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

Birds.− This month, spring migrants are headed our way. Some species that may be seen during the next couple of months, as they head north, include some wood-warblers (including golden-winged, Nashville, chestnut-sided, magnolia, black-throated blue, black-throated green, bay-breasted and blackpoll), herons (e.g., little blue heron, black-crowned night heron, cattle-egret), thrushes (e.g., veery, grey-cheeked and Swainson’s) and sandpipers (e.g., spotted and solitary). Also, be on the lookout for sora, Virginia rail or a rare glossy ibis.


Species will be arriving this month with the intention of staying the summer and breeding here in the Piedmont; these include whip-poor-wills, chimney swifts, ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern wood-pewees, Acadian flycatchers, eastern kingbirds, prairie warblers, summer and scarlet tanagers, and northern parulas.


The northern parula is a colorful warbler that migrates to the Piedmont in spring and breeds locally. Their buzzy, ascending song that ends in a distinct, sharp down note can most frequently identify them. Northern parulas typically breed in bottomland forests and they make tiny nests of lichen (or Spanish moss further south) high in the canopy of oaks, maples, birches, and sycamores near the tips of branches. Northern parula populations appear to be stable or even increasing, but an unusual break occurs in their distribution between the north and south. Ornithologists have suggested that this break may be due to habitat change or to air pollution. Air pollution often kills vulnerable lichen species, which are an important nesting material for northern parulas.


Some of our year-round residents are busy this month as well. Many Carolina wrens – small, energetic brown birds with upturned tails, distinct whitish eyebrows and curved bills -- hatch in April, and the young are heard boldly chirping in their nests. The female usually incubates five eggs in a nest of twigs, bark, leaves, and grass busily constructed by both parents. Nest sites often can by found in cavities and protected areas, both natural and man-made. Unused grills and back porches are often prime real estate for these adaptable birds. After two weeks of incubation, young Carolina wrens hatch and noisily demand food from both parents. Carolina wrens live approximately six years and mate for life.


Did you know? The spring migration of birds occurs along four principal “flyways” in North America. Lucky for us, the Atlantic flyway crosses North Carolina, and provides a route northward from Central America and the West Indies for about 150 species of migratory birds. Ample food and cover exist along the entire mountain-free flyway, which stretches from the Gulf of Mexico, through the Carolinas and Virginia to the northeastern states and into central Canada.


Butterflies.− In April, butterfly watchers may begin to find some of the skippers (e.g., zabulon, dusted, pepper and salt), duskywings (mottled, zarucco), cloudywings (southern, northern, confused), satyrs (gemmed, Carolina) and pearlyeyes (southern and northern). Silvery checkerspots can be spotted in moist floodplains or sometimes near drier woodland borders, where adults glean nectar from, and caterpillars feed, on sunflowers (Helianthus) and rosinweeds (Silphium spp.). Look for red-spotted purples in hardwoods forests and forest edges; adults may be found taking sustenance from tree sap or damp ground, while caterpillars feed on cherries (Prunus spp.) and other members of the Rosaceae. Butterfly aficionados will continue to see a number of sulphurs and hairstreaks this month, as well as questionmarks and commas. The most spectacular visitors, this month, may be the monarchs and their mimics, viceroys.


Swallowtails, a largely tropical family of colorful butterflies with distinctive tails on their hind wings, make exciting sightings in April. Five swallowtail species make their homes in Durham County: the Spicebush Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Zebra Swallowtail, and the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is also the state butterflies of Delaware, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. Swallowtails typically use as a wide variety of flowers as nectar plants, and the caterpillars of some species can be quite particular. For example, the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars feed exclusively on Aristolochia species, including the native Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia durior) and Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria). The Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars strictly rely on the two pawpaws species native to North Carolina, tall pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and dwarf pawpaw (Asimina parviflora) as foodplants.


Other Insects.− This month, field crickets will begin to call, crane flies will hover in the grass, and ticks abound. Also, expect to see some dragonflies zipping through the air, searching for mosquitoes and other prey. Dragonflies to look for in April include the darners, a family that represents some of the largest and fastest flying dragonflies in North America.  Species sighted in Durham County include the Common Green Darner, Springtime Darner, and Swamp Darner. The Common Green Darner – a three-inch long green dragonfly with a brown and yellow (females) or bluish (males) abdomen -- probably is active longer than any other Dragonfly species in the state: it can be seen in the Piedmont from March through October cruising over open habitat, especially near still water.


Reptiles & Amphibians.− This month, northern cricket frogs, eastern narrow-mouthed toads, and Cope’s gray treefrogs will begin to call. American and Fowler’s toads, spring peepers, bullfrogs, green frogs, southern leopard frogs and eastern spadefoots will continue to call, but the large choruses of southeastern chorus frogs will be winding down this month.


April frog call guide:

Southeastern chorus frog: raspy, rising call like someone dragging their thumb over the teeth of a comb

spring peepers: a loud, medium pitched “peeep”

Northern cricket frogs: clinking like two small metal balls being tapped together

American toads: long, musical trill

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)

Eastern spadefoot toads: a crabby, deep “eeeerrrr”


Look in shallow permanent or ephemeral ponds to find frog and toad eggs and even tadpoles. In April, visible eggs include the long gray-green strings of Fowler’s toad eggs and globs of gelatinous black spotted Cope’s gray treefrog eggs. In most years, small and dark American toad tadpoles will emerge this month.


Also, be on the lookout for basking yellow-bellied sliders and painted turtles. Snakes will be out as well, so be sure not to step on the diminutive and well-camouflaged northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi) when walking on preserve trails. When gardening this month, also watch out for secretive rough earth snakes and eastern worm snakes, North Carolina’s most common snake species.

In Bloom

In Bloom this Month.− April is a wonderful month to test your tree identification skills. Try to identify trees by their bark or buds before they flower and leaf out!


In late March and early April, woodland hikers may notice a diminutive plant with three mottled leaves radiating out from the center, topped by a single maroon flower; this is likely one of the Piedmont’s most common trilliums, little sweet Betsy or Trillium cuneatum. This musk-scented gem was once used medicinally to treat gangrene and skin ulcers. It is now a favorite among natural landscapers, as it is deer resistant.


In Bloom:

BUCKEYES (Aesculus spp.)

WINDFLOWER (Anemonella thalictroides)

SWEET-SHRUB (Calycanthus floridus)

MUSCLEWOOD (Carpinus caroliniana)

FLOWERING DOGWOOD (Cornus florida)

RATTLESNAKE-WEED (Hieracium venosum)

QUAKER-LADIES (Houstonia caerulea)


DWARF CRESTED IRIS (Iris cristata)

CORAL HONEYSUCKLE (Lonicera sempervirens)

HAIRY WOODRUSH (Luzula echinata)

VIRGINIA PENNYWORT (Obolaria virginiana)

MAY-APPLE (Podophyllum peltatum)

EARLY SAXIFRAGE (Saxifraga virgininiensis)

AMERICAN BLADDERNUT (Staphylea trifolia)

GIANT CHICKWEED (Stellaria pubera)

FOAMFLOWER (Tiarella cordifolia)

CATESBY’S TRILLIUM (Trillium catesbaei)

LITTLE SWEET BETSY (Trillium cuneatum)

MAPLE-LEAF VIBURNUM (Viburnum acerifolium)

DOWNY ARROW-WOOD (Viburnum rafinesquianum)


Plant Profile.− This month’s plant feature is the fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), also known as old man’s beard because of the way its pretty, white petals droop when it blooms in April. According to Donald Culross Peattie, the fringetree “contributes to the higher things of life: it is a raving beauty when in mid-spring it is loaded from top to bottom with the airiest, most ethereal yet showy flowers boasted by any member of our northern sylva.” This showy native tree, which only stretches twenty feet high, should be a staple in home gardens for its beauty alone, but female trees have the benefit of producing berries that are excellent bird food.  



Historically, fringetree has been used medicinally. According to Eileen Malone-Brown, Native Americans used fringetree to make a root-bark tea that cleaned wounds and reduced inflammation. Later, U.S. physicians used bark teas to treat liver ailments. Even today, homeopathic practitioners use root-bark to treat ailments such as headaches and depression, but be careful, overdoes can cause vomiting and slow your pulse.


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

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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