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

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 sparrows.



Dark-eyed Junco.

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.


Insects.- In 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.



Cloudless Sulphur.

Reptiles & 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”.


Redbacked salamanders 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.


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.


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.


Cranefly Orchid.

In Bloom

Blood Root


BLUETS – Houstonia sp.


In Fruit:

BEAUTY BERRY – Callicarpa americana

SUGAR BERRY - Celtis laevigata

HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus



American Holly

Wildlife Profile

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.


Breeding 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.


Red-backed 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.


Red-backed Salamander.


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

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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Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
P.O. Box 2679
Durham, North Carolina 27715

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