlooked. The winter wren is a small, 4” long brown bird with a pale eyebrow. It is heavily barred along its short, upright tail and flanks.


Winter wren.


In winter, the winter wren can be found in wet woods, wooded swamps, and areas with fallen logs in North Carolina and the Southeast. You will often find it hopping amongst stumps and logs, calling out every so often with a double-noted “do-do” or “jip-jip”. This insectivorous bird may be looking for flies or even spiders to fill its belly. In winter, winter wrens have also been known to eat juniper berries.


While commonly seen in the Piedmont from October to March, by April the winter wren will become rare in our area. By late spring, the winter wren will be found up north in its breeding grounds throughout Canada, where it nests in dense coniferous forests. The winter wren usually uses a cavity in or beneath a stump to protect its reddish-brown spotted white eggs, lining the hole with twigs, moss, and feathers. In fact, the scientific name of this species – Troglodytes troglodytes – comes from the Greek “trogle,” meaning hole or cave and “dutes,” meaning burrower or dweller, referencing this species nesting habits.


The winter wren stands out for one more reason: It is the only true wren that occurs outside the new world. In fact, the winter wren can be found in western Europe, north Africa, and eastern China and Japan. In Britain, it is often known as the “Jenny Wren,” which is also a character in Charles Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend. Paul McCartney recently released a song of that same name; the Jenny Wren is said to be his favorite bird species.



Ehrlich, P. R., Dobkin, D. S., and Darryl, W. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. Simon and Schuster: New York, New York. 783pp.


Gotch, A. F. 1995. Latin Names Explained. Facts on File: New York, New York. 713 pp.


Sibley, D. A. 2013. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, New York. 431 pp.


“Jenny Wren.” 2013. Available at Last accessed 27 December 2013.

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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