Flying Squirrels Meet the Black Swallowtail Butterfly Summer Pollinators Fireflies of the Season Summertime Snakes Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road? Spring Blooms
Did you know that North Carolina is home to six species of squirrels? Although we in the Raleigh area most often see our familiar Eastern Gray Squirrel, we actually have four of the six squirrel species here. Depending on where you are, folks in Raleigh can spot the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus striatus), Groundhogs (Marmota monax), or the Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans). The state’s other two squirrel species, the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) and the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), have smaller, restricted ranges in our state, either in the sandhills region (about an hour south and east of Raleigh) or in high elevation forests (such as near Boone), respectively. Each species of squirrel is unique in its preferred habitats, diets, and behavior.
Because the Southern Flying Squirrel is nocturnal and is the smallest squirrel species in the state, it is often referred to as the most common mammal that humans never see. At 8.5-9.5 inches long (including its tail), these tiny squirrels are elusive at best, but if you know where and how to look, you may notice signs that they are around. Southern Flying Squirrels can be found throughout North Carolina, living high in the trees of hardwood and mixed pine-hardwood forests where they will nest inside cavities or holes in the trees (which, you maybe can imagine, hard-working woodpeckers do not always appreciate). Unlike other squirrel species in the state, the Southern Flying Squirrel is almost exclusively arboreal, meaning they spend most of their time up in the trees. While their name implies that they have the ability to fly, they actually glide. Instead of the wings that flighted birds and bats have, flying squirrels use a specialized flap of skin, or membrane, called a patagium, which stretches from its wrists to its ankles and billows with air the way a parachute works for skydivers. By changing the angle and tension of this membrane, a flying squirrel can direct how it glides through the air and between trees. In fact, you could say flying squirrels have truly mastered the technique of gliding through the air as a way of travel, scampering up a tree before jumping out and heading towards the next tree. The longest ever recorded glide from a flying squirrel was measured at 200 feet long!
But why spend so much time and energy just gliding about? While we may think it's just for fun, the squirrel’s gliding is one way for them to reach their food source or their home. These squirrels are omnivores, like most people, meaning they eat plants and animal protein (meat). These squirrels often eat seeds, nuts, fungi, fruit, and insects, but Southern Flying Squirrels have the most meat-eating diet of any squirrel species in the state. Southern Flying Squirrels supplement their diet with eggs, small birds, and even freshly dead animal meat. The diversity in their diet allows this species to survive and thrive in many different habitat types from the mountains to the coast in our state. When not gliding around searching for its next meal, a flying squirrel may be searching for a cavity in a tree or going back to its own nest to cart for young.
With our seasons changing and temperatures dropping at night, these squirrels may begin to roost together in those tree cavities. Although typically gatherings of squirrels are small in numbers, one group was measured at 50 individuals in one cavity! The flying squirrels will build nests inside hardwood trees, such as oak, providing a cavity for nesting and nuts as food. The squirrels will use chewed-up bark, grasses, lichens, mosses, or even feathers to line the cavities and create a soft bed. In a cozy, protected cavity, these soft beds serve as an ideal home in which to have and raise young. A mother flying squirrel can give birth to up to six (6) babies at a time, although typically they have two or three young at a time. Mothers can have two litters of young each year, once in January or February and again in June or July. At birth, a Southern Flying Squirrel weighs less than an ounce or about one AA battery! Young squirrels are cared for by their mother until she has her next litter of babies. By the time a young squirrel is eight weeks old, it can glide between trees and search for some snacks of its own.
While you may not have known this species of squirrel even existed, there is a good chance you have been around at least one of them if you have spent some time living in North Carolina. Secretive, active at night, quick and small, these squirrels are easier to detect through the signs they leave behind. These squirrels will readily set up residence in a bird's nest box if convenient to a tree that has food for them. Look for a nest made of bark, moss, feathers, lichen, or fur, and not cup-shaped like many birds will make. Listen for a bird-like chirping in the early evenings or before dawn, which may be a flying squirrel vocalizing to others. Look for acorns that have been chewed near the top and opened as though with a can opener made of tiny teeth. And if you suspect that these cute, harmless rodents may have discovered a great big cavity in the shape of your attic, call a wildlife removal agency to help remove them humanely. And the next time you see one of the other squirrel species, maybe look up in a tree and send a silent “hello” to the squirrels you aren’t seeing, living secretly among us high up in the trees.
Meet the Black Swallowtail Butterfly
As summer winds down and the days are shorter but still sunny and hot, there is a large, black-winged insect frequently seen visiting gardens. What is that big, beautiful creature? The Black Swallowtail butterfly, one of our most beautiful and fascinating native insects.
The Black Swallowtail, like all butterflies, lays its eggs on a specific host plant. The female butterfly lays her eggs on parsley, dill, carrot, or Queen Anne’s Lace, all common garden plants. The eggs look like tiny golden orbs, perfectly spherical and laid on top of the plant, making them easy to spot. In three to five days, tiny caterpillars hatch and begin to eat the leaves.
The next ten to fourteen days, the caterpillars are exciting to observe! The caterpillars are in the larva stage. They will go through 5 stages called instars as they grow and change drastically in this short time. In the 1st instar, the caterpillars are only 2 mm long and black with a white “saddle.” They resemble bird droppings to camouflage from predators. Next, the caterpillars molt by shedding their exoskeleton to reveal a new look. They are a bit larger in the 2nd and 3rd instars but similar in appearance. The 4th instar looks like a totally different caterpillar, striped with black, white, and orange. The 5th instar brings more dramatic change as they are now 4 cm long and striped with yellow, green, and black. They also have a new defense- orange “horns’ that pop out when the caterpillar is disturbed!
After the 5th instar, the caterpillars will begin to slow down their movements and form a curved shape, attaching themselves to a nearby plant stem by their last segment and with a strong strand of silk around their upper body. Finally, the final molt occurs, and the caterpillar is now in the pupa stage, called a chrysalis. The chrysalis can range from bright green to brown to blend in with the plant. In 8-12 days, the chrysalis will begin to turn black as the exoskeleton becomes translucent, showing the black butterfly within. Then the dramatic black, blue, yellow, and orange butterfly emerges and dries its wings in the sun before flying off to begin the life cycle again!
The black swallowtail butterfly life cycle is easy to observe at home and in parks like Durant Nature Preserve, a wonderful insect garden. Anywhere the host plants are growing, the Black Swallowtail can be seen in its different stages- sometimes all on the same host plant at once! At home, a host plant can be covered with netting or kept in a screened butterfly container to keep hungry predators away. Raising this butterfly and releasing it or observing its life stages in the garden is an engaging activity for children and adults!
For many, summertime is a time for gardening or, at the very least, a time to find fresh, locally grown, fruits and vegetables. Whether a tomato or a bushel of fresh blueberries, North Carolina summers are a great season for tasty and fresh produce. Many of the fruits and vegetables we grow and love to eat would not be possible without native pollinators.
A pollinator is anything that helps carry pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part of the flower. In doing so, a pollinator allows for plants to be fertilized and grow seeds in the form of fruits or vegetables. Likely the most recognized pollinator is the European Honeybee. Although this is where most of our honey comes from, this species of bee is not originally from North Carolina or even the United States. While the honeybee is extremely beneficial to our farms and crops, it is important to also consider and celebrate the large diversity of native pollinators as well.
North Carolina is home to over 500 species of native pollinating bees, butterflies, and birds. The one species of hummingbird native to North Carolina, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, is known to be a great pollinator, often seen around flower gardens with plants like Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana), Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), or Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Pollinators are important to more than flower gardens – more than 100 of North Carolina’s native pollinator species are considered to be vitally important to the state’s agriculture through their interactions with flowering crops like blueberries and apples.
Pollinators are often misunderstood or poorly understood. Some pollinators are not well studied, and scientists do not know much about them, including several species of small flies, beetles, some wasps, and ants. Although generally very small, some of these pollinators can have a very big impact on our lives. The state’s tourism industry relies on small pollinators, like syrphid flies, which are key pollinators for wildflowers like lilies, azaleas, or native orchids like lady’s slippers. Other pollinators are feared and misunderstood- with ideas that all flying buzzing things are aggressive stinging insects. While several pollinators do have stingers and can have a painful sting if aggravated, most of our pollinators are non-territorial, solitary, and small.
In North Carolina, most of our native pollinators are solitary bees, small individuals who nest in small cavities in the ground or in hollow stems or reeds in secluded, quiet areas that are undisturbed. Both the leafcutter bee and the mason bee are common pollinators that can be found statewide. Both of these pollinators will use the pollen they collect from flowers as a source of food for their young. These bees create balls of pollen which they place inside a small chamber where they lay their eggs. Once the egg has hatched, the larval (baby) bee will feast on this high-protein pollen ball for several weeks, allowing it to grow and pupate inside a cocoon. The pupa of young bees will spend the winter in this chamber, surviving on the calories from that pollen ball, before it emerges as an adult in winter.
Not all our native pollinators spend their entire lives in North Carolina. One of our most notorious pollinators is a long-distance migrant – the monarch butterfly. Monarchs and other native butterflies and moths are crucial pollinators of native flowers, including our much-loved blueberries and plums. If you are a fan of pollinators like monarchs and would like to get a good look at some of them before cooler weather comes to stay for the fall and winter, August and September are ideal months to look for caterpillars, moths, and butterflies. Parks like the nature preserves in the City of Raleigh are filled with native pollinator plants that provide habitat for caterpillars (to eat and eat and eat) as well as flowering plants that provide food and nectar to adult butterflies. Many parks will offer programs this time of year about pollinators and how to grow gardens designed for wildlife. We hope that these will help you embrace the pollinators around you, while also helping the pollinators find great sources of food and even some homes.
Fireflies of the Season
The magic of summer is upon us and the long, warm nights are punctuated by the blinking light patterns of fireflies. Many who have grown up in North Carolina, or close by in other southern states, share fond memories of catching fireflies in jars to watch them blink “on” and “off” before releasing them to the open fields and forests where they live. Whether you wait with bated breath and look out for the very first fireflies of the season, or you are pleasantly surprised mid-summer when you notice these lightning bugs, fireflies consistently deliver a light show which is a summertime joy every year in North Carolina.
North Carolina is actually home to 30-40 different species of fireflies, which cover every region of the state. Fireflies aren’t flies at all – they are actually flying beetles; and their signature light show is known as bioluminescence, a word that describes the ability a living being has to produce light. Scientists have discovered examples of bioluminescence in a small variety of animals, most of which live in the ocean (such as fish, jellyfish, and crustaceans), although a few, like glow worms, fireflies, fungi, and bacteria live on land. Bioluminescence appears to have a few different purposes in nature, including camouflage, attracting prey, mimicking other creatures, warning potential predators away, startling defense against predators, and even communicating with and attracting others of the same species.
For the fireflies of North Carolina’s summers, communication and attracting mates seems to be a primary purpose, although evolution suggests the light show might have come about as a way to detract predators from making a snack out of these insects. Each firefly species has its own unique signaling system- a flashing light pattern that is used to attract a mate. In most cases, the males will flash the lights in their abdomens while females sit back and watch from nearby on the ground or in vegetation. If she thinks a male is doing a good job with his light display, she will flash her light back to the male. The male and female may signal their lights back and forth to each other, communicating interest and intent, ending up with a successful mating.
A common backyard species in North Carolina, known as the Big Dipper (Photinus pyralis) can be seen flying at dusk about 3 feet off the ground. The male’s light pattern is distinctly shaped like a “J”, flashing every 5 seconds. The female Big Dipper will respond about two seconds after the male, with a short half-second blink of light. But while the flashing lights are mostly used as a way to find mates, scientists believe the silent flashing signals to potential predators that fireflies are a foul-tasting snack. Think of this as the opposite of the bright lights of human fast-food restaurants, luring us in for a yummy treat; the bright coloration of a firefly’s light can work to detract others from feasting on these small beetles.
While most species of fireflies will flash independently of other individuals in their species, North Carolina is home to a rather famous species of synchronous fireflies, where all the males of the species flash at the exact same time. Seen in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the species Photinus carolinus can be seen as a magical display of thousands of tiny lights turning “on” and “off” at the same moment. This adaptation gives all the males an equal opportunity to find a mate. The displays of this species are so breathtaking that state and national parks where the species occurs have instated a lottery ticketing system to control the crowds that gather to observe this summer spectacle of lights.
Luckily for us, there are fireflies all across North Carolina and their beautiful summer light shows can be seen right here in Raleigh. Enjoy a warm evening sitting on a porch or visiting a local park and await the unmistakable flashes of summertime brought to us by small bioluminescent beetles!
Summertime can mean many different things to people, conjuring a variety of memories: childhood afternoons at the pool, ice-cold popsicles from an ice cream truck, long breaks from school, or even family camping trips. One sure indication of summer is the longer days and warm temperatures. With the warm weather, nature often appears to flourish: more leaves on trees; birds and frogs singing mosquitos, bees, and butterflies filling the air; and what seems like a reappearance of active reptiles.
Visitors to our parks and preserves often wonder why they are seeing so much more animal activity in the summer. The warmer weather clearly helps our plants grow and bloom; these leaves and flowers then provide more shade, habitat for homes, and food for small insects such as beetles, ants, and caterpillars. These insects are a crucial food source for other animals, including small rodents, birds, frogs, toads, and lizards – many of which spend the summertime reproducing and need the extra protein an insect-rich diet provides. The abundance of small mammals, birds, frogs, toads, and lizards is an important part of the food chain – they control the population of insects so there isn’t a swarm of insects eating all of the leaves on plants or infesting our homes. But these insect-eaters are also a food source for larger, predatory animals including snakes. Just imagining snakes being more active can be fear-inducing to some people, and this leads to more questions and concerns about these often misunderstood creatures during the summertime.
While snakes are not everyone’s favorite animal, it is important to remember they are a crucial part of our natural systems. The bad reputations snakes have, are generally rooted in fear; there are a few snakes that use venom for hunting and protection, and we humans do not react well if injected (bitten) with that venom. However, most snake species in North Carolina and the world are not venomous and pose no danger to people or pets. Snakes have a long history of being feared because they are so different from people; they have no legs so they slither on their bellies to get around, some are excellent swimmers, others excellent climbers, they do not blink (because they don’t have eyelids!) so they appear to always be staring at you, and they stick their tongues out in what can only be described as a reptilian way. And yet all these odd behaviors are adaptations that have allowed snakes to live in the wild for hundreds of thousands of years! These behaviors make snakes excellent survivors. That tongue-flicking behavior is an adaptation to “smell” or senses their food: they have special organs in their mouth to scent the air and collect air particles on their tongue that they bring into their mouth to essentially smell their prey. Having no legs allows them to fit into tight underground or hidden spaces, where fragile legs might otherwise get caught. They do not need eyelids because they have specialized transparent scales that protect their eyes from dirt and damage as they go about their business. Swimming and climbing are both done by using the incredible abdominal muscles that make these animals strong and flexible, and the ability to swim and climb helps them find food (think fish for swimmers and birds eggs for climbers) and escape predators.
Even the few species that are venomous are well-adapted to their environment. Venom, it turns out, is a natural adaptation of saliva (or spit) which allows snakes that eat fast-moving animals to immobilize their prey quickly, without having to chase an animal down. Venom originated as a hunting mechanism but can also be used to help an animal protect itself from predators.
Here in North Carolina, we have 36 species of snakes across the state: of these, only 6 species are venomous. In Raleigh, there is only one venomous species of snake, the Copperhead, which means most snakes people see or encounter are not venomous. The Copperhead is a medium-sized snake, with a distinct pattern on the back and sides. Copperheads can vary in color a little, from a light reddish-brown to a darker bark-brown, but they always have a pattern that resembles a horse’s saddlebags, or an hourglass along the back. This pattern is narrower on the spine and broadens as it goes down the sides of the snake- which when looked at from the side resembles two chocolate kisses with the point meeting at the spine of the snake. No other species of snake in North Carolina has this pattern; however, corn snakes, mole kingsnakes, and northern water snakes are most often misidentified as copperheads, although their patterns are a broad blotch along the spine instead of the copperhead’s wider blotch along the sides.
Because we only have one venomous species of snake in the area, it is not difficult to learn to recognize and avoid this one animal. However, the best practice when spotting a snake, and all wildlife, is to leave any wild animal alone. Trying to interact with wildlife is inherently dangerous, especially if you are not sure what it is, or if you are trying to harm it. Any animal that is afraid for its life will try to defend itself, and many unfortunate cases of unnecessary snake bites occur because someone is trying to kill the snake – you are less likely to be close to a snake you are leaving alone than the one you are cornering to try to remove or kill.
It is also important to remember that snakes are part of the natural system we all live in. They serve a key role in keeping rodent populations under control. Without natural predators like snakes, small rodents like mice, rats, voles, moles, and shrews would grow unchecked, and can eventually make their way into our living spaces including our homes. As a rule, snakes do not want to be around humans – we do not provide them with the safety of food sources – but snakes can often be found in spaces where rodents and birds dwell, near old logs and debris piles in yards. A tidy yard with few spaces for rodents to hide will limit the chances of sharing your yard with a snake.
When out in Raleigh’s parks, greenways, and natural spaces, remember that these spaces are shared by all of our wildlife; birds, snakes, turtles, insects, and even larger animals like deer and raccoons call our parks home. Keep an eye on where you step or ride and appreciate any wildlife you see from a safe distance.
Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?
Although the joke usually asks, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” these warm spring days have us seeing more turtles than chickens crossing roads. But why do turtles cross the road?
While turtles may be a bit slow and somewhat awkward as they walk about on land carrying what seems like an unwieldy shell, they are also incredibly loyal and persistent animals. That loyalty and persistence drive female turtles to return to areas as close to where they hatched as possible in order to lay their own eggs. Unfortunately, this biological impulse leads turtles into dangerous situations, competing with much faster cars and drivers who do not see turtles until it is too late to stop. Even the hard bones that make up a turtle shell are no match for a fast-moving and heavy car. Turtles do not know any better and let their nature guide them to their first home, which can lead to some dire situations for these animals who just want to lay their eggs or find some food. Lucky turtles are those who encounter vigilant drivers and pedestrians who can and do, help a turtle safely cross the road.
So how do you help a turtle if you see one? If you spot a turtle trying to cross the road and is it safe enough to stop and help it, great! Remember turtles are persistent creatures; if they are trying to cross the road, they have a good reason to do so. They will keep trying to get to their destination until they succeed. So, if a person sees a turtle crossing a road and returns it to the side it has just left, that turtle will walk right back into the road! To best help the turtle, movie it to a safe spot off the roadway on the side that it was traveling to, and as close to where the turtle was found as possible. It is important to consider that a turtle has a home range - an area it is familiar with. If you help it cross a road but move it far from where it was going, it will spend a great amount of time and energy navigating back to its home, possibly encountering more dangers (such as predators, cars, and disease) than it would have otherwise.
It is not rare to see one of our largest species of inland aquatic turtles crossing the road. The common snapping turtle is found across North Carolina and can grow to be over a foot long in shell length, and up to 50 pounds in weight! (The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh has one of the state’s largest recorded common snapping turtles in their permanent care if you want to see one up close). These animals, like their smaller turtle relatives, will leave ponds and wetlands to find a slightly dryer piece of land in order to lay eggs or find a better home and some more food. In order to fill these needs, they also cross the roads. Common snapping turtles are very leery of large predators and quickly become aggressively defensive in order to not be eaten. Unfortunately for someone trying to help the turtle, this can be a bit unnerving and problematic if the turtle tries to bite you while you are trying to help it. A sturdy stick similar to a broom handle works to nudge these turtles gently along. If you have a container like a box or a bucket, you can guide the snapping turtle to it instead of handling it. Remember, even snapping turtles need help to cross the road…they just don’t realize you are helping them and will try to protect themselves.
Most turtles on the roadways are unlikely to be common snapping turtles, but all of them need us to help them this time of year. Watch for them when driving, and stop if it is safe to do so. Help them get across the road, but never take them far from where you found them. If you see a turtle in your yard, help them by keeping pets such as dogs and cats away from the turtle (often dogs and cats become curious and even predatory of turtles) and if you think the turtle is laying eggs (she will dig a small hole and then cover the eggs back up), keep an eye out for small turtle hatchlings later in the summer! If you do see an injured turtle, the NC State Vet School’s Turtle Rescue Team is an excellent resource for the care and rehabilitation of injured turtles.
If you want to meet some native turtles, several of our nature preserves and parks have ambassador animals that are friendly and enjoy visitors. Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve, Durant Nature Park, Walnut Creek Wetland Park, and the Thomas G. Crowder Woodland Center and Lake Johnson Park each provide a home and care for rehabilitated but non-releasable turtles at their sites and welcome visitors to come by and learn more about turtles.
There is an old saying: “April showers bring May flowers.” Often attributed to a poem written in the United Kingdom by Thomas Tusser in 1557, this well-known saying is frequently used as encouragement during difficult life circumstances. While motivational in times of hardship, this saying proves itself to be true for our natural world too! In North Carolina, warm spring rains in March and April are followed by blooms on trees, and bushes and wildflowers bursting through the forest floor. Although the saying indicates May as a time for flowers, many native tree species begin to bloom in March and April, providing humans with some much-needed color after cold and drab winter months, and giving many of our wildlife an important early source of food.
Although this year feels especially rainy, warm spring rains are typical in North Carolina and usually begin in March in the Raleigh area. A few days of rainy weather followed by some warming temperatures is just the cue nature needs to wake up from its winter break and begin its growing season. Early signs of Spring come from blooms, or flowers on native trees. Light pink and purplish blooms are some of the first flowers, seen on our native cherry and redbud trees. The common red maples and the many different types of oaks bloom around the same time but have smaller and less showy flowers that are crucial for many of our native insects and birds. In late March and early April, the many pine trees around North Carolina begin to bloom, and with these blooms comes the yellow pollen is known to coat any item (or person) that is outdoors for even a few moments. Although a generally short-lived period of blooming, it is a notable annual occurrence that confirms that Spring is well underway for our area.
While these trees are blooming high up in the canopy, some smaller native wildflowers are busy flowering, providing pollen for many insects closer to the forest floor. It is a great time to look for the small white Atamasco Lilly, also known as the rain lily, in wet bottomlands or swampy forests. The small yellow flowers of the Trout Lily are also starting to emerge along with woodland floors, looking rather sleepy with a droopy stature. Early Spring also brings out the petite white flowers of the Dutchman’s Breeches, a small plant with a long leafless stem that holds several small flowers resembling tiny antiquated pantaloons; keep an eye out for these in forests that border streams and rivers, as they prefer moist soils. A rarer forest gem is one of North Carolina’s native orchids, the Lady’s Slipper. In light-pink and pale-yellow varieties, these flowers are adapted to living near the base of trees in forest clearings or small meadows and resemble a delicate house slipper.
If these Spring blooms bring you joy in anticipation of warmer weather, we encourage you to take a walk at any of the City of Raleigh’s parks and nature preserves and look around to see what is blooming. You may also want to venture out to see the field of daffodils planted at Dix Park. We hope to see you soon at one of our parks!