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Dedicated to protecting and restoring Ellerbe Creek
Ellerbe Creek E-Zine (March 2015)


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.

On The Wild Side

Blue Grosbeak

Birds.− As spring arrives in the Piedmont this month, we begin to see profound changes in the composition of our avifauna.  Wood-ducks, blue-winged teals (local breeders), double-crested cormorants and ospreys become more abundant.  Also, expect to begin seeing vireos, ruby-throated hummingbirds, purple martins and other swallow species this month.   Lucky observers may even catch sight of a snowy egret, little blue heron, Mississippi kite, blue grosbeak, indigo bunting or some sandpiper species. 


Many bird species will be migrating this month. Migration is different from other types of avian movements because it is “seasonal, predictable, and repeated each year*”.  Other types of avian movements lack these qualities. For example, some species fly long distances to forage – or search for food – but their foraging is not seasonal. Other species move to new sites after they hatch – this is called dispersal. Since an individual bird does not disperse each year, this is not migration either.



Approximately five species of wood-warblers (Family: Parulidae) pass through the Triangle in March, ending their journeys further north, including the blue-winged, Tennessee, orange-crowned, yellow, and black-throated green warblers. Other species of wood-warblers will arrive this month and stay to breed, including the northern parula, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, prothonotary warbler, worm-eating warbler, ovenbird, and Louisiana waterthrush.


In March, many bird species – not just wood-warblers - begin breeding and building nests. By the end of the month, they may even be sitting on eggs. For example, you may see both male and female woodpeckers excavating their nests (although the males often do most of the work). Woodpeckers usually excavate a new nest cavity each year, and while starlings, sparrows, and titmice quickly appropriate old, empty cavities. Although the trees that woodpeckers excavate may look alive, research has revealed that most woodpecker species chose to excavate trees with dead heartwood. One exception, found in the North Carolina sandhills, is the red-cockaded woodpecker, which prefers to dig into live pine trees.


*Elphick et al. 2009, p59


Butterflies.− This month, butterfly watchers may begin to find hairstreaks (including the red-banded, gray, juniper, and great purple) and swallowtails (e.g., black and eastern tiger). If you want to find zebra swallowtails, be sure to look in the right sort of habitat: breeding takes place in rich, moist woodlands often near rivers and swamplands. In fact, zebra swallowtail larvae will only feed on paw-paw (Asimina species.), although adults may fly out to the forest edge to enjoy nectar from a variety of sources including milkweeds (Asclepias species) and the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).



Lucky observers may find Henry’s elfins and eastern pine elfins, while definitely spotting a lot more cabbage whites, sulphurs, spring azures, question marks, eastern commas and mourning cloaks. Towards the end of the month, keep your eyes open for sleeper, Juvenal’s and Horace’s duskywings, adults of which often perch on bare ground, including dirt roads and trails, where they glean minerals.


Did you know that butterflies have neither lungs nor blood? Both butterflies and caterpillars breathe through small openings along the sides of their bodies, called spiracles. From each spiracle, a tube (i.e., the trachea) carries oxygen into the body. Since the trachea brings oxygen directly to the tissue, butterflies do not need blood to transport oxygen. Butterflies do rely on a green-colored fluid, called hemolymph, to carry nutrients (but not oxygen) throughout their body.


Reptiles & Amphibians.− Throughout March, expect to hear Southeastern chorus frogs, Northern cricket frogs, American toads, pickerel frogs and Eastern spadefoots. Fowler’s toads, bullfrogs and green frogs will start calling this month, but don’t expect large choruses until April.


Also, expect to hear the exuberant harbingers of spring: spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). These small, copper-colored frogs, with a dark X across its back, announce spring with loud peeps. Armies of peepers – the proper name for a group -- can be heard as far as 2.5 miles away.  


Found throughout North Carolina, spring peepers prefer woodlands with ample forest litter and breed in ponds, swamps, and ditches. The female spring peeper lays about 900 eggs per complement, attaching each egg singly to submerged wood and vegetation. In a few days the eggs hatch, releasing impossibly small, dark tadpoles into the water. After three or four months, the tadpoles metamorphose into adult peepers.


Adult spring peepers are carnivorous, preying upon worms and spring_peepersmall arthropods. In most areas, they are nocturnal hunters, but in humid environments they also hunt during the day. Adults are vulnerable to predation from spiders and birds and, in some areas, spring peeper populations are declining due to habitat loss.


March frog call guide:

Southeastern chorus frog: raspy, rising call like someone dragging their thumb over the teeth of a comb

spring peepers: a loud, medium pitched “peeep”

Northern cricket frogs: clinking like two small metal balls being tapped together

American toads: long, musical trill

pickerel frogs: drawn out snore

Eastern spadefoot toads: a crabby, deep “eeeerrrr”


Continue to look for breeding salamanders this month. You may also observe basking yellow-bellied sliders and the occasional black-rat snake or racer warming up in dappled sunlight.

In Bloom

Blood Root

March is a great month to brush-up on your herbaceous plant identification, starting with the spring ephemerals – fragile wildflowers that disappear after a brief vernal resurgence.


One of the first flowers to bloom in March is round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana). Other March ephemerals include the spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) with their yellow nodding flowers emerging from a pair of dark green, spotted leaves. If you are exploring richer woods, you might find red trillium (Trillium cuneatum), may-apples (Podophyllum peltatum), a few species of wild ginger or heartleaf (Hexastylus spp.) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).


Mar+22+2009+Cary+NC+Swift+Creek+bluffs+bloodroot+Sanguinaria+canadensis+(12)Bloodroots are fascinating plants with clasping, multi-lobed dark green leaves from which emerge a delicate 8-12 petaled white flower. Small bees and flies pollinate its flowers, and ants disperse its seeds in a process known as myrmecochory. The ants are attracted to a fleshy, edible organ on the seed known as an elaiosome. Ants bring the seed back to their nest, where they eat the elaiosome, and then deposit the seed in their fertile nest debris!


In Bloom:

RED MAPLE (Acer rubrum)

WINDFLOWER (Anemonella thalictroides)

CUT-LEAF TOOTHWORT (Cardamine concatenate)

EASTERN SPRING-BEAUTY (Claytonia virginica)

EASTERN REDBUD (Cercis canadensis)

AMERICAN HAZELNUT (Corylus americana)

AMERICAN TROUT-LILY (Erythronium americanum)

ROUND-LOBED HEPATICA (Hepatica americana)

LITTLE HEARTLEAF (Hexastylis minor)

QUAKER-LADIES (Houstonia caerulea)


HAIRY WOOD-RUSH (Luzula acuminata)

MAY APPLE (Podophyllum peltatum)

BLOODROOT (Sanguinaria canadensis)

GIANT CHICKWEED (Stellaria pubera)

RED TRILLIUM (Trillium cuneatum)

DOORYARD VIOLET (Viola sororia)

Wildlife Profile

In North Carolina, the Wildlife Resource Commission has listed the four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) as a species of special concern. Although some populations have been found in the Coastal Plain and Mountains, the four-toed salamander predominantly occurs in the Piedmont, where it prefers marshes, swamps and ephemeral ponds surrounded by forest.


After mating in the fall, some female four-toed salamanders cooperate with each other during the spring nesting season, preferring to lay eggs together on moss-covered logs and roots draped over still-water. This communal nest allows one female to leave for a short period, while the other stays behind to tend to the eggs. While it may look like the females are guarding the eggs from predators, researchers have suggested that the females protect the eggs from egg-destroying fungus. Reid Harris and Douglas Gill have suggested that female four-toed salamanders may even eat fungus-infected eggs (1, 2).


After one and half to two months of protection, in the warmth of early summer, the larvae finally emerge from the eggs and drop into the still water where they transform into small adults in about 6 weeks. It takes at least one and half more years for the young four-toed salamanders to reach sexual maturity (2). Rocks and leaf litter typically provide habitat for these adults.

As adults, the four-toed salamanders range from two to 3.5 inches. Small, black spots speckle their mottled, reddish-brown backs, and their tail shows the brightest red. That tail, if grabbed, can disconnect from the body and will continue to writhe and wiggle to lure predators away from the feeling salamander. The belly of the four-toed salamander is white with black spots, and as its name suggests, the four-toed salamander only has four toes on each hind foot.



Cook, D. 2001. Piedmont Almanac. Chapel Hill, NC: Mystic Crow Publishing.

Elphick, C., Dunning, John B., JR., Sibley, D.A. 2009. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 588pp. 

(1) Harris, R. N. and Gill, D. E. 1980. Communal nesting, brooding behavior, and embryonic survival of the four-toed salamander Hemidactylium scutatum. Herpetologica 36(2): 141-144.

LeGrand, H. E. Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina. Available at:

Martof, B. S., W. M. Palmer, J. R. Bailey, and J. R. Harrison. 1980. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC.

(2) Meyer, Rachelle. 2008. Hemidactylium scutatum. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [Last accessed 13 Jan 2015].

National Geographic Society. Spring Peeper Profile. Available at: [Last accessed 27 Feb 2011].

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 University.

To learn more, please visit Nicolette Cagle's website.





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Durham, North Carolina 27715

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