Summertime Snakes Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road? Spring Blooms Night Songs For the Love of Birds Winter Birds Salamander Season
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!
March brings the beginning of Spring, the beginning of daylight savings time, and warmer days with rainy evenings. All these changes mean that early springtime in central North Carolina is a busy time in nature. Because we are most active during the day, much of the activity we notice in nature will be in the daytime. But nighttime in the early Spring months is a very special, and even noisy, time for many of our native wildlife in North Carolina. If you get the opportunity this Spring to visit a park with a pond, creek, or some kind of wet area, or if you live nearby some water, take a few minutes in the late afternoon or early evening to listen out for some faint singing.
Who or what is out there singing? What are these nighttime serenades all about? Warm evening rains in the spring are perfect for native frogs and toads to look for a mate and start the next generation! Being amphibians, frogs and toads rely on water to lay eggs. The word amphibian comes from the Greek word “amphibios,” meaning living both in water and land. Most of our native frogs and toads use small temporary ponds or wetlands to lay their eggs. These ephemeral (temporary, and in the springtime) ponds are great areas for frog and toad eggs to hatch because they usually don’t have much fish, which act as predators of these eggs and the tadpoles which hatch out of them. And the singing? Well, it’s a frog or toad’s way of calling others of their species to the water in order to find their mate.
In areas of Central North Carolina, Valentine’s Day is usually a good date on the calendar to listen for the start of frog calls at night. Usually, the first frog that sings is the Upland Chorus Frog, a small, brown-to-gray, treefrog species (meaning they have large toepads that allow them to climb and cling to leaves and branches on trees). These little frogs make a sound similar to when you run a finger over the skinny teeth of a comb: a quick, higher-pitched, ascending trill, repeated over and over and over again. It can be difficult to hear just one chorus frog because as their name suggests, they are often found in groups and sing in a chorus!
As the weather continues to warm up, the chorus frogs finish their nightly serenade, and the Spring Peepers begin their own nightly songs. Spring peepers are also a very small tan, brown, or sometimes orange-colored (think red clay) frog no bigger than 1.5 inches. They have a distinct darker “X” shaped pattern on their back just behind their head and can be found all across North Carolina in the leaf litter of a forest or in brush piles. Their sweet sounds are clear and high-pitched, almost birdlike, with a distinct “peep-er, peep-er” or a simple “peep.”
Frogs and toads will continue to sing well into the summer, and as the early spring nights warm into balmy late spring days, other species will take turns in these ponds. Keep your ears out for the Northern Cricket Frog, whose song sounds like two marbles clicking together quickly and repeatedly. The Cope’s Grey Treefrogs will sing a short flute-like trill in late April and throughout the summer. Our stout American Toads and Southern Toads can be heard on warm, rainy April and May evenings, with a long whistle-like trill as their songs.
It is wonderful to imagine the world of our secretive amphibians being on such a musical stage. Spring is a wonderful time of year for species all around us, and all we have to do is take a moment to stop and listen. The next time you go out for an evening walk, or you open your windows at night, see if you can hear who is out there singing. You just may hear the serenade of our amphibious friends.
For the Love of Birds
February is a short month and yet it is full of groundhogs forecasting the weather and people celebrating those we love on Valentine’s Day. It’s also full of varied weather here in North Carolina: while February still has chilly winter days, warmer spring-like weather starts to sneak in to give us sunny days. With more daylight and the occasional warm spell, other signs of spring start to show themselves, too.
After a few warm days, it is not unusual for early blooms to show on trees, and daffodils and tulips to begin blossoming. Early spring and late winter will also bring a change to which birds we see around our yards, in our parks, and in the natural areas around us. February is a great time to start noticing these changes. Warmer days replace our common Dark-eyed Juncos with the first signs of bright yellow American Goldfinches.
For those who notice the changes in which birds are around, there is often the question of “why?”
Longer and warmer days mean new leaves starting to show on trees, fresh green grass blades growing, and more food for insects to eat while the days are starting to be warm enough for the insects to be active. Many birds rely on insects as part of their diet. More insects being around and active can provide food for many more birds. Other birds rely only on seeds as their food source, whether these are small grass seeds or larger seeds on trees or shrubs (like berries). With trees beginning to blossom and produce seeds, there are specific birds that will show up to take advantage of the new food that is around.
As the early signs of Spring bring us more and different birds than we have had all winter long, you may also notice more natural noises. These birds are not just busy looking for their next meal; they will spend several hours during the day singing and chirping to one another. Just like humans, birds communicate with each other through vocalizations. They have songs that help attract a future mate, and chirps and buzzing noises that let other birds know if there is danger around. As the saying “the early bird catches the worm” implies, birds are early risers. Up with the sunrise, it common to hear birds most actively singing early in the morning (right at dawn, in fact). If you happen to be up early and spend even just a few minutes outside during a warmer day you will likely hear a small chorus of birds calling and singing to one another. The warmer the days get, the more birds you will hear throughout the spring and summer.
Bird songs are a springtime favorite for many. Just why are they singing so much? Are they just happy to be alive? With Valentine’s Day just behind us, we are reminded that many of these birds singing in the late winter and early spring mornings are also looking for love. Many of our common birds in the area will showcase their songs as a sign that they are worthy love birds. Usually the birds we hear singing will be male birds. He has spent some time perfecting how he sounds, in hopes that some lucky ladybird will think him swell and be his valentine. Not so different from humans, it seems. If you are curious about the love birds around you, we encourage you to take just a few minutes out of a spring-like February day and listen to the birds around you. While birds are most active early in the day, any time of day is a good time to try listening for birds.
As the winter season is here, the days are colder and shorter. With winter comes fewer leaves on many trees, frosty mornings, and a variety of birds that call the Raleigh area home just for the winter. We often think of birds as constants, here all year round. But while we are distracted by pumpkins and Halloween costumes, the bird world is busy changing on us. Birds that we often hear or see during the Spring and Summer are only here for warm weather and go on a journey south as soon as the weather starts to get cooler. This is a very common approach for many species of birds in North Carolina, and we call these birds migrants because they migrate between a summer and a winter home. Birds like American Goldfinches, Prothonotary Warblers, American Robins, and Purple Martins will migrate to North Carolina in the spring but leave when fall brings cooler temperatures and fewer food sources.
Other birds really like it cold, or at least they prefer the cold of North Carolina during the winter months but could not survive a North Carolina summer heat. These species live further north, or sometimes in higher elevation, during the summer, and then migrate south in search of food during the winter months- when their summer homes get too cold to provide food. One winter migrant commonly seen at our feeders is the Dark-eyed Junco which migrates to Raleigh from colder climates for our temperate winters. These birds are a good indicator that our winter weather is here to stay for a while.
A much larger winter visitor is the Canada Goose! Although many individuals of this species have adapted to living in the south year-round, and are considered to be permanent residents, there remains a population of Canada Geese that do migrate and live in North Carolina only during the winter. Many close relatives of the Canada Goose, other waterfowl (ducks and geese) also migrate to North Carolina in the winter because they can easily find food, and the ponds and lakes they swim on do not freeze often. This winter looks out for Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Ducks, and other ducks or geese around the ponds and lakes near Raleigh.
For those feeling like going on a wildlife adventure, just a couple of hours east of Raleigh the winter skies put on an amazing show at sunset, when hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese and Tundra swans flock over-harvested cornfields that surround Lake Matamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges in Hyde County, NC. The trip to see these birds is well worth the drive or a quick exploration online for videos of the spectacle will ensure safe viewing this year. Wherever you may be this winter, I encourage you to take a second look at just which birds have stopped by for a visit at local parks, near your own home, at feeders or on the water. These migrants are here for a short time, but they certainly make the winter months a little more colorful!
Each year, as the leaves begin to change color and fall from the trees, and cool nights start to feel crisp and chilly, some small and mighty creatures begin to stir under fallen logs or the cover of leaf litter on the ground. Although the fall season brings visions of nature slowing down from its long summer days of growing, some native amphibians thrive in the cooler, wetter fall and winter nights. Salamanders, the four-legged, tail-having, amphibian cousins of frogs and toads, do well in the long, chilly, wet nights that come with the change in seasons this time of year.
Although North Carolina is home to an abundance of wildlife, some furry, some feathered, its claim to fame should be the sheer number of salamander species that call our state home, more species than any other place on earth. North Carolina has over 40 different species of salamanders across the state, all living at least part of their life in the water and undergoing a metamorphosis where they transform from a tadpole-like larva, into a full-grown adult. Here in Raleigh most of our salamanders spend their adult life on land and rely on habitats that provide them cover, food, and lots of moisture. Now that the temperatures are truly dropping at night, and the fall and winter rains are occurring with more frequency, a few species of salamanders are coming into their prime.
Marbled Salamanders and Spotted Salamanders are a couple of the larger (and cutest) salamanders that can be found in the Raleigh area, with a chunky body and a total length of a few inches, these salamanders are emblematic of bottomland habitats in the fall. Although they are not the largest salamander in the state (that title goes to the fully aquatic Hellbender, at over 12 inches in length), these mostly terrestrial salamanders are a delightful and harmless occurrence in the fall and winter as they begin to migrate to areas of high moisture in search of a mate.
Marbled salamanders, for instance, move from some underground burrows where they spend the dryer summer months, to an above-ground area where flooding and rains are frequent, here they will find each other and mate. The females will remain coiled around her dozen or more eggs until her nursery floods with temporary pools of water where her young can hatch and survive the winter months. Marbled salamanders are surprisingly conspicuous, with both males and females having a shiny black body banded with silver-gray blotches and bands. Often under fallen logs, flat pieces of wood, or yard debris, these salamanders are most active at night, often seen walking across sidewalks and roads between dry forest and wet ponds in order to find their mates. Habitats with low-lying wet areas that stay wet throughout the winter but dry up in the summer are perfect for these salamanders. Programs like Walnut Creek Wetland Park’s Seasonal Herping takes participants around the park looking for reptiles and amphibians and often is lucky enough to showcase these critters that call the park home.
Spotted salamanders are another cool-weather salamander, although seen right at the end of winter instead of the fall. With a dark purple-black body about 4-7 inches long, a large round head, and yellow-to-orange spots in two rows down their backs, these salamanders are unique among the salamanders in the state. Differing from their marbled salamander cousins, these spotted salamanders will lay eggs in the first warm rains of the springtime in small woodland ponds where the eggs later hatch and the larva are able to grow. If you are curious to see some ideal spotted salamander homes, visit Raleigh’s own Durant Nature Preserve where the wooded habitat provides the right mix of forest and ponds for this species.
As the warm weather for the year is mostly winding down, it is great to keep in mind that this cooler weather is ideal for some. The next time you are visiting a park, walking on trails, or even exploring your own yard, keep an eye out for who may be thriving with the change in season.