On The Wild Side
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.
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
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)
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
SWEET-SHRUB (Calycanthus floridus var. glaucus)
HAWKWEED (Hieracium gronovii)
RATTLESNAKE-WEED (Hieracium venosum)
SUMMER BLUET (Houstonia purpurea)
YELLOW STAR-GRASS (Hypoxis
DWARF-DANDELION (Krigia dandelion)
WOOD-SORREL (Oxalis sp.)
SAGE (Salvia lyrata)
VIBURNUM (Viburnum acerifolium)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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: http://220.127.116.11/nbnc/
Martof, B. S., W.
M. Palmer, J. R. Bailey, and J. R. Harrison. 1980. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas
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
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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