The Arthropods of San Francisco (and beyond)

What’s that crawling under your bed… sitting in your light fixture… lurking in your cabinets? Perhaps it’s a new insect species! The Arthropods of Our Homes project has expanded beyond Raleigh — to San Francisco, and from there all seven continents will be sampled for the common arthropods in homes. Watch the video to see more about the arthropods found in San Francisco homes as well as some familiar faces (Matt Bertone and Michelle Trautwein).

“Other than a few pest species, we know very little. There’s still a lot to discover… You don’t have to be an […]

Invasion of the House Finch

Once upon a time, House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) only lived west of the Rocky Mountains. Then, in 1940, a group of captive birds flew to freedom from their New York cages. Their numbers slowly grew until there was a population explosion. Today, House Finches reside throughout the U.S. and Mexico.

There’s a downside to dense populations though – disease. In the 1990s, a bacterium (Mycoplasma gallisepticum) started swirling among groups of House Finches. The infection causes conjunctivitis (like “pinkeye”) in the birds. If you’re a bird with swollen eyelids and crusty build up, you’re not going to be very good at […]

By | April 22nd, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Gnarly Trees

Branches of the live oak (Quercus virginiana) loop and twist their way toward openings in the forest canopy. Many branches sag down to the ground before stretching back up again.

These low branches help the oak survive in the hurricane-prone regions of the southeastern US. Short, wide trees resist strong winds better than tall, thin ones.

Those curvy branches helped the USS Constitution stay afloat during the War of 1812. Live oak limbs were frequently used in ship building due to their natural bends, strength and density.

By | March 30th, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Help locate the coughing frog!

You may have heard of a newly described species of leopard frog, the Atlantic Coast leopard frog (Rana kauffeldi) — also known as the coughing frog (main image, above). The chief zoologist at the New York Natural Heritage Program, Dr. Matthew Schlesinger, has organized efforts to learn more about the range of this newly described frog species with the support of a Regional Conservation Needs grant.

Where is this coughing frog and when can I find it?

The map of where participants can hear and record the coughing calls of the Atlantic Coast leopard frog can be seen below […]

By | March 12th, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Participate|0 Comments

Cold Feet, Warm Heart

Raleigh has had a fit of cold, snowy (and icy) weather this week. So while I watched this snow-covered Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) swim around an icy lake near my house, I couldn’t help but think “Brrrrr.”

The core temperature of a goose, wrapped in its fluffy down coat, is ~104° Fahrenheit. But what about those feet? They must be freezing!

In a way, they are. The feet of this goose are only ~35°. As warm blood from the body travels to the toes, it transfers heat to the blood making the return trip. By the time the blood reaches the […]

By | February 27th, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Look but don’t touch

Watching Out for Nesting Birds

Look but don’t touch. This was a lesson I learned early on as a young boy, staring intently along with my grandmother at a bird nest. Inside a shrub-like tree, a bowl of straw lay almost hidden. Within it, several nestlings, their mouths wide open, were awaiting their next meal.

After a quick look, we hurried away, soon noticing that the mother robin returned with sustenance for her young. Folklore, of course, advises people to not harm bird nests, for doing so was commonly thought to bring bad luck (1). However, for many […]

By | February 23rd, 2015|Education, Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|1 Comment

The Fashionable and Practical Turkey Vulture

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) remind me of 16th century European royalty (you know those “ruffs” they wore around their necks?). That regal appearance results from a bald head, which keeps the birds a little cleaner as they dig around in decomposing roadkill.

Evolving with bacteria goes beyond losing some feathers though. After all, if you ate rotten meat, you’d get sick. Vultures, however, have extremely acidic digestive tracks and host special gut bacteria that help them digest those rotten meals.

Oh, and don’t bother vultures while they’re feeding. They’re known to vomit as a defense mechanism.

p.s. Robert Krulwich of […]

By | January 22nd, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Who’s in My House?

Tiny rustling noises arise from our kitchen garbage can. I tip-toe up to it and out pops a little fuzzy face with a twitching nose. Then it’s gone… and I head to the closet for a couple live traps.

Many mice and voles have made my house their own over the years (before I gently suggest they live elsewhere).

Is my new tenant a MOUSE or a VOLE?

Need a hint?
MICE have long tails, long snouts, long ears and protruding eyes.
VOLES have short tails and teddy bear faces with small, rounded ears, button eyes and a smooshed snout.

Curious about what’s the […]

By | January 13th, 2015|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art, Urban Ecology|0 Comments

Talking Turkey Parts

The male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), weighing in at around 20 pounds, is one of the largest birds in North America. By comparison, many domestic turkeys — the kind you’ll likely be feasting on at the Thanksgiving table — weigh twice as much. Female wild turkeys are roughly half the size of the male.

turkey_parts

The heads of male wild turkeys are featherless and colorful, with odd sounding structures: the snood, caruncles, and wattle. Their head can even change color depending on the turkey’s mood. Blue means “Hey, good lookin’!” Red means “I’m […]

By | November 26th, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard|0 Comments

A Study in Scarlet

No doubt you’ve been wowed this autumn by the crimson colors of the red maple (Acer rubrum)!

This tree, native to eastern North America, has grown even more numerous in the past 100 years. When the Chestnut Blight and Dutch Elm Disease swept through eastern deciduous forests, it opened up space for the hardy red maple to move in.

Add in the tree’s popularity in landscaping (and its tolerance to a wide range of environmental conditions: sunny or shady, high or low nutrients, dry or moist soil) and you have one of the most common trees in America!

By | November 10th, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

Spooky Spider

I love Halloween. It’s the time of year when I can leave all the spider webs up around the front stoop and call them decorations.

This harmless garden spider, the Black and Yellow Argiope (Argiope aurantia) is not long for the world. She’ll die soon as the nights grow colder. But I’ll keep an eye on her wee ones in the egg sac she left by the railing. In the spring the baby spiders will hatch out, spin a little silk parachute to catch the breeze and sail away to a new home!

Learn more about the garden spider by revisiting

June Beetle Boogie

Because I’m an Entomology graduate student, meeting people is often like this:

Me: Hi, my name is Emily.
New friend:
Hi Emily, what do you do?
Me: I study insects.
New friend: OMG, that’s so cool. So, I have these ____ on my _____  . Do you know what they are?**

(**I just realized doctors probably have similar conversations, but the blanks are filled with stuff I can’t fathom.)

These interactions usually leave me feeling like an imposter, because there are too many insects in the world, too many in our backyards even, to know them all. Plus, observation is the step of science I’m not […]

By | October 27th, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard, Urban Ecology, Video|1 Comment

A Tale of Two Hemlocks

I have never poisoned anyone. I recently learned that if I were to try, I would be very bad at it. The hemlock I thought was poisonous turns out to just have an unfortunate common name. And rather than brewing up a batch of tainted tonic, I would apparently make my intended victim an aromatic cup of tea loaded in Vitamin C.

While hiking around the Appalachians this past weekend, I spied tons of hemlock trees. “What a great post for October and Halloween… Hemlock!” I thought and pulled out my sketchbook.

Sketch done, I hopped online to find out just

By | October 21st, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|0 Comments

A visit from the garden spider

This past week I noticed something other than Brussels sprouts in my garden — a beautiful garden spider!

I did what any curious entomologist and gardener would do… I got as close as I could and took a picture and watched in amazement as she sat and waited surrounded by meals in little to-go containers of silk in her web. A week later I stopped by to say my daily greeting to her and noticed she was gone, her web reduced to a single strand connecting my rosemary to my tarragon. And then something moved out of the corner of my […]

By | October 16th, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard|5 Comments

Warts & All!

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.

Shakespeare’s witches open Macbeth by tossing a toad into their cauldron, along with parts of snakes, newts, bats and other dejected, unfortunate creatures. Why such a bad rap? After all, people LOVE frogs – they turn into princes and are considered quite lucky by some cultures. But toads? Feared, reviled. What’s the big difference?

Toads (like the American toad, Bufo americanus, pictured above) tend to live in drier environments than frogs. In the frog’s aquatic environment, escape is just a hop away. For toads, though, warts are the key to survival. The […]

By | October 8th, 2014|Nature in Your Backyard, Science Art|1 Comment