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Dedicated to protecting and restoring Ellerbe Creek
Ellerbe Creek E-Zine (February 2016)


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

Reminder for Hikers, Birders & Other Natural-Area Wanderers: It is hunting season so please remember to wear blaze orange while out exploring this month.  In February, in-season game species include bobcats, fox, rabbit, raccoon, opossum, deer and a number of birds (e.g., common snipe, crow, pheasant, quail, ruffed grouse, and geese).


Birds.− In February, romance burgeons in the avian world as well. Barred owls begin hooting their mating calls. Red-shouldered hawks can be seen high in the sky performing their mating displays. Also, woodcocks begin their elaborate courtships in February. It is worth braving the cold this month to watch male woodcocks spiral skyward and fall rapidly back down to earth making a distinct “peenting” call in hopes of attracting a mate.


Woodcock (AKA Timberdoodle)


This month, some of the most active birds are also frequent visitors of feeders: Carolina wrens begin pairing up and building nests, as do non-native house sparrows. By the end of the month, purple martins and tree swallows will begin to reappear, along with purple and house finches.


Ever wonder what birds eat this time of year? Our year round residents have a remarkably flexible diet that adapts to changing food supplies. For example, eastern bluebirds typically feed on insects and other invertebrates during the warmer months, but depend on small fruits and berries to satisfy their hunger in the winter months. Some birds, including crows, jays, nuthatches and titmice, will even feast on carrion if needed. Carolina chickadees are particularly flexible. During the summer, 80-90% of their diet is made up of small insects and spiders. In winter, approximately 50% of the Carolina chickadee’s diet is composed of seeds and fruits, including those of poison ivy, Virginia creeper, pines, and eastern redbuds, with the remainder being made up of their typical warm-weather cuisine.   


Butterflies.− Many of our over-wintering butterfly species will re-emerge this month. Near forested habitats, one might expect to see question marks, eastern commas and mourning cloaks. In open habitats (e.g., fields and roadsides), expect to find American ladies, late sulphurs, orange sulphurs, clouded sulphurs and cabbage whites, a commonly seen species that was introduced from Europe. Other species sighted in Durham in February include sleepy oranges, American snouts and even variegated fritillaries.


Found throughout the Piedmont of North Carolina, the Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) is often observed perched on the rims of puddles that pock dirt roads. This copper and brown butterfly overwinters as an adult, meaning that if the weather warms up enough the Question Mark can be seen in the early months of the year. In fact, in the Piedmont butterfly aficionados have observed the Question Mark in every single month of the year. The Question Mark is identified by a tiny, white question mark on the underside of its hindwing, while the similar looking Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) sports a simple comma. Outnumbered by the Question Mark nearly 3:1 in the Piedmont, the Eastern Commas is also found in almost every Piedmont county in every month of year. Adults usually start flying at the end of February, with a new brood appearing in late May and another in August. In the Piedmont, only the Question Mark and Eastern Comma can be confused, but confusing Gray Commas (Polygonia progne) and Green Commas (Polygonia faunus) occur in the Mountains.


Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, expect to hear southeastern chorus frogs and spring peepers. You might also catch the sharp, repetitive clinking of a northern cricket frog, the musical trill of an American toad, the low-pitched croak of the pickerel frog or the sheep-like bleat of the eastern spadefoot. Also, continue to look for breeding spotted salamanders and the larvae of marbled salamanders.


American toad.


Mammals. - Coyotes begin courtship rituals between January and March, and after a gestation of only 63 days a female will give birth to between one and twelve young (average litter: 6 pups).

In Bloom

Blood Root

In Bloom this Month.− Look out for these February fruits and flowers:


In Bloom (*in some years):

RED MAPLE – Acer rubrum

HAZEL ALDER – Alnus serrulata

ROUND LOBED HEPATICA – Anemone americana

*EASTERN SPRING-BEAUTY – Claytonia virginica

*AMERICAN TROUT-LILY – Erythronium americanum

*CAROLINA JESSAMINE – Gelsemium sempervirens

*LITTLE HEARTLEAF – Hexastylis minor

BLUETS – Houstonia sp.


In Fruit:

BEAUTY BERRY – Callicarpa americana

SUGARBERRY - Celtis laevigata

HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus



February is a great month to eradicate any non-native, invasive plant species growing on your property, many of which are easy to identify even in the middle of winter. In the southeastern United States, most invasive species arrived from Europe or southeast Asia (areas that share the deciduous forest biome). These species have arrived accidentally (e.g., Microstegium, an invasive grass, arrived as packing material), as well as intentionally (e.g., the princess tree was introduced by horticulturalists.) Once an invasive species gets a foot-hold, it can alter the vegetation structure of a community, change food resources for wildlife, and even affect ecosystem-level processes such as sedimentation, erosion, soil chemistry and fire regimes.


Japanese Stiltgrass, Microstegium vimineum


Important Terms:

Exotic species – a non-native plant that will grow, but not spread in a given ecosystem

Invasive species – a non-native species that will spread and cause harm in a given ecosystem

Native species – a species that historically occurred in a given ecosystem

Noxious weed – any plant whose presence is detrimental to crops or desirable plants, livestock, land, other property or is injurious to public health (note: can be native)


Notable invasive plant species in our area:

Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense)

Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)

Common reed (Phragmites australis)

English ivy (Hedera helix)

Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata)

Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum)

Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)

Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)

Princesstree (Paulownia tomentosa)

Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)

Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata)

Tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

Wildlife Profile

Animal Profile.- The four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) is listed as a species of special concern in North Carolina. 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 actually protect the eggs from being destroyed by fungus. Reid Harris and Douglas Gill have suggested that female four-toed salamanders may actually eat eggs on which fungus is detected. 



Four-toed salamander.

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 will take at least one and half more years for the young four-toed salamanders to reach sexual maturity. 


As adults, the four-toed salamander ranged from two to 3.5 inches. The back tends to be a mottled reddish brown with small black spots, with the tail getting progressively redder. The tail, when grabbed, can be disconnected and will continue to writher and wiggle to lure predators away from the fleeing salamander. The belly of the four-toed salamander is white with black spots, and as its name suggest, the four-toed salamander only has four toes on each hind foot. Adults can typically be found under rocks and leaf litter. 


References: Cook, D. 2001. The Piedmont Almanac

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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