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.
In December, winter residents become old, familiar friends.
Look for Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted and brown-headed
nuthatches, Carolina wrens, kinglets, juncos, and white-throated
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.
In the cold winter months, consider making your own bird feeder. Find a pinecone and cover it in a
mixture of two parts peanut butter and 1 part oats using a spoon or butter
knife. Then roll the sticky pinecone in birdseed. You can secure the pinecone
to a branch outside using a bit of yarn.
December, it is rather unusual to see butterflies active in the Piedmont. In
some years, Pierids (sulphurs and
whites), including Checkered Whites, Orange Sulphurs, Cloudless Sulphurs,
Sleepy Oranges have been reported this late in the year. Some Nymphalids (brushfoots), have also been
reported in December, e.g., American Snouts, Variegated Fritillaries, American
Ladies, and Red Admirals.
Amphibians.− Expect to hear chorus
frogs and spring peepers on
warm, wet days in December. The calls of southeastern chorus frogs resemble the
noise of someone running their thumb over a plastic comb, while spring peepers
charm with distinctive “peeping”.
will be on the move during some nights in December. Expect to see them out in
groups, possibly crossing road. You might also find them singly or in pairs
under hardwood logs.
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
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.
Animal Profile.- Red-backed Salamanders
(Plethodon cinereus) live in the
woods of the North Carolina Piedmont, the southernmost part of their range. You
can find Redbacks beneath hardwood logs and other woody debris, where they mate
and lay eggs.
often occurs in late fall or early winter, although eggs tend to be laid in
spring and early summer. Under the careful watch of the female salamander, the
eggs develop directly into adults. This is unusual, since many salamander
species have a free-swimming larval stage.
Salamanders are typically less than three and a half inches long and are dark
gray or black with a red stripe or dorsal band. However, do not be fooled: Red-backed
Salamanders do not always don a red-stripe. In fact, some Red-backs might
appear in a “lead-back” color phase that is nearly uniformly gray-black.