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Dedicated to protecting and restoring Ellerbe Creek
Ellerbe Creek E-Zine (May 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

Insects.− This month, look in the dirt for small, cone-shaped holes about one inch deep and two inches across. These are the traps of the ant lion. Ant lions are predatory larvae that wait at the bottom of their pit until an unsuspecting ant slides down to the bottom of the trap. Once the ant is close enough, the ant lion will grab it with its pinchers, chow down, and then carefully tidy up its trap.



(An ant lion, magnified greatly)

The first fireflies often appear in May. Also, be on the lookout for hummingbird moths, a species of moth that hovers and makes an audible humming noise as it feeds.


At the end of the month, one might find annual cicada shells clinging to tree trunks, but don’t expect to be dazzled by the appearance of a full brood (Brood VI, 17-year) of periodical cicadas again until 2017.


Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, the eastern five-lined skinks begin to mate, and turtles adorn riverside logs. Also, expect to find snakes out even during the day, especially eastern garter snakes, black rat snakes, and black racers. Queen snakes and northern water snakes will be found basking on logs along rivers and creeks. Many people confuse northern water snakes with venomous species (such as copperheads and cottonmouths), but northern water snakes have circular pupils.


Choruses of Fowler’s toads, eastern narrow-mouthed toads and Cope’s gray treefrogs can also be heard this time of year, and Fowler’s toad tadpoles begin to metamorphose by the end of the month.


May frog call guide:

Cope’s gray treefrog: a short, deep repetitive trill (often heard coming from the trees before it rains!)

Fowler’s toads: long, slightly nasal, crabby trill

eastern narrow-mouth toads: buzzy and sheep-like call (like a Fowler’s toad, but shorter and buzzier)


Mammals.− This month, when chipmunks are giving birth to their


 first litter of the year, challenge yourself to find good eastern chipmunk habitat. In theory, the range of chipmunks stretches from North Carolina’s coastal plain to the mountains. Yet, in the Triangle, only northwestern Orange County, southeastern Durham County, and much of Wake County have confirmed chipmunk sightings.


Chipmunks prefer deciduous forest, with lots of oaks,

 hickories, beeches, and maples. These trees offer nuts and seeds as food. If you find chipmunks in Durham, send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


A number of bat species, including the little brown myotis, silver-haired bat, red bat, and big brown bat are courting this month. Also, expect to see some young rabbits and opossums.


Birds.− This month, the spring bird migration ends. In the middle of the month, expect a peak in sightings of mourning warblers, willow flycatchers, and yellow-bellied flycatchers. As these migrants reach their peak, others will be rapidly departing for more northerly territories, including black-throated blue warblers, black-throated green warblers, pectoral sandpipers, and gray-cheeked thrushes.


Some migrants will stop and stay in North Carolina for the summer, including local breeders such as scarlet and summer tanagers, ovenbirds and prairie warblers. To identify the vivid, but elusive, tanagers by ear listen for a throaty “chik burr” or a harsh “pik-a-tuck.” Ovenbirds make a sweet sounding “cher, teacher teacher teacher” from near the forest floor, while prairie warblers have a buzzy ascending song that they belt out from the treetops.


Other birds have already mated, laid eggs, and hatched them. Bluebirds, Carolina wrens, ruby-throated hummingbirds, brown thrashers, northern mockingbirds, northern cardinals, pileated woodpeckers, and barred owls are just some of the species documented to fledge in the Piedmont in May.


Butterflies.− This May, butterfly watchers will delight in the appearance of more skippers, quick and darting butterflies in the family Hesperiidae. Also, expect to see some hairstreaks (e.g., coral, banded and striped), great spangled fritillaries, northern pearly eyes, Appalachian browns, common wood nymphs, and little wood satyrs.


This month skipper caterpillars begin to appear. They have large brown heads and skinny necks. They are usually green or brown with faint stripping, making them look like over-stuffed inchworms! Skipper caterpillars construct protective shelters by cutting a flap of leaf, folding it over, and fastening the sides with their silk. Look for spread-wing skippers (e.g., silver-spotted skipper) on legumes and oaks leaves. Grass skippers can be found – you guessed it! – rolled up in grasses and sedges.

Also, look for the hackberry emperor, one of our brushfooted 


butterfliesin the family Nymphalidae. This dark-brown butterfly is locally abundant in areas with hackberry and sugarberry trees, the food plants for the horned green caterpillars. Adults do not nectar on flowers, but feed on sap, carrion, and even human sweat! The adult butterflies seen this time of year over-wintered as partially grown caterpillars. Another brood of adult butterflies will emerge between late June and late August, and in the Piedmont, a third brood will emerge between late August and late September.


In Bloom

Blood Root

As the spring ephemerals disappear, May floral displays may initially seem less impressive, but there are some gems among the flowers blooming this month, including the high-contrast green-and-golds and the pitcher-shaped jack-in-the-pulpits.


In Bloom:

JACK-IN-THE-PULPIT (Arisaema triphyllum)

SMOOTH SWEET-SHRUB (Calycanthus floridus var. glaucus)

GREEN-AND-GOLD (Chrysogonum virginianum)

HEART'S-A'BUSTIN' (Euonymus americanus)

LITTLE-BROWN-JUG (Hexastylis arifolia)

BEAKED HAWKWEED (Hieracium gronovii)

RATTLESNAKE-WEED (Hieracium venosum)

BLUETS (Houstonia caerulea)

SUMMER BLUET (Houstonia purpurea)



WOOD-SORREL (Oxalis sp.)

RUNNING FIVE-FINGERS (Potentilla canadensis)

BLACKBERRY (Rubus sp.)

LYRE-LEAF SAGE (Salvia lyrata)

SKULLCAP (Scutellaria sp.)

MAPLE-LEAF VIBURNUM (Viburnum acerifolium)

Wildlife Profile

This month’s wildlife profile is the QUEEN SNAKE (Regina septemvitta). In 1825, Thomas Say, a charter member of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, first described the queen snake, a docile and slender ophidian sometimes seen basking on logs in North Carolina’s rivers and streams.

9k=The queen snake is principally diurnal and usually mates shortly after becoming active in the spring. Some fall mating is suspected, but unconfirmed. Between 5 and 18 young are born in mid-summer. The prey of the queen snake consists almost entirely of freshly molted crayfish. Predators of the queen snake include birds, mammals, and crayfish that attack young snakes.

Queen snakes are found in much of the eastern United States, with a range stretching west from southwestern New York to northeastern Illinois, and south to the Florida panhandle. In North Carolina, queen snakes have been found in most of the Piedmont and western counties, but are absent from the coastal plain. Considered semi-aquatic, queen snakes actually have the most water-permeable skin of any snake and are rarely found greater than 3 m from water. They usually inhabit small, clean, rocky-bottomed rivers and streams with bountiful supplies of crayfish, although sometimes they can be found along the margins of lakes, ponds, marshes, swamps, and canals. Queen snakes use flat rocks and woody debris for basking and refugia, while crayfish and mammal burrows serve as group hibernacula.

Unfortunately, the calm and harmless queen snake is uncommon throughout most of its range. Habitat loss and degradation have largely contributed to their population declines. Moreover, stream siltation is devastating the crayfish populations upon which their queen snake depends, while other water pollutants contaminate this food supply. Sadly, numerous instances have been cited of these good-natured serpents being killed by people.


Did you know?

  • Three conditions are necessary to sustain an intense queen snake population:
    • An area of either running or still water, greater than 65°F for most of the season
    • An abundance of partially submerged flat rocks for cover
    • Plenty of crayfish
  • Molted crayfish make up 99% of the queen snake’s diet by volume.


Identification: Medium length (38 and 61 cm) brownish gray snake with three black lines on back. The belly is light yellow with four black lines. Anal plate is divided and scales are keeled scales.



Branson, B. A., and E. C. Baker. 1974. An ecological study of the queen snake, Regina septemvittata (Say) in Kentucky. Tulane Studies in Zoology and Botany 18 (4):153-171.

Cagle, N. L. 2008. A multiscale investigation of snake habitat relationships and snake conservation in Illinois. Ph.D., Dissertation, Duke University.

Campbell, C. A., and D. W. Perrin. 1979. A survey of the queen snake (Regina septemvittata) in southwestern Ontario. Wildlife branch, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

Cook, D. 2001. The Piedmont Almanac. Raleigh, NC: Barefoot Press.


Conant, R., and J.T. Collins. 1991. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA.


Daniels, J. C. (2003). Butterflies of the Carolinas. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc.


Duesing, E. and A. B. Millmoss. 1992. Backyard and Beyond: A Guide for Discovering the Outdoors. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.


Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Harding, J. H. 1997. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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.


Palmer, W. M. and A. L. Braswell. 1995. Reptiles of North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC.


Wagner, D. L. 2005. Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ


Web references: [accessed 15 May 2015] [accessed 15 May 2015]

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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