Snappers and Mergansers, and Migration Notes of Interest

At least one pair of snapping turtles have already been seen mating here at the Museum and, as we’ve observed in years past, one of the big Chelydrids was seen basking on a boulder in the middle of the Wetlands soon afterwards.

A large snapper soaks up some sun on a clear blue Carolina day at the end of March (3/28/12).

The second half of March is typically the last we see of our visiting mergansers, although the latest that I’ve seen them here was April 10, which gives them about another week and a half in the area. Yesterday afternoon I saw three mergansers on the far side of the Wetlands. They all appeared to be females. I took a photo.

Three Hooded Mergansers floating across the Wetlands (3/28/12). Two of the birds here show light colored eyes. (enlargement)

Upon enlarging the photo I could see that two of the birds were young males. I’ve not seen an adult male in over a week. They, the adults, typically migrate earlier than either young males or young females. No reason for young birds to leave the area too soon since they won’t be breeding. There’s no need to fly north early and stake a claim on a nest site, so there’s nothing to loose by migrating later in the season, if they migrate at all.

Notice the light eyes and dark bill on two of these birds. These are male birds that have not yet molted into adult plumage (3/28/12). (super enlargement)

Although we’ve installed two nest boxes in the Wetlands for the mergansers it doesn’t appear as if they’ll nest here this year. There’s always next year.

By the way, Tuesday of this past week (3/27) I heard a Hermit Thrush singing from the Dinosaur Trail, apparently warming up before its trip north and yesterday (3/29) I saw the first of the season Blue-gray Gnatcatcher down in Explore the Wild. Spring’s happening, folks!!

A looper dangles from a thread of silk (barely visible).

Over the past few weeks you may have run into a looper (inch worm). You’ve probably seen them hanging from their silken threads as you walked under a tree. You may have had one looping along on your shirt, pants, or arm, or seen one clinging for dear life to your windshield as you drove off on your ride to or from work. There seems to be an abundance of these little caterpillars this year.

I’ve heard many people complain about these little moth larvae and other insects in general. They suggest that the mild winter that we’ve had will increase the number of harmful insects that we’ll have to deal with this spring and the coming summer. I agree, more insects have probably survived this past winter than in perhaps previous “normal” winter seasons.

But hear this, over the next few weeks and months there are going to be millions of birds moving north from places like the Gulf Coast of the US and Central and South America. They’re already on their way. Many of the birds that are and will be migrating north are absolutely dependent on those little green, brown, and mottled loopers seemingly hanging from every tree and shrub this year.

An over abundance of these caterpillars will mean that many more of the warblers and other songbirds, and their young, will survive migration and the following breeding season. That means more birds to brighten up your spring mornings with song, more birds to watch, more birds to help eat the insects that munch on the squash plants in your garden.

So, the next time you see one of those little green caterpillars crawling across the rim of your eyeglasses or looping across your picnic table stop and think of the birds that are going to be winging their way north this spring. Think of how that tiny caterpillar and its cousins just may enhance your listening and viewing pleasure, as well as your culinary delight, in seasons to come.

4 responses to Snappers and Mergansers, and Migration Notes of Interest

  1. Kimberly says:

    Do you know why the inch worms are always hanging our of trees and such. Are they traveling? Or just have bad balance? haha

    • Greg Dodge says:

      I can think of three reasons why a caterpillar would be hanging from the trees on a silken thread. One, it was disturbed by someone or something and bungee-jumped (silk thread) off the tree to escape the intruder. Two, to balloon to another tree or food source (usually happens early on in the larva’s development or if the food source it’s on is overcrowded). And three, to safely repel to the ground in order to pupate in the leaf liter or soil. I suspect that a little of “all of the above” is going on but I think mostly its the larvae ballooning to new food sources.

  2. Wendy says:

    I’m assuming generations of snapping turtles have lived in the wetlands. Do you have any ideas as to how they first arrived here?

    • Greg Dodge says:

      Yes, there have probably been many generations of snappers in the Wetlands, there’s a number of generations in there now. They can live to be 30 years old.
      As far as how they originally arrived in the Wetlands, they most certainly must have walked. In fact, all of the five species of turtles that I’ve so far counted in the Wetlands probably walked in from another body of water. Ellerbe Creek is just a few hundreds yards from our Wetlands and there’s a smaller stream only fifty or so yards south of the Wetlands, both easy strolls for any turtle.
      Good question.

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