After a cold and wet Spring, July has been rather hot and dry in comparison. Yet we are at 3000-4000 feet of elevation at most sites I visit near Boone, NC. Compared to areas in the Piedmont where most people live (Charlotte, Winston Salem, Raleigh-Durham, etc), we are in a very comfortable climate. The reproductive season is mostly over for the birds which are singing little and even starting to migrate south or east. Plants are going through their growth and blooming cycles and a group of us has been doing weekly surveys of the “phenology” or timing of blooming of plants along sections of the Mountain to Sea Trail (MST) that parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway in our area.
Two very different plants we recently found in flower on the MST were a Turk’s Cap lily and a lesser round leaved orchid. The lily is pollinated by day-flying swallowtail butterflies and the orchid by night flying moths. The lilies are common but few actually flower, whereas the orchid is very rarely seen and even more rarely found in flower.
This has been a period in which butterflies were not seen as often as in June, perhaps because wild flowers to feed on were less commonly in bloom. This tiny eastern tailed blue butterfly is a real gem if you can use your binoculars or a camera to magnify it. The eye spots and the “tails” imitate a head and antennae and mislead predators such as jumping spiders to attack the less vulnerable rear end.
Dragonflies such as this common whitetail male are now often seen around ponds. They are impressive small predators on flying insects and even as relatively primitive animals have a complex reproductive and social system. The related damselflies can also be common around ponds and streams. This bluet could be one of several very similarly colored species, all of which are black and blue. The male ebony jewelwing damselfly is striking with its iridescent blue green body and black wings.
In our yard I noticed what appeared to be a bumblebee sitting on a hose. On closer inspection this turned out to be a robber fly, a flying predator of other insects that closely resembles a bumblebee to discourage being eaten by birds. The mimicry is quite remarkable and illustrates how the fierce bumblebee intimidates its potential predators.
One bird that is still giving its call but not singing is the willow flycatcher which lives in woody marshes. This is one of the famous Empidonax flycatchers (including Acadian, alder and least in this area) which are very similar in appearance but differ in their vocalizations and habitat choice. Such cases illustrate evolution in its early stages in which behavior and not appearance primarily separate the sibling species..
Finally we are being visited by a bird very rarely seen in the NC mountains, a great white morph of the great blue heron. Some other water birds such as the reddish egret also have a white morph, although in the case of the great blue, the white morph mainly breeds in the FL Keys and ranges up the coast occasionally.
So go out and enjoy Nature in these difficult times when contacts among humans must be minimized to avoid viral infection. Indeed our mental and physical health will be greatly improved by participating in nature rambles as often as possible.