Wednesday, August 8, 2018

NORTH CAROLINA SANDHILLS

Figure 1:  Sandhills Bog Lily (Lilium pyrophilum) is an endangered species. It is one of the many species that benefit from prescribed burns within the fire dependent plant communities of the Sandhills. 


I recently visited the North Carolina sandhill region. I meet my friend Will Stuart and he kindly showed me some of the more interesting areas and unique plants of the region. 

The Sandhill region of North Carolina is part of a larger geographical province that runs along the eastern United States coastal plain from N.C. through Georgia. The area consists of ancient sand dunes created and left behind by seas that once covered the region.  The Sandhills are characterized by deep, nutrient-poor, sandy soils, xeric conditions, and frequent fires. This unique habitat creates many challenges to the fauna and flora that live there. But, despite these challenges the area is one of the most biodiverse in the United States. One source states, “this area is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the U.S. — rivaling even the diversity of the tropical rainforest. Beneath the mighty boughs of the Longleaf Pine forest, 150 to 300 species of groundcover plants per acre can be found. Sixty percent of the amphibians and reptiles inhabiting in the Southeast can also be found here, along with more breeding birds than in any other southeastern forest type. Combine this richness with the unique species found in the deciduous Piedmont forest and it’s no wonder that our region is what naturalists call “a biological hot spot.”In N.C. the Sandhills area covers parts of Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke,  Lee, Montgomery, Moore, Richland, and Scotland Counties. 

 

Figure 2: Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum) common in disturbed areas such as roadsides and dry pine-oak forests.
Figure 3: Sandhill Morning Glory (Stylisma patens) This diminutive plant often forms large mats of growth on the dry pine forest floors.

One of the most widespread plant community within the Sandhills is the Dry Longleaf Pineland which is dominated by an open canopy of Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) with a sub-canopy of scrub oaks such as Turkey Oak (Quercus laevis),  Sand Post Oak (Quercus margarettae), Bluejack Oak (Quercus incana), (Q. falcata) and a herbaceous layer dominated by grasses such as Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) and Purple Three Awn Grass (Aristida purpurea var. longiseta).


Figure 4: This shows a typical Dry Longleaf Pineland dominated by an open canopy of pines with a sub-canopy of scrub oaks.
Figure 5: Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica) one
of the many oak species found in the sandhills.

Other plant communities are mostly variants of this community based on hydrology. The rolling terrain seems to repeat a general pattern of higher, dryer, and more open pine dominated savannas to moister slopes and eventually low wet areas where water drains or stands. As one walks down from the very open dry pine ridges towards the lower wet areas the vegetation becomes noticeable thicker, basically creating a dense wall of vegetation. The classification of these plant communities varies greatly within the literature. I will use the terminology that Bruce Sorrie uses in his guide,Wildflowers of the Sandhills Region.For a more detailed and technical community classification read the, Guide to the Classification of the Natural Communities of North Carolina (4th Approximation).3


Figure 6: This illustrates one of the wetter habits such as a seepage slope that can support a wide variety of species including  carnivorous plants. Note the Yellow Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia flava) in the foreground, and the pines growing on the dryer elevations in the background.

                                                                  
Figure 7: There was a nice variety of Rhexia or Meadow Beauty species blooming in the area. This is Bog or Ciliate Meadow Beauty (Rhexia petiolata).
Note the short, straight anthers.

Figure 8: This is White Meadow Beauty (Rhexia mariana var. exalbida). It is an easy Rhexia  to identify - look for the combination of white flowers and small linear leaves.

Figure 9: This is Savanna Meadow Beauty (Rhexia alifanus). It is our tallest Rhexia species with unbranched stems and blue-green leaves that hug the stem.
Figure 10: Rhexia alifanus
Figure 11: Nash's Meadow Beauty (Rhexia nashii), this
species has characteristic gland tipped hairs.



Figure 12: Many people know to look out for Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicansand Poison Oak ( Toxicodendron pubescens) but, Spurge Nettle (Cnidoscolus stimulus) has stinging hairs that can trigger a burning sensation and a rash.

Figure 13: Sandhill Bean (Phaseolus sinuatus), is a rare plant that likes the dryer pinewoods. It is easily overlooked because the flowers are very small and close to the ground. But, once spotted it is easy to distinguish by its variegated leaves and uniquely spiraled keel. 

Figure 14: The variegated leaves of Sandhill Bean (Phaseolus sinuatus)


If you would like to visit the sandhills I suggest visiting Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve (https://www.ncparks.gov/weymouth-woods-sandhills-nature-preserve), the Greenway Trail System near Southern Pines (https://www.southernpines.net/185/Greenway-Trail-System), and the Sandhill Gamelands near Hoffman N.C. (https://www.visitnc.com/listing/toEK/sandhills-gamelands). Most of the photos above were taken in late July but the Sandhills are a great place to visit year-round (see photos below). Go explore the Sandhills and see what you can find!

Figure 15: Pine Barren Gentian (Gentiana autumnalis) blooms later in the fall.

Figure 16: Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) blooms late summer. 

Figure 17: Common Grass-pink (Calopogon tuberosus) is a species that inhabits seepage slopes and other wet habitats. It is also a species that benefits from frequent prescribed burning. Common Grass-pink blooms in from late spring into the early summer.
Figure 18: Small Spreading Pogonia (Cleistes bifaria)
blooms late spring into early summer.

Figure 19: Large Spreading Pogonia (Cleistes divaricata)
blooms in late spring through early summer.




Resources:

1. “Sand and Clay, Fire and Water: The Story of the Sandhills/Piedmont Area.” Sandhills Heritage Gateway, sandhillsheritagegateway.org/about/sandhills-piedmont-areas-geology-history/.

2. Sorrie, Bruce A. A Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Sandhills Region: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

3.Schafale, Michael P. “Natural-Community-Classification-Fourth-Approximation-2012.Pdf.” Natural Heritage Program, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, 1 Mar. 2012, www.ncnhp.org/references/publications/guide-classification-natural-communities-north-carolina-4th-approximation.

4. Way, Albert. "Longleaf Pine Ecosystem." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 08 June 2017. Web. 18 December 2017.

5. Crofton, Elizabeth W. (2001). "Wildnotes: Flora and Fauna of the Longleaf Pine-Grassland Ecosystem".The Fire Forest Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass Ecosystem. 8 (2): 69–77.

6.Radford, Albert Ernest, Harry E. Ahles, and Clyde Ritchie Bell. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina Press, 1983. Print.

7. Weakley, Alan S. Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden, U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2015. Print.






Thursday, July 5, 2018

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge




The Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is located within Atlantic and Ocean Counties along the southern New Jersey coast. Approximately, 47,000 acres of salt marsh (80%), shallow bay, tidal flats, dunes, and pine forest are protected and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These coastal habitats are especially crucial for birds that use the Atlantic flyway for fall and spring migration. There are also several threatened and endangered species that call the refuge home. Most of the refuge is relatively inaccessible to the general public. But, in Oceanville (800 Great Creek Rd., Oceanville, NJ 08205) there is a visitor center, an eight-mile wildlife drive, and  3.7 miles of trails that allows visitors to view the incredible flora and fauna protected in this reserve.


Refuge marker along the 8-mile wildlife drive.

One of many Osprey nesting platforms along the wildlife drive. Notice the Atlantic City casinos shimmering in the heat across the bay from the refuge.

FLORA


At the beginning and end of the  8-mile wildlife drive there is typical maritime forest habitat. Typical trees include a mix of hardwoods such as Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), various oaks trees including Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata), Post Oak (Q. stellata), and Black Oak (Q. velutina).  Assorted gymnosperms include Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida). Shrub layers and understory include Sweet Pepper Bush (Clethra alnifolia), Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera), Bayberry (M. pensylvanica), Arrowwood Viburnum ( Viburnum dentatum) and Beach Plum (Prunus maritima). Vines include Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Catbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), and Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).


Within the wetlands, fresh and brackish waters, you typically see a mix of Narrow Leaved Cattail (Typhya angustifolia), various Spartina species such as Spartina patens, Salt Marsh Bulrush (Schoenoplectus maritimus), Spikegrass (Distichlis spicata), Marsh Elder (Iva frutescens), Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis), Groundsel Bush (Baccharis halmifolia), and the invasive Common Reed (Phragmites australis). Of course, there are many other species through-out the refuge too numerous to mention!




Narrow Leaved Cattail (Typhya angustifolia), note the male
flowers at the top of the spike and female flowers at the bottom.


Purple Beebalm or Purple Bergamont (Monarda fistulosa)


Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria), flowers may be white or yellow.

Blanket-flower (Gaillardia pulchella)

Non-native but naturalized Day Lilies ( Hemerocallis fulva) growing along roadsides near the refuge.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)


 Bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

BIRDS


The refuge protects and provides nesting sites for the federally threatened Piping Plover and other special species such as Black Skimmers, Least Terns, and American Oystercatchers. I did see Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers along the drive. I really enjoyed watching the Black Skimmers gracefully “skimming” along the canals. Although I did not visit the refuge during the peak of spring or fall migration, I did manage to view a total of 55 bird species, about half of which were various waterfowl and shore birds. For most people, including myself, the Ospreys stole the show! Numerous nesting platforms are spaced out along the length of the 8-mile wildlife drive and every platform supported an Osprey family. The chicks were large and kept the parents busy bringing fish to the nest. It was awesome to watch the adults shred the fish and feed the young! One sad note, many of the Osprey nests had plastic shopping bags incorporated into the nest structure.

Osprey family, an adult and two chicks.

Barn Swallow, these birds were common at the begining of the 8-mile wildlife drive near the visitor center. They were nesting under the boardwalks.
Herring Gull adult, notice the red dot on the bottom of the lower bill.


? Common Tern or Forster's Tern, they are very difficult to tell apart. I asked two other birders and got two different answers.


Great Egret feeding in the marsh.

Snowy Egret feeding, if you look closely you can see the yellow feet.

Red-winged Blackbird, probably the most common bird in the refuge!

Unfortunately, I just missed a rare visit by a Roseate Spoonbill (only the 5th or 6th time reported for the state), but a fellow birder did give me a tip about a nearby Tricolored Heron that is also an unusual visitor to N.J.  

 
Tricolored Heron

MAMMALS


I was amazed and pleasantly surprised by the diversity of mammals I observed within a relatively short time and small area. While driving along the 8-mile loop and exploring several of the shorter trails I observed White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus),  several Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus), Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), an Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), a Raccoon (Procyon lotor), and a River Otter, (Lutra canadensis). I observed one Muskrat cutting aquatic vegetation (sedges) and swimming with the plants towards the canal bank and out of my sight. Another Muskrat was feeding. It did not seem bothered by my presence and sat for quite a while eating vegetation. The highlight of one day was seeing a River Otter! It was swimming among the water lilies at the end of Gull Pond Road. I was so excited that I forgot to snap a picture before it dived back under the water and disappeared. This area is where I also saw the Raccoon. It was at the water’s edge and I think we surprised each other. The Raccoon quickly retreated into the thick brush. It was probably looking for turtle nests to raid. I had seen evidence all day of destroyed turtle nests. It was obvious that the eggs had not hatched naturally, the shells were usually some distance from the nest cavity and arranged in small piles.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), this muskrat was busy feeding on vegetation in a canal parallel to the wildlife drive.

Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus )

REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS

Often when I am hiking I will snap photos of plants and animals with the idea that I will make a more positive identification later. So, I was pleasantly surprised when looking at my photos that a toad I had seen along Jen’s Trail turned out to be a Fowler's Toad (Bufo woodhousii fowleri) a N.J. species of special concern. It is often confused with the more common Eastern American Toad (Bufo americanus). One way to separate the two species is to look at the back of the head. On Fowler’s Toads the parotid glands touch the postorbital ridge while on the Eastern American Toad there is a gap or small connecting spur between the parotid glands and postorbital ridge.

Fowler's Toad (Bufo woodhousii fowleri) a N.J. species of special concern!


The Northern Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is the only turtle species, in the world, that inhabits brackish water for their entire life. On my first day visiting the refuge the turtles were everywhere! The females were in the forests, along the canals banks, in the roads, and even crossing bridges looking for suitable nesting sites. There was easily 100+ turtles sighted along the wildlife drive through the refuge. Cars were stopping and waiting for turtles to cross or carefully driving around them. Unfortunately,  many of the females were trying to dig nests and lay eggs directly in the gravelly roadbed. Many moved once cars approached and I hope they found safer more suitable nest locations. There was also much evidence that many of the nests had fell victim to raccoons and other predators. The “Conserve Wildlife Foundation of N.J.”  stated that, “ Only around 1-3% of the eggs laid actually produce a hatchling, and success rates of young reaching adulthood is also low.” The exact population status of the Northern Diamondback Terrapin in N.J. is not known. Other nearby states such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts have the turtles listed as endangered or threatened respectively. Many N.J. conservation groups are supporting studies and lobbying for more protection of this unique species. Oddly, on my other two visits on subsequent days I probably saw less than 10 Terrapins total!

Female Northern Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) looking for a suitable nesting site.


Northern Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

Northern Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

Two other turtle species seen within the refuge was the Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) and Common Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina).

INSECTS

I did not focus on insects, but several species were very conspicuous along the wildlife drive and trails in the refuge. One notorious species was the Greenhead Horsefly (Tabanas nigrovitatus). They are actually pretty flies with large emerald green eyes and yellowish bodies, but the females feed on blood, including human blood, and can deliver a painful bite. Simply opening your car door allows dozens to quickly enter and fly around the interior, annoying you even within the supposed protection of your car. As I drove around the refuge I was constantly lowering the windows enticing them to fly back out. What was really intimidating was the huge clouds of Greenheads that would follow the car even as you were driving! At one point, Alfred Hitchcock’s “ The Birds”  came to mind as I tried to avoid the biting swarms. I did spray with OFF insect repellant which helped some but,  over the years Greenheads have become fairly resistant to many commercial bug sprays and even with protection you still receive numerous bites. So, as I stood with my binoculars and camera I alternated between nature watching and swatting flies. I also suddenly understood the large occurrence of Purple Martin houses in yards and around parks in Southern N.J.

Greenhead Horsefly (Tabanas nigrovitatus

The other insect was much more passive and beautiful, this was the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Large populations of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and other wildflowers grew along the wildlife drive providing food and shelter for the Monarchs and many other butterflies and insects.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa).


Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponia)


The Edwin B. Forsyth Wildlife Refuge is definitely on my list of favorite wildlife viewing areas. For four dollars a day (per car) the 8-mile wildlife loop is the biggest bang for your buck!  I visited for three days (June 28, 29, and July 1) and every day I saw something wonderful and different. I plan on  visiting the refuge again in October for the fall migration. I can’t wait!



RESOURCES: