An anole displaying its throat flap, or dewlap.

An anole displaying its throat flap, or dewlap.

Nature Mysteries

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Is there a difference between these green lizards and brown lizards? Who Made These Lines of Holes on My Tree? What is Squirrel Appreciation Day? What Trees Keep Their Brown Leaves Without Letting Them Fall? What Raleigh Winter Bird Sings about “Canada”? What are the fuzzy white things waving on my tree? Are all “Blue Birds” Bluebirds? Who makes the mud-tubes on my walls? What has leaves of 3 and very strange flowers – and is not poison ivy? Where did the hummingbirds go and when do they come back? Are Dogwood Flowers White? What rodents like to live in the water? What are the red berries in the forest? How did Christmas Fern get its name? Which Woodpecker is which at my feeder? Are Orbweaver dangerous? What’s the difference between a centipede and a millipede? Are these rock-growing ferns really dead? Which insects sing in the summertime? Are those little strawberries growing in my yard? What are these bubbles on the plants? Why does the field look black and burned? What wild tree flowers in December? Are all red mushrooms poisonous? What are these seed pods that grow on a vine? What are those tall yellow flowers? Is this brown snake a copperhead? What is Raleigh's rarest lettuce? What are those foam-like things on the plants?

The Nature Program is bringing some natural science to you by answering your questions about Raleigh's Nature Mysteries! 

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Is there a difference between these green lizards and brown lizards?

As the days get warmer and spring arrives, many animals are becoming more active.  One of the first reptiles that can be seen on warming days in Raleigh is the Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis), which is also called the Carolina Anole. This small lizard is common throughout eastern and central North Carolina – as well as ranging south to Florida and west as far as Texas.

A Green Anole in its green phase

A Green Anole in its green phase.

The name Green Anole would suggest they are always green – however, the brown-colored anole lizards seen in North Carolina are also Green Anoles too!  This is because the Green Anole can change colors.  Some people call our anoles “Chameleons” or “Carolina Chameleons” because of their color-changing ability, but they are not closely related to the Chameleons of Africa and Asia.

A Green Anole in its brown phase

A Green Anole in its brown phase.

Green Anoles change color from brown to green for many reasons, including to show their mood and level of activity.  Typically, if an anole is cold or less active, they will appear brown.  If they are warmer and more active, they will appear green. In both colors, some anoles may also have a faint white stripe down their back.

An anole displaying its throat flap, or dewlap.

An anole displaying its throat flap, or dewlap.

In addition to changing colors, adult male anoles have a bright pink fan of skin under their throat, called a dewlap.  This dewlap can be flared out and displayed for communication with other anoles. Sometimes this display is coupled with head bobbing and small push-ups.  Females may also have a smaller, less colorful dewlap. 

Anole blending in with the stem of some flowers.

Anole blending in with the stem of some flowers.

Anoles are excellent climbers thanks to their claws and adhesive toe pads. They are often seen climbing up walls or on fences.  An anole’s diet consists primarily of small insects and spiders, making them a great species to share your backyard garden with.  But with their color-changing ability, you may have to look close to see an anole, even when they are right beside you. 

Who Made These Lines of Holes on My Tree?

Have you ever noticed that some trees have horizontal lines of holes in the bark?  Because the lines are fairly small, many people think that beetles or other insects have made them.  They are actually made by a bird that only visits our area during the winter: the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).

Horizontal holes made by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Horizontal holes made by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are a small member of the woodpecker family.  They have mostly black and white bodies with black and white stripes on the head.  They have bold red feathers starting from the top of the beak and reaching towards the back of the head.  Males additionally have red throats. The yellow on their chest and bellies is often faint.

a male yellow-bellied sapsucker with a red neck on a tree

The male yellow-bellied sapsucker has a red neck.

The yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill neat rows of shallow holes into tree bark.  This allows them to eat the sugary sap as well as any insects that get caught in it.  Rarely they may visit birdfeeders to enjoy suet.  While in most cases these small holes do not cause permanent harm to the tree, it is possible that if a tree has too many holes it can affect the tree’s flow of sap to the roots, essentially girdling and killing the tree. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers prefer tree species with high sugar concentrations in their sap such as birch, maple, and hickory.

a female yellow-bellied sapsucker an a Lake Johnson tree

This female yellow-bellied sapsucker was seen at Lake Johnson Park during the winter.

While all of the other woodpeckers in our area are year-round residents, the yellow-bellied sapsucker spends the warmer breeding months in Canada and a handful of northern states that border Canada.  In the winter they travel to most of the southern states as well as Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.  During their stay they continue to drill their small holes in search of food, leaving them behind as a reminder that they were here as they travel north again for the summer.

What is Squirrel Appreciation Day?

Jan. 21 is now informally celebrated as “Squirrel Appreciation Day” across the USA, but it originated here in North Carolina, where the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was also made our “official State mammal” in 1969.

Squirrels do make a good state symbol for North Carolina, as they are found in every part of the state, including rural, suburban, and urban areas, or almost any place having one thing in common: trees.  But not every tree is equal to a squirrel.  Squirrels need trees that grow their favorite food: nuts.  Luckily in Raleigh nut-bearing trees are abundant.  Raleigh is called the “City of Oaks” for a reason, and oak acorns are one of the most important foods for squirrels. 

a squirrel climbing down a tree

Squirrels are well adapted for tree-climbing, which is great since their favorite food grows on trees!

In addition to oak acorns, other tree nuts including hickory nuts, walnuts, beech nuts and pine nuts all contribute food for squirrels.   Squirrels can round out their diets with smaller plant seeds, fruits, mushrooms, tree buds, flowers, and the occasional insect or bird egg, but tree nuts are the main item in a squirrel’s diet.

A squirrel skull replica, showing the strong front teeth adapted for opening hard nuts

A squirrel skull replica, showing the strong front teeth adapted for opening hard nuts.

But squirrels are not only eaters of tree nuts – they also plant nuts.  Every fall a squirrel can individually bury several thousand tree nuts in the ground.  Some of these nuts will be dug up later to eat when food is scarce, but many will be left in the ground to germinate into tree seedlings.  Chances are, many of the mighty oaks you see in forests around you were once buried as acorns by squirrels.   Because squirrels usually carry acorns some distance before burying them, they help the large, heavy seeds of oaks and hickories spread farther into new places, preventing the seeds from staying only close underneath the parent tree.

a squirrel eating a found nut

Squirrels bury nuts in a variety of places to eat later, but forget where many nuts are planted.

When you enjoy Raleigh as a City of Oaks, those oak-filled forests are a result of many generations of seed-carrying squirrels spreading tree seeds. Those little tree-planters are now assisted by oak-tree-planting humans who can return the favor by supporting tree-rich habitats for our urban squirrels, and simultaneously helping the many birds, caterpillars, and other wild creatures who benefit greatly from the same oak trees that squirrels love.

Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day, from North Carolina and the City of Oaks!

What Trees Keep Their Brown Leaves Without Letting Them Fall?

Another name for the season of autumn is “fall” – from the “fall of the leaves”.  But some trees hold on to their leaves that turned brown in autumn without easily letting them “fall”. 

Taking a walk in a Raleigh forest in winter, you will see most trees looking bare – but a few kinds of trees holding on to their brown leaves may stand out.  Scientists call these trees “marcescent”.

Brown “marcescent” leaves holding on to American Beech tree

Brown “marcescent” leaves may hold onto American Beech tree branches all winter long.

The most common marcescent tree in Raleigh is the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia).  Beech tree leaves turn yellow in autumn, along with the rest of the forest, but then often keep holding on into winter even as they fade to a light brown color.

An American Beech tree’s leaves turned yellow in early fall.

An American Beech tree’s leaves turn yellow in early fall.

Besides their marcescent leaves, an American Beech is easy to recognize from its very smooth and pale gray bark.  This smooth gray bark is consistent on both young and old American Beech trees, which can slowly grow to very large sizes.

Characteristic American Beech trunk with smooth gray bark

Characteristic American Beech trunk with smooth gray bark.

Younger American Beech trees are more likely to show marcescent leaves than are large, older trees, and many trees may be marcescent on their lower branches while dropping their brown leaves on their upper branches. 

Besides the American Beech, some oak species (like the Shumard Oak) also keep marcescent leaves, as do some maples – particularly the Southern Sugar Maple and Chalk Maple.  But the majority of oaks and maples will drop their brown leaves by the beginning of winter.

Scientists don’t know the reason why some trees show marcescence – but we do know it is genetic in many tree species and in these trees it is not a sign of any disease or ill health.  However, the holding-on of dead, brown leaves in tree species not known to show marcescence can be a sign of tree injury or illness.

For trees that normally do show marcescence, it may be that the hanging dead leaves provide protection or camouflage to the living leaf buds on the tree’s branches.  These buds contain nutritious tissues inside, which hungry plant-eaters in winter may attack when other foods are scarce.  The dead brown leaves are not edible to most plant-eaters and may make these edible winter buds harder to find.  American Beech trees have especially large, pointed, leaf buds on their twigs during winter, and these buds on their highly-marcescent lower branches are also the most vulnerable to browsers.

Whatever the benefits of marcescence to the tree, it is a characteristic of American Beech that makes it easily recognizable in winter and adds variety to our winter forest’s appearance.  Look for them during your next hike in the woods!

What Raleigh Winter Bird Sings about “Canada”?

As we head towards winter, many birds are migrating through North Carolina.  Some merely pass through while others will stop and stay here all winter long. One of these North Carolina winter residents is the White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis).

This springtime photo shows the White-throated sparrow’s namesake white throat.

This springtime photo shows the White-throated sparrow’s namesake white throat.

White-throated Sparrows spend the warmer summer breeding season primarily in Canada. After breeding they typically arrive in North Carolina by mid-October and stay through late April.  Their loud, confident song that sounds like “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” is often one of the first signs that they have arrived in late fall.  At first glance the birds look like many other sparrows – but if you look closely, you’ll notice some special differences.

About half of all White-throated Sparrows have a bright white stripe (sometimes with yellow) sandwiched between dark black stripes that starts at the back of their beak, runs over their eye and across their head, and finally down to the base of the back of their neck. 

However, the other half of White-throated Sparrows have a light tan stripe (sometimes with yellow) sandwiched between two dull black-brown stripes. 

These two color-patterns are not males and females.  They are not old and young birds either.  It is simply that some White-throated Sparrows have different color patterns than others, which they are born with, even though both color patterns can breed with each other and they are all a single species.

Scientists call the two head-stripe patterns the “white morph” and “tan morph” – but they are all White-throated Sparrows.

A white-striped morph of White-Throated Sparrow

A white-striped morph of White-Throated Sparrow

Interestingly, researchers have discovered that there are behavioral differences between the color morphs.  In their northern summertime breeding territories the white-striped males tend to use sunny open areas while the tan-striped males prefer denser, shadier forests.  Also, white-striped males and females tend to sing higher notes than tan-striped makes and females, with tan-striped birds’ songs usually lower-pitched. 

A tan-striped morph of White-Throated Sparrow standing on wood chips

A tan-striped morph of White-Throated Sparrow

During the winter we see both morphs frequently in Raleigh, especially around brushy fields and visiting seed feeders. Next time you hear a bird call “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada”, look for a winter sparrow, and see what White-Throated Sparrow morph you can find!

What are the fuzzy white things waving on my tree?

If you look around a forest in the late summer to early fall, you may notice something white and fuzzy on the branches of some American Beech trees. And if you reach out to touch them, the whole group of little fuzzy things may appear to sway back and forth quickly, almost like they’re dancing!

small fuzzy insects called Beech Blight Aphids

Beech tree branches appear white with hundreds of small fuzzy insects called Beech Blight Aphids!

If you’ve seen this before, then you have discovered the Beech Blight Aphid (Grylloprociphilus imbricator).  If you look closely enough, you can see that the mass of white fuzzies are many individual insects clinging to the branch.  The beech blight aphid produces waxy fibers from its abdomen which gives it the fuzzy appearance. This waxy fuzz deters predators, such as beetles and wasps, from eating them.  In fact, when disturbed the “dance” they do is a defensive behavior.  Some people have even nicknamed these little insects the “boogie-woogie aphids”.

small fuzzy insects called Beech Blight Aphids

If you look closely, you can spy the small legs of these insects holding on to the branch.

Living on the branches of beech trees, these aphids use their needle-like mouth parts to puncture and drink the sap fluids from the tree.  Because the tree’s sap contains more sugars than the aphids can use, they produce tiny drops of a clear, sticky sweet excrement with the concentrated surplus sugars referred to as “honeydew”.  Because it is sweet, this honeydew sometimes attracts ants, who may protect the aphids from other predators in exchange for this sweet honeydew.

Compared to the size of a beech tree the amount of sap these aphids take is relatively small, and they are unlikely to do a tree any lasting harm unless extremely numerous.  They are a native North American insect found from Maine to Florida, although usually more common in southern states.

an image of black honeydew eater mold

“Honeydew Eater” sooty mold feeds exclusively on aphid excrement.

In addition to feeding ants, there is also a species of sooty mold fungus that grows exclusively on the sugar-rich “honeydew” excrement from aphids.  This mold is appropriately called Honeydew Eater (Scorias spongiosa).  Because honeydew drips down from the branches where the aphids live and lands on whatever is underneath, this dark black mold can be found growing on lower branches, leaves, or along the ground under the aphids.  Because the mold is only feeding on the honeydew, it does not do any direct harm to the tree.

Next time you walk in the woods, pay close attention to the branches -- can you find any dancing aphids? Can you dance like one?

Are all “Blue Birds” Bluebirds?

The Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) is a well-known and widespread bird found across North Carolina in all seasons of the year.  And just like its name says, Eastern Bluebirds do have bright blue feathers on their head and back, making them easy to recognize.  Eastern Bluebirds often nest in birdhouses set out for them by humans and will frequently visit birdfeeders offering mealworms or suet dough.

A male Eastern Bluebird

A male Eastern Bluebird

But there are several other “blue birds” found in Raleigh – especially in the summer – that are not “Eastern Bluebirds”.  These other “blue birds” are just as beautifully blue, but they are less likely to visit birdfeeders, and do not use birdhouses.

What are these non-Bluebird “blue birds”? 

Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) may deserve to be called North Carolina’s “Bluest Bird”, despite being smaller in size than Eastern Bluebirds.  Male Indigo Buntings are almost completely blue, including on their chest and belly, unlike the Eastern Bluebird, which has an orangish chest and white belly. However, female Indigo Buntings are brown, without the bright blue of the males.  Male Indigo Buntings often sing boldly from atop a high branch along a field edge.  Although Indigo Buntings do eat some seeds as well as large numbers of insects, they seldom come to birdfeeders, and do not use birdhouses like Eastern Bluebirds.

A male Indigo Bunting

A male Indigo Bunting

Indigo Buntings are strictly summer birds in Raleigh.  In the fall these tiny, five-inch-long birds migrate over 1,000 miles to winter on tropical Caribbean islands and in Central American jungles, before returning to sing for us again in the following spring.

Another migratory “blue bird” found during summer in Raleigh is the Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea).  The male Blue Grosbeak is almost entirely dark blue with orange-brown bands across its wings.  As with the Indigo Bunting, the female Blue Grosbeaks aren’t blue at all - they are a rusty brown color all over.  While Blue Grosbeaks do sometimes visit seed feeders, they are more often found in shrubby bushes around the edges of open field areas.

A male Blue Grosbeak bird sitting in a tree

A male Blue Grosbeak 

The name “Grosbeak” (pronounced “grows beek”) means “large beak”.  Grosbeaks aren’t gross – although they do eat many kinds of large insects and spiders with that large beak!  Blue Grosbeaks are about 6 inches long – about an inch larger than an Indigo Bunting.  Blue Grosbeaks make a similar long-distance migration to tropical regions every fall, wintering there and only returning to Raleigh in the following spring.

Besides these migrating “blue birds” like Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks, there are some other “blue birds” that do not migrate and can be seen in Raleigh in summer or winter.  The most common of Raleigh’s year-round “blue birds” is the Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata). 

A Blue Jay visiting a feeder

A Blue Jay visiting a feeder.

Blue Jays are larger than any of the other blue songbirds in our area, and they have bright blue feathers mixed with white and black, without any patches of orange or brown, giving them a distinctive appearance.  Blue Jays sometimes travel in flocks and do visit birdfeeders.

Some other Raleigh birds may have “Blue” in their name but don’t have as much blue color on their bodies.  Great Blue Herons are mostly blue-gray rather than bright blue, as are Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  Some birds, such as Blue-headed Vireos and Blue-winged Warblers are small, shy species where their “blue” can hardly be seen unless you were holding them in your hand – the opposite of the bright, bold blue of the Indigo Bunting.

With Buntings, Grosbeaks, Jays and more, there’s much more to Raleigh’s “blue birds” than “Eastern Bluebirds”.  Look out for all these blue birds in your neighborhood!

Who makes the mud-tubes on my walls?

Have you ever noticed globs or tubes of dried mud on an outdoor wall? These structures are mud nests and were built there by a mud dauber wasp.  But have no fear - these mud nests aren’t anything to be concerned about – unlike paper wasps, hornets, or yellow jacket wasps, mud dauber wasps are not aggressive, and their mud nests do not drill into the building underneath.

In fact, mud dauber wasps are valuable pollinators who also provide biological control by feeding on other arthropods around our homes, especially spiders (including black widows)!

mud nest on a brick wall

Mud nest made by a mud dauber wasp.

There are many species of mud dauber wasps.  Some are completely black, while others are black with yellow patches, and some others are shiny iridescent blue. Mud daubers are relatively large wasps, up to an inch long, often with long narrow “waists” between their thorax (middle body segment) and abdomen (rear end). 

A yellow-legged mud dauber wasp gathering mud along a creek.

A yellow-legged mud dauber wasp gathering mud along a creek.

Mud daubers are solitary wasps that do not build hives.  They are less aggressive than many other wasp species unless they are harassed, in which case they may defend themselves, but will most often simply fly away. Their mud structures are made by females for the purpose of protecting their eggs.  These mud tubes can often be found on buildings, fences, and trees.  The mated female selects a site for her mud nest based on protection from the weather, nearby availability of mud, and availability of spiders. Yes, spiders!

The female gathers mud in her mouth from nearby wet places and begins the construction of a mud tube.  Before sealing the tube, she will capture a spider, paralyze it and place it in the cell.  She lays a single egg on the first paralyzed spider and then captures as many as two dozen more spiders to place in the cell.  She seals that cell and begins to build another cell and the process starts again.  Some species will make individual mud nests that resemble small pots, and other species make tubes or “pipes” worth of mud nests.  Once she has laid all her eggs and sealed all the cells, she leaves. Unlike the nests of other wasp species, the tube nests remain unguarded and there is no concern of the adult returning to defend it.

Organ-pipe mud tubes

Organ-pipe mud dauber wasps build tubes with multiple chambers inside.

When the egg hatches inside the mud nest it has a feast of fresh spiders stored and ready to eat.  After consuming the spiders, the wasp larva has the space within the cell to grow and go through metamorphosis.  It forms a cocoon to pupate within the mud nest before completing the life cycle and breaking through the mud wall as an adult.  Depending on the species, mud daubers complete one or two generations per year.  A late brood may overwinter within the mud nest and emerge as adults in the spring.  Old tube nests with holes are not re-used and may be cleaned up harmlessly.

Mud Nest with Holes

Once the larva inside goes through metamorphosis, they break through the mud walls and emerge as adults, leaving the mud nest behind.

Mud daubers are very valuable to our ecosystem.  In addition to capturing spiders to feed their larvae, adult mud daubers are also important pollinators who feed on nectar for their own energy needs, visiting many types of flowers and carrying pollen as they do.  For these reasons experts recommend leaving mud nests alone and allowing them to complete their life cycle so that the next generation may capture more spiders and pollinate wildflowers, too.

What has leaves of 3 and very strange flowers – and is not poison ivy?

jack flower leaves

The 3-part leaves of Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Poison ivy isn’t the only “leaves of three” plant that can be found in Raleigh’s woods.  Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is another “three-leaved” native plant that can often be seen in moist forests, especially near streams.  Stems emerge in the spring and unfold one or two 3-parted, bright green leaves.  These plants are not vines (like poison ivy can be) but they may grow up to two feet tall and often grow in patches with leaves from many plants close together resembling a poison ivy patch.

jack flower hood

The hooded spathe protects a flower spike inside.

By late April or May the Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowers on a stalk underneath these leaves.  From the outside, the flower appears to be a green or green-purple tube with vertical stripes that may be two or three inches tall.  The top of this tube is open and folds over itself like a hood, resembling a pitcher plant leaf.  This tube is a modified leaf called a “spathe” that protects the flowers inside.  The true flowers are on an erect spike, called a “spadix”, which appears to stand in the center of the inside of the spathe tube.  This is where this plant got its name “Jack-in-the-Pulpit”, where the flower spike is called “Jack” and the hooded spathe around it is the “pulpit”, like a preacher standing up to speak to an audience.

jack flower with green berries

Green berries in summer will ripen to red by early fall.

 Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowers appear between March and June and are mostly pollinated by small flies.  After pollination the fruits begin to develop and the spathe around the flower falls off to reveal a cluster of green berries. These berries ripen to a bright red by the late summer or early fall.

jack flower with red berries

Jack-in-the-pulpit berries will ripen to red by early fall.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit berries are a valuable food source for wildlife such as birds and mammals.  However, the plant is toxic for human consumption and no part of it should be eaten.  Deer also do not like to eat Jack-in-the-Pulipit, which can make it a good choice for a shady forest garden if you have deer in your neighborhood.  These unusual flowers and showy colorful fruits will grow easily in a moist, shady native garden bed and will return and bloom again year after year.

Where did the hummingbirds go and when do they come back?

April showers bring May flowers… and April also brings the Ruby-throated Hummingbird back to North Carolina!  The Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is the only hummingbird species commonly seen in North Carolina and the only species that breeds in eastern North America.  While there are several more hummingbird species native to western states that do rarely wander east into the Carolinas, those are so very rare here that every Raleigh “summer hummer” you see is likely to be a Ruby-throat.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have iridescent red throats can look dark in the shade.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are only 2.8-3.5 inches long and weigh just 0.1-0.2 ounces – less than a penny!  They have bright emerald or golden-green backs with a white chest.  Males have the namesake iridescent red throat that sometimes looks black in poor lighting.  Females have more dull colors and lack the red patch on the throat.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do not have bright red throats.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spend their winters in Central America.  In early March they start their long flight back north, first arriving to the southern states between Texas and Florida. Many fly non-stop for more than 18 hours over the Gulf of Mexico.  They make their way into North Carolina by early April. Some will stay here for the rest of the summer, while others continue on and arrive as far north as southern Canada by mid-May.  This migration is a solo migration with each individual deciding for themselves when they should leave, rather than as a collective flock like other birds.  Males generally migrate first to establish territories a few days before the females arrive for courting. 

After courting, hummingbird nests are generally built 10-40 feet from the ground in deciduous trees and are made of thistle or dandelion down held together with spider silk or pine resin.  The outside of the nest is camouflaged with lichen and moss.  It takes 6-10 days to build and measures about two inches across and one inch deep.  Females lay 1-3 eggs per clutch and may breed up to twice in a season.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird flapping wings

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can flap their wings up to 53 times per second, which produces the humming sound which they are named for.

One of the best ways to help hummingbirds is to plant native nectar sources such as trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, native coral honeysuckle, jewelweed, and bee balm.  Hummingbirds can also catch small insects in midair!  Avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides is also beneficial to hummingbirds.

red trumpet vine flowers

Native trumpet vine flowers are a great natural nectar source for hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds will also visit feeders provided by humans.  It's important to know how to feed hummingbirds if you choose to do so. Sugar water can be mixed at home by combining a one-quarter cup of table sugar with one cup of water.   Food coloring is unnecessary and can be harmful.   A feeder that has bright red elements is enough to attract a hummingbird’s attention.  Be sure the feeder is easy to clean and is in a location you can access multiple times a week.  It will need to be changed and cleaned out every 2-3 days in hot summer weather to prevent fermenting or molding.  Once hummingbirds discover your feeder, you may see them returning to visit regularly all summer long, until it is time for them to migrate south again, usually leaving us around September-October.

Are Dogwood Flowers White?

On March 15, 1941, the North Carolina General Assembly designated the “Dogwood” as the state’s “official state flower”.  When choosing the “Dogwood” the General Assembly called it “a radiantly beautiful flower which grows abundantly in all parts of this state.”  While there are several species of dogwood native to North Carolina, only one species – the Flowering Dogwood (scientific name Cornus florida or Benthamidia florida) – is abundant from the NC Mountains to the Coast, and this widespread species is understood to be North Carolina’s “State Flower”.

Flowering Dogwood tree beginning to bloom.

Flowering Dogwood tree beginning to bloom.

Flowering Dogwood is the largest of all of North Carolinas’s dogwood species, growing slowly up to 35 feet tall, and is naturally found mixed in forests under larger canopy trees or at woodland edges.  You can easily spot blooming dogwoods in forests in March and April.

We often think of Flowering Dogwood flowers as being white (or rarely pink) – but a closer look reveals that instead of being a single, large white flower with four petals, Flowering Dogwood twigs each end with round clusters of a dozen or more very small, yellowish flowers – each one with four small yellow petals.  These small yellow petals do not last long—they appear just when needed to attract pollinators to the small flowers and then quickly fall away after pollination is complete.

Dogwood’s clusters of tiny yellow 4-petalled flowers offer nectar to pollinators.

Dogwood’s clusters of tiny yellow 4-petalled flowers offer nectar to pollinators.

But if a Flowering Dogwood’s real petals are small and yellow, then what are the big white things?

The “big white things” are special flower-cluster supporting leaves, called bracts.  For another similar example, Poinsettias also have clusters of small yellow flowers surrounded by large colorful (red, white, or pink) bract-leaves.

Many plants have bracts – they are usually small and green and grow under or around the flower bud, often protecting or supporting it.

Dogwood flower buds protected by leaf-like bracts

Dogwood flower buds in February, still protected by leaf-like bracts.

In winter, small buds can already be seen on the tips of Flowering Dogwood branches.  These buds are covered by the young bracts like a protective wrapper.  In many plants, once the buds begin to grow the bracts either fall off or remain as small leaves at the base of each flower.  But in the Flowering Dogwood, the bracts expand greatly and turn from green to white and continue to surround the flower cluster.

Even though the large showy bracts are not the tree’s true flower petals, Flowering Dogwood is still a beautiful tree species.  Its blooms are a sign of spring, and when those tiny flower clusters turn into clusters of red fruits in the fall, they become a great wildlife food source.  This spring when you see a Flowering Dogwood take a moment to look closely - can you find the tiny yellow flowers inside?

What rodents like to live in the water?

Wetland habitats are a very important for a variety of wildlife – including several types of rodents.  Of the several rodents you might see in a North Carolina wetland, there is only one that creates wetlands: the American Beaver (Castor canadensis).  Beavers can be found all over Raleigh and although they are mostly nocturnal, you can easily see evidence of tree chewing that show they are around.

A beaver dam has created a small pool of water.

A beaver dam has created a small pool of water.

Beavers are known for building dams.  Beaver dams block the flow of water in a stream to create a wider, deeper pond for the beaver to swim in.  Beavers are excellent swimmers and the deeper their pond, the safer they are from predators.  Contrary to popular belief, beavers do not live in dams.  Beaver dams are simply walls that stop water flow.  Made from sticks, grass and mud, dams are surprisingly solid.  Separately, beavers will build a den burrow or lodge.  Often their lodge simply looks a pile of sticks, with their “front door” hidden somewhere under water, and the living area inside the lodge up out of the water.  An underwater entry way helps keep the beavers safe from predators.

The top of a typical beaver lodge

The top of a typical beaver lodge looks like a pile of sticks.

Beavers can be identified by their characteristic flat tail used for swimming and noisy “tail-slapping”. Adult beavers are quite large and can weigh 30 to 40 pounds or more.  While they are swimming, most of a beaver’s heavy body is typically underwater.

Beaver swimming in a pond.

Beaver swimming in a pond.

Another common Raleigh rodent that is often mistaken for a beaver is the Muskrat (Ondatra zibehicus).  Muskrats are much smaller than adult beavers, usually weighing only 2 to 4 pounds as adults, and they do not have wide, flat beavertails.  Muskrat tails are too thin to “slap” on the water.  Muskrats do not build dams, but they do live in the same watery habitats as beavers, including in ponds beavers have made.  Like beavers, muskrats are adapted for swimming and eating vegetation in and around wetlands.

young muskrat is enjoying some vegetation along the Neuse River

This young muskrat is enjoying some vegetation along the Neuse River.

One other large rodent can sometimes be found in North Carolina wetlands, although it is not a native species here.  This rodent is the South American Nutria (Myocastor coypus).  They were brought here from South America primarily by fur farmers but escaped many years ago and now spread on their own.  Nutria are semi-aquatic and faster on land compared to beaver and muskrat.  In size Nutria are smaller than a beaver but larger than a muskrat, usually between 10 and 20 pounds as adults.  They have a large head with large white whiskers, appear hump-backed while on land, and have a long rat-like tail.

Nutria swimming

Nutria can be distinguished from muskrat and beaver by their large blocky head.

All three of these large water-loving rodents are primarily nocturnal but sometimes become active just before sunset or during cloudy weather.  Next time you walk in a swampy area, take a good look around – can you find evidence of beavers?  If you spy a large mammal swimming, can you tell which aquatic rodent is it?  In some North Carolina wetlands it is possible to find all three.

What are the red berries in the forest?

During the winter the forest may seem to lose its color with the bare trees and most leaves have browned and fallen on the ground.  But there are a handful of Raleigh forest plants that can show off bright red berries through most of the winter and offer a bit of bright color.  What are these red berries?

berries and leaves on a branch

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

American Holly (Ilex opaca) is a very common forest tree around Raleigh. It has evergreen leaves with prickly edges that we usually think of as “holly leaves”. These evergreen leaves provide protective cover for birds and other animals during the winter.  The berries ripen by late fall and stay on the tree during the winter. While American Holly is known for its bright red berries, American holly is dioecious species – meaning some holly trees have all-male flowers while some have all-female flowers – and you’ll only find the red berries if you have a female-flower holly tree.

red berries on a leafless branch

Deciduous Holly, or Possumhaw (Ilex decidua)

Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) is another native holly tree, but its leaves are not prickly, and not evergreen.  It loses its small oval leaves in the fall like other deciduous trees, but the red berries may remain on its branches during winter. Like the American Holly, it is mostly dioecious, with separate female (berry producing) and male trees.  It grows wild in many Piedmont forests.

red berry cluster on leafless branch

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) is a perfect description for this last native holly.  Like the Possumhaw, Winterberry is both deciduous and dioicous.  The berries tend to grow in more of a clustered group compared to Possumhaw.  The wild prefers to grow in moist soils, often near water.  It is also popular as a landscaping plant, growing in yards as a shrub or small tree.  As with all the hollies, these berries are eaten by birds and other wildlife but they are often saved until late into the winter.  All holly berries are mildly toxic to humans and should not be eaten by people, but they are valuable winter food, especially for bird species, and planting hollies can be a great landscaping choice to give your yard a bit of color during the winter.

red berry cluster on leafy plant

Nandina, or Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica)

Nandina, also called Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina Domestica), is a non-native, introduced species from Asia that can be found sometimes growing ‘wild’ in forests in our region.  It is not related to the hollies but does produce clusters of red berries.  Along with the berries, Nandina is a semi-evergreen plant, keeping some leaves through the winter, which is another reason it is often planted as an ornamental.  However, Nandina is known to escape and can sometimes multiply in natural forest areas.  The berries may resemble holly berries, but Nandina never grows to tree size and the non-prickly compound leaves easily distinguish it from all holly species.  Nandina berries may be colorful but they are seldom eaten by wildlife, and they offer very little wildlife benefit.  In fact, the berries are toxic to humans, pets, livestock, and even wildlife if consumed in large quantities. 

How did Christmas Fern get its name?

Probably the most common species of fern in the Piedmont is the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).  This shade-loving fern can be found throughout the year particularly on moist shaded woodland slopes and along streams.  In the spring new silver-colored fiddleheads (tightly coiled fronds) appear and slowly unfurl into a cluster of dark glossy green fronds.  It is one of the few evergreen ferns in our area, making it easy to spot all winter long.

Growing pattern of Christmas Fern clump

Growing pattern of Christmas Fern.

Christmas Ferns got their name because they are evergreen throughout the holiday season.  However, they have another Christmas-related feature that helps to distinguish them from other species of fern.  The frond of a Christmas Fern is pinnate, which means there is a central leaf stalk with leaflets attached on two sides of the stalk.  Upon closer inspection of the leaflets, you’ll notice each one has a small lobe at it’s base.  Using your imagination, you may see it as Christmas stocking shaped!  Or perhaps you might see Santa’s sleigh pulled by his reindeer.

Christmas Fern leaflets

Christmas Fern leaflets resemble Christmas stockings or a sleigh.

Christmas Fern is a great native plant species for many reasons.  Because it is evergreen and grows in a clump form, it can provide shelter for small animals such as rabbits.  Its presence can help stabilize slopes and help prevent damage from erosion.  It can even be planted as ground cover in shady areas of your yard where grass may not grow!  This deer-resistant fern grows best in full to part shade in most well-drained soil types with little to no maintenance once it is established.  The best time to plant Christmas Fern is in the spring after the last frost. 

Next time you go for a walk, take a closer look at the ferns.  Do you have Christmas Ferns along your favorite trail?

Which Woodpecker is which at my feeder?

If you have a backyard birdfeeder in Raleigh, chances are you have been visited by a woodpecker.  But telling woodpecker species apart can seem tricky.  Here is how recognize your feeder-peckers:

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

The most common Raleigh feeder woodpecker is also the smallest: the “Downy Woodpecker”.  The females are all black-and-white patterned, while males look similar but with a small red patch on the back of their head that may be hard to see.

From head to tail, a Downy Woodpecker is about 6 inches long, and weighs just 1 oz!  Their beak is very short for a woodpecker – notice how the beak looks much shorter than the width of their head.

An easy way to remember our smallest woodpecker is the phrase “Downies are dainty”.

Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus)

Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus)

Another woodpecker that visits Raleigh feeders has a color pattern much like a Downy but with a bigger, heavier body, and is called the “Hairy Woodpecker”.  No, it does not have hair – only feathers.  But it does have some fine, hair-like feathers on its face around its beak.  Its beak is much larger than the beak of a Downy, helping it drill deeper into trees for food.  These forest birds are much more shy around people than the smaller Downy Woodpeckers.

Hairy Woodpeckers can grow to 10 inches long and weigh over twice as much as a Downy Woodpecker, making it a medium-sized bird similar in size to a Robin.  It may be hard to judge a bird’s overall size when seen at a distance, but you can usually see the much larger beak on a Hairy Woodpecker, which looks almost as long as their head is wide.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

One more common Raleigh woodpecker which visits bird feeders is the “Red-bellied Woodpecker”.  This woodpecker is as large as a Hairy Woodpecker but always has a bright red cap on the their head that is easy to see, not a tiny red spot like male Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.  Both male and female Red-bellied Woodpecker have red on their heads. Like their name says, Red-bellied Woodpeckers do have a small patch of light red feathers on their belly near their legs – but this patch is very difficult to see.  Look for the red “cap” to easily recognize a Red-bellied Woodpecker

There are other woodpeckers in Raleigh, but they are much less common to see at feeders:

  • Red-headed Woodpeckers are similar in size to a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but they have a completely red head – not just a red cap, but red all over their heads.
  • Pileated Woodpeckers are very large, with a pointed red crest that sticks up on the top of their head – like a Cardinal’s red crest stuck on top of a very large black-and-white woodpecker.

Some other Raleigh birds don’t have “woodpecker” in their name but are still members of the Woodpecker Family.  These include the Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Both these birds may sometimes visit feeders.  Even without a “woodpecker” name, can you see a Flicker’s family resemblance?

Northern Flicker Woodpecker (Colaptes auratus)

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)

All our woodpeckers have an important ecological role helping to control pest insects, as they eat many tree-killing beetles and ants.  Most woodpeckers rely on standing dead trees, called snags, for drilling nesting sites.  The nesting holes they drill into these snags can also provide shelter for many other birds and some mammals.  If you’re interested in creating habitat for a woodpecker, consider leaving standing dead trees in your yard, so long as they do not pose a safety concern.  Consider offering suet and sunflower seeds in bird feeders and you may receive a visit from one of Raleigh’s many woodpeckers!

Are Orbweaver dangerous?

Spotted Orbweaver in spider web

Spotted Orbweaver

The presence of large spider webs might make October feel extra spooky, and there sure are a lot of large spider webs around this time of year!  Orbweaver spiders are known for their very large webs, and the spiders themselves also tend to be large and scary looking.  But are they actually dangerous?

Arrowhead Orbweaver in spiderweb

Arrowhead Orbweaver

There are thousands of species of orbweaver spiders in the world and none of them pose a real threat to humans.  North Carolina has multiple species with wide variations in size, shape and colors.  You’ll find their webs any place where there are abundant insects to prey on such as under light fixtures, between tree branches, in tall grasses and in bushes.  They are commonly found throughout the woods and around our neighborhoods.

Marbled Orbweaver in spiderweb

Marbled Orbweaver, sometimes called the ‘pumpkin spider’ because of its round orange abdomen.

Despite their appearance orbweavers are actually docile and non-aggressive, usually scurrying to the safety of a tree branch or rolled leaf rather than standing ground to fight.  Orbweavers are highly beneficial to have around because they consume a variety of pest-type insects.  They do have a mild venom, however it is used for killing their prey.  When an insect gets caught in the web, the orbweavers will bite them and their venom immobilizes it.  Then the obweaver wraps them up in a silk and waits for the insect to die before consuming it.  Although an orbweaver is relatively harmless to humans and pets, it is recommended that they not be handled by hand. If highly provoked of course they would bite to defend themselves.  For most people a orbweaver bite feels no worse than a bee sting.  Bites may cause itching and swelling, but in general obrweavers are reluctant to bite and bites are usually easily avoided. 

Spinybacked Orbweaver in spiderweb

Spinybacked Orbweaver

If you see a large orbweaver on a web, it is most likely a female.  Males will wander in search for a mate and typically do not stay on a web for very long.  The males typically die after mating.  Meanwhile the females sit on their webs, waiting for food and waiting for the males to find them.  Towards the end of the fall, the female will lay an egg sac containing several hundred eggs, and then die at the first frost.  The eggs can withstand the freezing winter, and the warmth of the spring will cause the eggs to mature into a new generation of orb weavers.

What’s the difference between a centipede and a millipede?

You’ve seen them.  They are in your garden bed, crawl up the side of your house after it rains, and are hiding under your log stack.  They’ve got long bodies and they have a lot of legs.  But are they centipedes or millipedes? While they may look similar and are often found in the same habitats, these two groups of animals are actually very different.  There are a couple characteristics to help you tell them apart.

Yellow-and-black Flat Millipede

This Yellow-and-black Flat Millipede has 2 pairs of legs per body segment. 

This species is flatter than most millipedes but still has a rounded back.

Centipedes and millipedes are similar in that they have segments that link together to form one long body.  But if you’re willing to look closer, you can see a couple differences.  Centipedes have one pair of legs per segment, or one leg on each side of each segment. Their legs are attached to the side of their body and generally appear to spread out farther from the body. Millipedes have two pairs of legs per segment, or four total legs with two on each side of each body segment. Their legs are positioned directly under their bodies.   If you were to look at them from the side, centipedes generally have flatter bodies while millipedes generally have more rounded bodies.

Eastern Bark Centipede

This Eastern Bark Centipede has one pair of legs per body segment.  The legs are attached to the sides of the body, visually spreading outwards from the body compared to millipedes which have their legs underneath them.

In addition to visual differences, centipedes and millipedes also have different sources of nourishment and defense reaction.  Centipedes are venomous carnivorous predators.  But there’s no cause for concern; centipede venom is only fatal if you’re an insect or small mammal such as a mouse.  Centipede venom may cause pain for humans, but bites can be avoided by not handling them.  Millipedes have no need for venom because they do not catch other animals to eat.  Millipedes are herbivorous detritivores, feasting on decaying plant material such as leaves and logs.  When a millipede feels threatened it usually reacts by curling into a ball.

Curled up Millipede

An American Giant Millipede in its typical defense form of curling into a ball.

Both centipedes and millipedes are important members in our ecosystem.  However it’s understandable that humans wouldn’t prefer to share their home with them.  What can you do to try and prevent them from coming inside?  Millipedes generally stay outdoors since they are decomposers and there’s usually not much for them to eat indoors.  If a millipede has found its way indoors, it can be carefully scooped up and put outside- since they generally curl in a ball when scared, it is usually easy to relocate them.  Centipedes are the predators- if you have centipedes in your house you should think about what other insects may be indoors for the centipedes to eat.  Eliminating indoor pests would also help discourage centipedes. Centipedes can also be scooped up in a cup and released outside, though this may be more challenging since they unfortunately do not curl in a nice little ball.  When outdoors, millipedes help break down old plant material and centipedes are hunting for other buggy pests to eat- making them both important contributors to a healthy neighborhood ecosystem!

Are these rock-growing ferns really dead?

As you explore forests around Raleigh, you may come across some ferns that grow directly on rocks, large tree branches, or sometimes on old stone walls with no roots connecting them to the soil at all.  Sometimes rock-growing ferns may appear to be shriveled, stiff and pale gray in color.  These unusual ferns are called Resurrection Ferns.

Dormant Resurrection Ferns along the Hidden Rocks Trail at Wilkerson Nature Preserve

Dormant Resurrection Ferns along the Hidden Rocks Trail at Wilkerson Nature Preserve

Because they grow on rocks or tree trunks without contact with the soil, Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis michauxiana) could be called an ‘epiphyte’ or ‘lithophyte’ plant which are plants that grow on another plant or hard object, but which are not parasites.  Although Resurrection Ferns may sometimes grasp living tree branches for support, they do not steal nutrients or water from the tree, and they can grow equally well on a rock.  In the North Carolina Piedmont and Mountains, rocks are their most frequent habitat, but along the Carolina coast, where there are few natural rocks, they are usually seen on tree trunks, and especially on Live Oak trees.

With no connection to the soil, all epiphyte plants are dependent on frequent rain and high humidity for their water needs.  When the weather is dry, Resurrection Fern fronds shrivel up, but this doesn’t mean they are dead.  These ferns can lose over 75 percent of their water content during a dry period drought without dying.  By contrast, most other plants experience injury once they lose 10 percent of their water.

Resurrection Fern on a building structure, beginning to wilt.

Resurrection Fern on a building structure, beginning to wilt.

Once the Resurrection Fern is exposed to water again (as in a summer shower) it quickly appears to “come back to life”.  The fronds unfurl and will become green in a matter of hours.  Once the fronds are open again, the fern resumes the photosynthesis process.  The more humid the air is, the longer the fronds can remain open to absorb nutrients from the air.  This ability to survive in a dormant low-water state is an adaptation helps the Resurrection Fern grow in a variety of difficult habitats and through periods of droughts.  But the frequent dormant periods also mean Resurrection Ferns grow slowly, and even small patch on a rock may have taken many years to grow.

Hydrated Resurrection Fern along the Hidden Rocks Trail at Wilkerson Nature Preserve

Hydrated Resurrection Fern along the Hidden Rocks Trail at Wilkerson Nature Preserve

Though these interesting ferns may be easy to overlook when in their shriveled, dormant state, they can be found widely on rock outcrops or on tree branches throughout the Southeast, as far north as New York and as far west as Texas.  Next time you’re at Wilkerson Nature Preserve in Raleigh, see if you can find them growing along the Hidden Rocks Trail!

Which insects sing in the summertime?

Summertime brings a chorus of nature sounds.  Of course, birds sing year-round, and some frogs call in the late winter.  But some of the loudest and most noticeable sounds come from insects during the summer!

During the day you may hear a loud constant buzzing.  Sometimes the buzzing might sound like a rattling or get louder before trailing off and then starting up again.  This sound is the cicada.  Some species of cicada make the news for their unique emergence schedule.  Those species live for multiple years underground in their nymph stage before emerging as adults for a couple weeks to mate and lay eggs, and then you don’t see or hear then again for multiple years.  However most cicadas are annual cicadas, emerging and completing their life cycle in a single year.  Cicadas generally call from up high in the trees and make this sound using a specialized tymbal muscle located on their abdomen.

Dog Day Cicada attached to a wooden post

Dog Day Cicada

Another daytime insect sound you may hear are grasshoppers.  Usually, these sound like a continual ticking sound rather than a constant buzz.  Grasshoppers generally call from tall grassy fields and make this sound by rubbing their legs together.  When they fly, they sometimes look like butterflies with their larger wingspan before landing in the grasses where they are exceptionally camouflaged.

American Bird Grasshopper sitting in green grass

American Bird Grasshopper

As daytime fades to night, cicadas and grasshoppers begin to quiet down.  While there are some exceptions, generally neither the cicada nor the grasshopper calls at night.  In fact, if you are outside in during dusk as the sun is setting in the summer, you can listen to the cicadas slowly stop calling and then another distinctly different sound emerges from the trees.  This different sound is the katydid.

Katydids are closely related to grasshoppers and are generally found in the tree canopy.  Their sound is often mistaken for cicadas, but the pattern to their call is distinctly different.  Katydids make a more rhythmic repetitive CH-CH-CH sound by rubbing a leg and a wing together.  Some have said it is like they are calling their own names: “Kay-Tee-Did!”

Lesser Anglewing Katydid sitting on a piece of wood

Lesser Anglewing Katydid

And finally, most people are familiar with what a cricket sounds like.  Generally, crickets also sing at night though there are some exceptions.  Like the grasshopper, crickets are usually found on the ground in the grass although some species do live in trees.  Their sounds are made by rubbing their wings together and sound more like a rhythmic chirping.  Crickets generally have a quieter song compared to cicadas, grasshoppers, and katydids.

Field Cricket sitting on concrete

Field Cricket

There are exceptions to every rule- some katydids and crickets sing during the day and some cicadas keep singing into the night, but generally their calls are distinct enough in sound and time of day that they can be picked out in a chorus.  Next time you’re outdoors around dusk, take some time to acknowledge the sound of the cicadas while the sun is still up.  And as the sun sets, notice that the katydids begin to sing.  Eventually the cicadas quiet down and you’ll hear a chorus of katydids in their place.

Are those little strawberries growing in my yard?

You may have noticed small red berries growing in your yard.  If you look very close you will notice that they appear to be small strawberries!  These small strawberry-like plants are known as ‘mock strawberries’, ‘false strawberries’, ‘Indian-strawberry’ and sometimes even ‘backyard strawberry’.  Their leaves are trifoliate (with three leaflets) and can sometimes be seen throughout the winter.   The mock strawberry plant may be found creeping along yard edges or lawns, low to the ground and not reaching more than a few inches tall.

A plant with leaves and strawberry-like berries.

Mock Strawberry (Potentilla indica)

Mock strawberry is native to Asia but has been introduced to many other parts of the world as a medicinal and ornamental plant.  While they bear a striking resemblance to the cultivated strawberries found in grocery stores, upon closer look you may notice some small differences.   Besides their smaller size, mock strawberries also have a very bumpy texture while cultivated strawberries have a smoother, nearly flat surface where the seeds give only a small amount of texture.  Mock strawberries also grow upward while cultivated strawberries grow downwards.  Finally, mock strawberries produce small yellow flowers while cultivated strawberries produce white flowers.

Different shaped leaves with a yellow flower in the middle.

Mock strawberry flower.  This plant is mixed with other species of plants- can you pick out its leaves?

You may be tempted to harvest your mock strawberries and eat them.  While they aren’t toxic, they are not very tasty either.  Some describe them as being dry with no taste and others describe them as being bitter.  So you might enjoy them best simply by looking at their bright colors, or since they are a non-native, fast-growing species of plant you can also choose to pull them up along with other yard weeds.

What are these bubbles on the plants?

adding spit bug

Bubbles created by a spittlebug nymph.

Have you every noticed small balls of bubbles on flower stems or tree twigs?  Do The bubbles sort of resemble spit?  These bubbles are not produced by the plant itself.  These bubbles are made by a group of insects appropriately called ‘spittlebugs’.  Spittlebugs are in the insect order Hemiptera, or true bugs. This makes them closely related to cicadas, leafhoppers, and aphids.

In July or August, adult tree spittlebugs lay their eggs under bark, bud scales, or in needle sheaths of live trees.  The teardrop-shaped eggs remain through the winter.  The following spring the young, or nymphs, emerge.  The nymphs have needle-like mouth parts used to pierce the plants to feed off of the juices within.  As the nymphs feed, they excrete excess sap which is then forced out of their abdomen under pressure and mixed with air to create the spittle-like bubbles.  They use the bubbles to cover themselves in to keep from drying out and protect them from predatory insects.

spittlebug sitting on a chair

Adult Two-lined Spittlebug.

While there are a variety of spittlebugs, two of the most common in our area are the Pine Spittlebugs (Aphrophora parallela) which only produces one generation per year, and the Two-lined Spittlebug (Prosapia bincincta) which can produce two generations per year.  Two-lined Spittlebugs prefer soft plant stems such as wildflowers and grasses.  All adult spittlebugs are fairly small, typically less than a half-inch long.  Their wings fold over their backs, and they have large eyes somewhat like a tiny cicada.   When disturbed they readily jump or fly.  Some species can jump more than two feet in the air!  The adults also have piercing mouth parts that allow them to feed off of plants.  They can often be found in tall weeds or grasses and sometimes appear under porch lights after dark.  Spittlebugs are not harmful to humans or pets and usually to few and scattered to be harmful to the large plants on which they feed.

Next time you’re out walking, see if you can find evidence of nymphs in their bubbles especially on pine trees, or adults in the grassy meadows!  You may even have these in your own backyard!

Why does the field look black and burned?

Burn on the field

Wilkerson Nature Preserve performed a Prescribed Burn in March 2022

Recently a field at Wilkerson Nature Preserve was on fire.  Don’t worry - it was intentional!  Staff worked closely with the North Carolina Forest Service to plan a prescribed burn as a method to maintain the meadow.  Prescribed fire is used in many natural areas to improve wildlife habitat, reduce exotic species, and promote rare native species and ecosystems, including in many parks around Raleigh.  When done in a forest setting, prescribed burning also reduces the risk of a future uncontrolled fire by consuming potential fuels.  However the procedure is not as simple as just lighting a match, and should only be done by those with prescribed fire training.

Field Burning at Wilkerson Nature Preserve

A meadow at Wilkerson Nature Preserve during a prescribed burn.

So, what is involved?  In advance of a burn, staff evaluate the area to determine the boundaries of the planned burn site.  Field prep is done which may include cutting paths around the boundary and sometimes through the middle of the planned area.  This not only helps to contain the fire within the desired boundary, but also allows breaks within the area.  These fire breaks are used to slow the fire down as it crosses the field, to keep it manageable.

Weather forecasting has a large part in planning a prescribed burn.  A number of weather-related factors must fall in specific ranges.  For example, if it is too humid it may be difficult to light the fire.  If there is not enough wind the smoke will not be carried up and away, however if there is too much wind it would be too dangerous to start a fire.  Wind direction plays a part as well – which way will the wind carry the smoke?  Planners need to be mindful of not creating smoke-related hazards in the community around the planned burn.  Using these factors, staff look at the forecast and designate days that might fall within the safe ranges.  The final decision that it is safe to burn is not made until the morning of the planned burn, and in some cases can be called off due to a shift in any of those factors, even after everyone is gathered and ready.

Field Burning at Wilkerson Nature Preserve

On the days of Wilkerson Nature Preserve’s burn this March, these factors all remained in their safe zones, and the North Carolina Forest Service arrived with personnel and safety equipment to survey the planned area one last time.  A test burn was performed to be sure conditions were still favorable on the ground.  The test burn went well, and the field was lit by a torch in a systematic approach, from one end to the other, burning into the wind rather than with it.  While keeping constant communication via radios, the team worked to back-burn segments of the field, so as the fires approached they met with an area that had already begun burning- therefore reducing the available fuels and allowing the fire to maintain a controllable level.  Water trucks and hoses were at the ready, but only used at the fire boundaries.  Once the fire had moved through the planned area, a few remaining hot spots were observed for potential dangers as they quickly died out.  As we have seen after past prescribed burns, after the fire is complete, nature soon takes its course, and new healthy plant sprouts appeared within a week – after a few months’ time it will be difficult to find any trace of black ash under the new carpet of fresh, green grasses and wildflowers.

What wild tree flowers in December?

Yellow flowers blooming on tree branch in December

Yellow flowers blooming on tree branch in December

We think of Spring as the season for flowers, especially flowering trees, and shrubs.  

Fall is when we expect colorful leaves on our trees, not flowers, and most people would never go looking for wildflowers in December.  But there is one exception to this rule growing wild in Raleigh’s forests – the American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), also called “Winterbloom,” for its unusual flowering habits.

American Witch Hazel is a native shrub or small tree with a strange name and an even stranger flowering season, blooming mostly from late October into December.

A bare Witch Hazel tree in December with many yellow flower clusters.

A bare Witch Hazel tree in December with many yellow flower clusters.

Each Witch Hazel flower has four narrow yellow petals up to about 1 inch long, and because the flowers often appear in clusters along the branches, when in bloom, the whole tree can appear dotted with bright yellow that stands out against the winter-bare branches.

The odd name “Witch Hazel” comes from the Old English word “wych” or “wice,” meaning “weak.”  This word was used in old names for several European trees with “weak” or flexible branches, and Witch Hazel branches are pretty flexible.  Our word “wicker,” referring to basket-work made by bending flexible strips of wood, also comes from this word root.


Green Witch Hazel leaves in Summer.

Green Witch Hazel leaves in Summer.

The “Hazel” in “Witch Hazel” refers to the similarity of shape between Witch Hazel leaves and the leaves of Hazelnut shrubs.  True Hazelnuts grow wild around Raleigh, but they do not make clusters of yellow late-fall flowers, so a blooming Witch Hazel is easy to distinguish from a Hazelnut.

Witch Hazel Fruit Capsule

Witch Hazel Fruit Capsule

Witch Hazel does produce a fruit shaped something like a small, yellow-brown nut, which you can usually find on Witch Hazel branches near the flowers.  When the fruit is fully ripe it will suddenly “pop” open and throw its small seeds through the air several feet or yards away, where they may sprout and add to a growing Witch Hazel patch.  The name “Snapping Hazel” refers to this explosive method of seed dispersal.

The seeds of Witch Hazel have valued food for birds and small forest mammals, and the leaves and flowers provide food for many insects, including butterfly caterpillars and pollinators.

The leaves and twigs of Witch Hazel are also eaten by deer, which can make Witch Hazel difficult to grow in areas with high deer populations unless protection is provided until the plant is tall enough to have branches growing higher than deer are able to reach.


Witch Hazel flowers

Witch Hazel flowers

The most common human use for Witch Hazel today is as the source of the Witch Hazel extract found in some cosmetics and first aid supplies. This extract is produced by boiling Witch Hazel twigs. Witch Hazel extract has a long history of use for its anti-inflammatory properties, especially when applied to the skin.

Look out for a yellow-flowering shrub or small tree while enjoying Raleigh’s forests this December – you may find a Witch Hazel, Raleigh’s own wild “winter bloom”!

Are all red mushrooms poisonous?

A trail of red forest mushrooms

A trail of red forest mushrooms.

Fall is a great time to look for mushrooms in the forest, and bright red mushrooms are incredibly colorful and easy to spot. Unfortunately, some people think all red mushrooms are poisonous, but the truth is more complex.  Some common red mushrooms are poisonous, while others are not. In addition, DNA evidence shows that North American mushrooms that may look almost identical to European or Asian mushrooms may be unique North American species. This explains why their taste and toxicity are different from what looks like the "same" mushroom from another continent.

While eating wild mushrooms carries risks, we can all safely enjoy these mushrooms' bright colors the same way we enjoy colorful wildflowers – without picking them!

Small mushroom with white stalk and red top

A Red Russala mushroom

A few red forest mushrooms to look for:

Red Russala is often labeled with the name Russala emetica, a common red European species. There are over 100 red Russala species found worldwide, which may require microscopic examination to tell apart.  In general, Red Russala species have a pinkish or reddish cap with white gills underneath and a white stem with no “bulb” or skirt-like “veil” attached.

Russala emetica is often called “the sickener” because eating it raw frequently causes nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.  However, it is not a deadly mushroom, and there are preparation methods traditionally used in Europe that can reduce the toxins to make it more edible.  American Russalas also share these toxic properties to varying degrees.

Although toxic to humans when raw, many animals enjoy eating Russala mushrooms, including squirrels, snails, and insects.

Orange red mushroom in mud

Red Chanterelle mushroom

Red Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus or similar species) is a smaller mushroom, where both the stem and the cap are all red-orange, including the gills.  Like other chanterelles, the gills reach down the stem somewhat, and there is no “bulb” or skirt-like “veil” attached. Chanterelles are generally non-toxic, but look-alike “false chanterelles” can cause digestive upset and other unpleasant reactions in humans.

Yellow mushroom growing out of ground with red center

Caesar's Mushrooms

Caesar’s mushrooms, or the European species (Amanita caesarea), is well known as edible, and the common American species (Amanita jacksonii) is very similar in appearance.  However, as an Amanita, it is also a close relative to some of the world’s most deadly mushrooms, including the “death cap” (Amanita phalloides) and “destroying angel” (Amanita virosa).

Yellowish mushroom with delicate gill flaps

Notice the yellowish (not pale white) gills, and the skirt-like “veil” hanging on the straight (not swollen), yellow-orange stem which are all characteristics of an American Caesar’s mushroom.

The pale white gills on many deadly Amanita mushrooms help distinguish them from Caesar’s Mushrooms, including the American Caesar, which has yellow gills.  But with hundreds of Amanita species, positive identification requires experience and always carefully checking multiple features.

Unfortunately for Americans, while the American Caesar’s mushroom is not poisonous, it also seems to lack much of the flavor that makes the European Caesar’s mushroom so appealing. Wildlife still enjoys eating them (including deer and box turtles), and we can enjoy seeing their large, colorful, red-orange caps when they appear in our forests.

Mushroom with yellow stock and bright red top

A young Amanita mushroom emerging from a white egg-like “volva”, seen at the base of the yellow stem. Both toxic and non-toxic Amanita species share this feature when young.

Even though some colorful forest mushrooms really are poisonous, none of our mushrooms are dangerous to humans if simply touched. Poison mushrooms are not like poison ivy! There’s no reason to be afraid of any of our wild mushrooms as long as you’re not eating them.

A forest filled with mushrooms provides fall food for many creatures, and Eastern box turtles are one forest animal that especially enjoys eating mushrooms, including many toxic kinds. Enjoy seeing and identifying the bright colors of fall’s mushrooms during a forest hike!


What are these seed pods that grow on a vine?

Bumpy seed pods with fluffy seeds growing on a vine

Bumpy seed pods with fluffy seeds growing on a vine

Many people recognize the spiny-looking pods full of fluffy seeds that fields of common milkweed (Asclepias syrica) growing around Raleigh produce in the fall.  

But another Raleigh plant also makes bumpy seed pods full of fluffy seeds, except this plant is a climbing vine.

This vine also has milky-white sap in its stem, just like our common milkweed, and for this reason, it is called “Milkvine” (genus Matelea).  Like milkweeds, many Mmlkvines produce clusters of interesting flowers attractive to pollinators. Many milkvine flowers have five purple petals, making their flowers look a bit like a cluster of purple starfish.


Fuzzy seeds and pods

Common milkweed pods and seeds

Milkvine is in the same family as our common milkweed but not the same genus, so milkvines are not considered “true” milkweeds. But because milkvines are in the milkweed family, milkvines are sometimes called “climbing milkweeds”.

Monarch butterflies are famous for needing Milkweed leaves to feed their caterpillars. Despite not being “true” milkweed, milkvine leaves are another food plant that Monarch caterpillars can and do use. Unfortunately, milkvine plants are rarely available for sale, and even in the wild, many milkvines have become uncommon or rare.

Cluster of dark purple flowers with green leaves on vine

Cluster of purple Milkvine flowers blooming in Raleigh

Several milkvine species occur naturally in North Carolina. In Raleigh, glade milkvine (Matalea decipiens) is one to look out for. This plant is listed as "critically imperiled” in several states, including Virginia, and it is tracked on the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program’s Rare Plant List. It can be found in some of Raleigh Parks' nature preserves.

Carolina Milkvine (Matalea caroliniensis) is another, more common, local milkvine species, as is anglepod (Gonolobus suberosus), which grows pods with ridges instead of milkweed-like bumps or spines. Both of these milkweed-family species produce similar 5-petaled flowers, but their petals are shorter compared to those of glade milkvine, and their flowers are often more greenish rather than purple.

Small flower with five petals with dark purple center and green petals

Anglepod flowers have five petals that mostly or completely green, with only a small amount of purple color.

Milkvines are perennials that live for many years, growing back from their root after their vine dies to the ground each winter. Part-shade with some direct sun is ideal for them, but they are vulnerable to being eaten by deer. Once established, milkvines can climb to heights of over 6 feet and produces many flower clusters and pods.

So if you see a spiny milkweed-like pod dangling from a vine this fall that looks like it belongs on a milkweed, that’s a milkvine – another Monarch-friendly native plant.

What are those tall yellow flowers?

Field of yellow flowers

A field of tall yellow flowers blooming in late September at Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve.

Sunflowers is the ‘star’ flower of mid-summer gardens. Still, in late September, a different kind of tall yellow flower catches the attention of many people in natural areas around Raleigh.  

Often mistaken for planted sunflowers, these golden fields are entirely wild and are colored by the blooms of a native plant called “Yellow Crownbeard” (Verbesina occidentalis).

Crownbeard is a native member of the Sunflower Family. Like sunflowers, Crownbeard flowers are a valuable nectar source for pollinating bees and butterflies – and the timing of their blooms is perfect for the migrating Monarchs that pass through Raleigh in September.  Also, like sunflowers, after flowering, Crownbeard produces clusters of nutritious seeds (they look exactly like tiny sunflower seeds), which feed many songbirds as they prepare for winter. 

Although a field of Crownbeard is beautiful, the individual flowers are small and have an irregular appearance, and when examined closely, you will find that not all Yellow Crownbeard plants bloom with the same shade of yellow.


Hand holding bright yellow flower blooms

“Lemon-yellow” Crownbeard flowers on left, vs. “egg-yolk-yellow” flowers in center and right.

For unknown reasons, some Yellow Crownbeard plants have pale “lemon-yellow” flowers, while other plants have deeper “egg-yolk-yellow” colored flowers.

On any Crownbeard plant, all the flowers will be either “lemon-yellow” or all “egg-yolk-yellow” – never mixed. But plants of both colors may grow side-by-side in the same field, with the “egg-yolk-yellow” color being the most common.


Yellow Crownbeard only blooms for a short time – by October, these flowers will have faded away, and the loose petals can be knocked off earlier by rough weather.

So enjoy Raleigh’s all-natural late-September wildflower show!  They don’t last long, but they are a much-valued resource for fall butterflies and early-winter birds.

If you’re thinking of growing Yellow Crownbeard in your yard, this plant has one more valuable feature – deer don’t like to eat it!

Is this brown snake a copperhead?

Small brown snake on tree trunk

A small brown snake that is not a copperhead.

Raleigh is called the “City of Oaks”, but it could be called the “City of Reptiles”. We have many species of snakes, lizards, and turtles that live in backyards and forests throughout the city, but most attention goes to the one native reptile found in Raleigh that is venomous to humans – the copperhead.

The good news is, most snakes you’ll see in Raleigh are not copperheads. Many of Raleigh’s snake species are naturally small, brown-colored, and rarely grow much more than 1 foot long. These common “little brown snakes” are sometimes mistaken for “baby copperheads”.


Coiled up copperhead snake

Both young and adult copperheads will have a brown body with thick dark brown bands. Most copperheads are also born with a bright yellow-green tip on their tail, which fades to brown and the snake grows.

Here’s how to know if the snake in your backyard is a Copperhead:

Does it have a brown-banded body (and maybe a bright yellow-green tail)? It could be a baby copperhead.

Does it have a brown body (but not with thick, dark bands) with a brown tail?  It is not a baby copperhead.

Brown snake with ruler on side to show how small

Brown snake

Let’s meet some of Raleigh’s most common snakes:

“Brown Snake” (Storeria dekayi)

The brown snake is possibly Raleigh’s most common snake. They are small and brown with little scattered dark spots on their back and a whitish-grey belly. They are a tiny, completely harmless cousin to the rat snake.


Tiny snake being held but hand with orange belly

Red-bellied snake

Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata)

Also very small and brown and similar to the brown snake, the red-bellied snake has a belly that is a striking red or orange.

Tiny baby snake wrapped around thumb

Worm snake

Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus)

Also brown colored and frequently found in mulch or dirt, the worm snake’s belly is noticeably pinkish.

Dark brown baby snake coiled up on ruler

Smooth earth snake

Smooth Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae)

These uncommon small, plain brown snakes have slick, glossy scales and a grey belly.

Close up of snake body scales

Close up of rough earth snake scales showing "keels"

Rough Earthsnake (Haldea striatula)

These snakes are often found near rocks and are very similar to Smooth Earthsnake, but the scales of Rough Earthsnakes each have a ridge or keel down their middle that can be seen when they are examined closely.

All these little brown snakes can be found in Raleigh backyards. It is also common in summer to find small young of other larger snake species, such as baby rat snakes, baby racers, and baby water snakes. While some of these snakes may have a brown body with bands when they are young, none of them have a bright yellow-green tip on their tail the way a baby copperhead can.

Take some time this summer to get to know the many tiny, helpful, harmless snakes that call Raleigh home!


What is Raleigh's rarest lettuce?

Greeen leafy plant growing from ground

Red Wood Lettuce growing wild within deer-fence protection and freshly-burned soil at Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve

Some lettuces we know well…iceberg, romaine, red-leaf, and Boston bibb are salad bowl favorites. But all our garden lettuce varieties (Lactuca sativa) came from Wild Lettuce (Lactuca spp.) ancestors.  

All Wild Lettuces are edible, but some taste much better than others.  Taste aside, Wild Lettuces are valuable for crossbreeding with our Garden Lettuce varieties, most often to improve disease resistance. Recent studies have also found that Wild Lettuces have higher Vitamin C levels than Garden Lettuce, and there is potential to use Wild Lettuces to improve the nutritional value in Garden Lettuce through crossbreeding as well.

The closest ancestor to our Garden Lettuce is the common ‘Prickly Lettuce’ (Lactuca serriola) which is often seen growing as a ‘weed’ on Raleigh roadsides.  Other Wild Lettuces are commonly found in Raleigh’s more natural habitats, including Canada Lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) and Woodland Lettuce (Lactuca floridana).

But there are some Wild Lettuce species that have become very rare in modern times – the rarest may be the Red Wood Lettuce (Lactuca hirsuta).

100 years ago Red Wood Lettuce was a more common wildflower – that was how it was described in the book “Wild Flowers Every Child Should Know” by Vassar College biologist Frederic Stack in 1909.  The tall red-purple-colored stems and clusters of small reddish-yellow flowers would make it a colorful sight in an open woodland glade.

Up close picture of small yellow flower bloom

Flower of Red Wood Lettuce blooming at Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve

But since those days red wood lettuce has almost vanished – in North Carolina, only 1 plant has been collected by scientists in the last 50 years (from Robeson County in 2010)!

Even finding one red wood lettuce plant in NC in 50 years is better than some other states – in Maryland and Connecticut it is believed to have gone extinct. In many other states, it is legally listed as “Endangered” or “Threatened”.

Why did red wood lettuce disappear? We don’t know, but it is highly edible. Rising deer populations in recent decades across the Eastern United States have impacted many highly edible wild plants.


Green leaf

Red Wood Lettuce stem leaves are shaped like Post Oak leaves, but they still taste like lettuce.

For years the staff at Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve have searched Raleigh for a living Red Wood Lettuce without finding any. But plants have an amazing ability to hide – they can sleep as seeds in the soil, sometimes waiting years to grow – and deer cannot destroy sleeping seeds until they are triggered to sprout.

As last hope to revive long-lost plants, a 1/10th acre piece of land at Wilkerson Nature Preserve was fenced-off completely from deer in 2020, and then burned with help from the NC Forest Service in March of 2021.


Person conducting safe prescribed burn to forest floor

Chemicals in smoke have been proven in laboratory experiments to trigger germination in Lettuce seeds.  Shortly after the 2021 controlled burn, a baker’s dozen of 13 Red Wood Lettuce plants appeared inside the fenced area!  The fencing kept deer from eating the tender young sprouts, and by mid-summer, several Red Wood Lettuce plants at Wilkerson were producing flowers and seeds.

Lettuce growing up from ground

A Red Wood Lettuce seedling, growing just inside the deer-fenced and burned area at Wilkerson Nature Preserve.

Biologists from several state agencies have since visited these plants, and specimens are being prepared for our regional University collections. The life cycle of Red Wood Lettuce is to die after producing seeds, so some new seeds are being saved, while other seeds are being allowed to fall back to the soil inside the fenced area. 

We do not know how long the Red Wood Lettuce seeds had been sleeping in Wilkerson Nature Preserve’s soil. Some wildflower seeds have been proven to survive in the soil for 100 years or more. How long these seeds were waiting here is a mystery.

Thanks to deer protection and a carefully planned fire, visitors to Wilkerson Nature Preserve this summer can take a trip back in time, to the long-ago days when the rare Red Wood Lettuce was still a “Wild Flower Every Child Should Know”.

What are those foam-like things on the plants?

Picture of Chinese mantid on a stick

Chinese mantis ootheca.

As you walk through the meadows in many of our parks you’ll notice that many of the plants have lost their leaves and have turned brown for the winter.  Upon further inspection, you may discover that some of them have small foam-like structures on them.  These structures are not part of the plant itself- these are praying mantis egg sacs, or ootheca. 

Carolina Mantis eggs on a tree

Carolina mantis ootheca after young have emerged.

Mantids are important predators throughout the summer eating almost anything, including each other.  Many of the insects consumed by mantids are common pests, such as grasshoppers and mosquitoes.  As fall sets in the mantids mate and the females find a vertical surface to lay her eggs.  This could be on stems, twigs, rocks, fences, or buildings.  The eggs are laid before the first frost, and then the female dies.  Each ootheca contains dozens to hundreds of eggs that survive the winter because of the outer foamy insulation they are contained in.  The young begin to emerge when the temperatures are warming in the spring.  It’s important not to bring the egg sacs indoors during the winter, as it will simulate spring and cause the young to emerge too early.  Even if they were released outdoors, the young cannot survive the winter once they’ve emerged.

Chinese mantis on a stick

Unhatched Chinese mantid ootheca.

The most commonly seen species of mantids in North Carolina are the Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis Carolina) and the Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinensis).  Of course, the Chinese mantis is a non-native invasive species, however, it’s usually easier to locate the oothecas for this species.  The oothecas for Chinese mantids tend to be rounder in formation and more often seen on twigs.  During a short walk around Wilkerson’s pond the other day I located a handful of them fairly easily.

Image of Carolina Mantis

Carolina mantis ootheca, hidden among branches.

Carolina mantid eggs are smaller and look similar to a fossilized trilobite.  These are more often found on trees, buildings and fences- but if you have a keen eye you can also find these on twigs and branches.


Once the young have hatched the ootheca is often still visible throughout the spring in summer, although it will have visible holes where they emerged.  Those young grow to adulthood, mate in the fall, and die back to start the cycle all over again!



Do you have a Nature Mystery question? We'd love to hear from you!

Email questions and photos to Bonnie Eamick.

Look for more answers to Raleigh's Nature Mysteries coming soon!

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