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Umstead Inspirations Blog

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With over 1.6 million visitors last year, Umstead State Park is certainly well used and well loved by the surrounding community. This park is not only a safe haven for a variety of species of wildlife and plants, but it also supports the health of the surrounding community by providing a respite from the daily grind and an opportunity for communing with nature and exercising the body. Want to know more about what’s happening in the park?

Our blog, Umstead Inspirations, is designed to entertain, educate, enhance appreciation and encourage involvement in upcoming events and volunteer opportunities. We’ll tell you what to look for on a seasonal basis including blooming wildflowers, activities of animals, and weather effects. This is your park, and we welcome your ideas regarding the blog.  Please share the posts to encourage others to visit and enjoy. See you on the trails!

Blog Administrator: Umstead State Park Ranger Billy Drakeford

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  • 06/17/2020 1:35 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Not so long ago, the tails of the dragonfly earned them the name of horse stingers and Devils Darning Needle, where apparently dragonflies would sew up the eyes and ears of children as they slept.  A dragonfly cannot sting of course, but people saw them flying around horse herds where horses suffered noticeably bloody bites from horseflies, and wrongly accused the dragonfly.  I learned some time ago that some dragonflies can and will deliver an impressive pinch/puncture with its mandibles.

    I ran the Environmental Investigators Camp in Charleston, SC, in the 90’s, and one of our parent pleasing take homes was pictures of kids with dragonflies on their noses.  I caught a rather large green darner and placed it on a boy’s nose, and he screamed bloody murder.  It had pierced and bloodied both sides of the bridge of his nose with its mandibles, which bled for an inordinate amount of time and swelled up quite impressively.  That was the sad end of dragonfly pictures and perhaps the beginning of one group of children’s lifelong fear of dragonflies.

    Now a short but necessary side trip into Greek mythology.  Nymphs (think beautiful, alluring, vengeful, spiteful, scantily clad, and easy to anger young maidens) were minor deities, associated with some aspect of nature. A naiad was considered to be a freshwater nymph.  In biology, a nymph is an immature stage of an insect which will metamorphose into a different adult form.  A naiad, in biology, is the same thing but has an immature stage that lives in the water.

    A dragonfly starts its life as a naiad, with an aquatic immature stage that can last a few months up to two years.  A dragonfly naiad is carnivorous and has a modified mouth part that is like a spring-loaded trap.  Their “lower lip” is elongated and jointed and folds nicely under the head.  When prey, up to minnow size, swims by, the “lip” flips out and hooks on the tip sink into the prey and bring it back to the mouth for eating.  My kids and I were doing some aquatic sampling together and they were quite impressed when I pulled the “lip” down with my fingernail to show them.  Both firmly declined to try to do it.

    After molting several times, a naiad climbs out of the water to shed its skin one final time and begin its life as the adult dragonfly we know and love.  Adult dragonflies live, on average, about a month and they spend this time voraciously consuming mosquitoes, midges and mites, thus it is sometimes rightly called the mosquito hawk.  Their adaptations include eyes with up to 30,000 lenses, compared to our one, which gives them almost a 360 degree field of vision.  Their legs come with spines and dangle down in a basket shape to trap insects in the air and the dragonfly dines while it flies.  They are also fast fliers with average speed being in the 20-mph range.

    Mating is an acrobatic, somewhat bizarre affair, that is best seen while described or it can be hard to visualize.   That they have been around for some 300 million years is proof of its effectiveness but still, it seems a tad rough.  Hit the video to see them in all their mating weirdness.  Parents beware, there is strong sexual content of the insect kind here.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZuggJQHmko

    Big kudos to the first person who sends me a picture with a dragonfly on their nose!

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

  • 06/11/2020 3:18 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    In a continuation of Ranger Billy’s #woodlandtales, we find ourselves at a historic homestead. This has both National Park and NC State Park significance. Watch Ranger Billy on Umstead State Park's Instagram's IGTV channel now.


  • 05/15/2020 3:14 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Everybody likes a success story and the Red Fox certainly is, with the largest geographical range of any carnivore.  I see gray foxes much more here, so it is always special when I see a red fox.  The last one I saw at was near Oak Rock Trail and its reddish orange coat, black ears and its white tipped tail was beyond gorgeous.  I stood there for a good five minutes having a stare down with him like Clint Eastwood at the end of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, wondering how such a brightly garbed animal can be so successful.  It would be like a ninja wearing a pumpkin suit and remaining stealthy and unseen.

    The red fox, though clearly belonging in the canine(dog) family, has many feline(cat) characteristics.  Red foxes have long cat like vibrissae(whiskers), similar long thin knife-like canine(the longer front pair)teeth, and do not shake prey to death like other members of the dog family.  Like the cats, they exert continuous pressure with their canine teeth until the prey’s central nervous system is overwhelmed.  They also have feline like claws which can partially retract and similar cat like balance.  The eye of the fox has a catlike vertical slit as well.

    Red foxes look heavier than they are, weighing between 6 and 12 pounds in the south and about 40 inches long.  They have 42 teeth, keen vision, exquisite hearing and sense of smell.  One legend about its hearing is that they can hear a wristwatch tick from 100 yards.  They are first class sprinters and have been recorded at 45 miles per hour, which is fast enough for adult foxes to outrun or out maneuver coyotes, dogs, or wolves.   

    Umstead red foxes here breed in late fall and early winter, with their gestation/term of pregnancy being 52 to 53 days.  Between the bathroom and the Big Lake parking lot, red foxes have used a den hole there for years but skipping the last two years.  Ranger Nick had a great picture of some pups here gnawing on a deer leg outside the den hole, not 5 feet off a social trail.  The fact that he did not share this with me until months later is still a bone of contention between us.  I attributed this grotesque selfishness to his youth and hope he will gain more of the sharing spirit later in life. 

    Many authorities have noticed red foxes are denning closer and closer to humans when coyotes are present.  Coyotes, of course, will kill any fox they can catch being about 1/3 bigger and viewing foxes as competition.  Coyotes, however, are on the losing end of the stick with wolves in the same way.  The smaller canine must adapt, move or die.  It is the canine way. 

    One historical story is that early highbrow colonists imported red foxes to hunt in the colonies due to hunts of grey foxes that ended rather quickly with the grey foxes climbing trees.  This led to the myth that there were no red foxes in America, which was not true.  Red foxes that were up north, started to move south with the forest opening, which matches their preference of woods and open areas.  Recent tests of red foxes show no European genetic markers.   

    If you are interested in learning more about foxes, J. David Henry has an excellent book called How to Spot a Fox.  Enjoy the next video of a red fox scream and pay attention to how fast it turns at about second nine.  I have heard this sound at night here at Umstead.  The fox here looks like it just wanted to play.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBpZTo1dlPM

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy


  • 05/11/2020 3:35 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Today Ranger Billy shifts gears and delves into some of our park’s history with unfinished millstones that can still be seen if you know where to look. Watch Ranger Billy on Umstead State Park's Instagram's IGTV channel now.


  • 05/06/2020 5:05 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Ranger Billy explores boughs of holly, gets a visit from a hoppy friend, and shares some tidbits on a flower not frequently seen by visitors in the park. Watch Ranger Billy on the Umstead State Park Instagram IGTV channel now.


  • 04/15/2020 11:43 AM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    I am not saying I should have been referred to a child psychologist for troubled children, but looking back, my propensity to massacre scores of innocent creatures could have been worthy of a visit.  I truly liked eastern tent caterpillars and shivered in delight at how they felt walking up my arms. This, however, did not stop me and my friends from climbing trees with our bb guns, setting up sniper positions and trying to blow away every caterpillar that came out of the nest. 

    I stopped sharing these childhood stories with my wife, as they seemed to trouble her.  Her stories of her European childhood seem to be straight out of the Sound of Music, which frankly troubles me.

    The good news is that during my insect safaris, I did learn quite a bit about these tent caterpillars as a boy.  I learned that they hatched from a waterproof, hard-black case that encircled the twigs. The photo shows a case cut in half with the yellow eggs in the center.       

    Once they hatch, the caterpillars immediately set out to build the familiar web that you see every spring.  This web continually expands to house the growing caterpillars and away from the feces dump in the middle.  There is some evidence that inside the nest can be 2 to 3 degrees higher than outside temperatures, which is important in early spring.

    Their hatching always coincided with the leaves coming out, which makes sense because it is then when the leaves are the most nutritious.  This is important because caterpillars must grow as fast as possible to avoid bird predation, parasitoid wasps, and other bug predators. 

    After dissecting one nest, I noticed the tree branches had lines of silk that caterpillars left on the way out and back.  Later, I read that caterpillars returning from more nutritious feeding areas somehow broadcast this fact in their returning silk lines, as more caterpillars would follow these lines over the others.  That is nature cool.

    After molting five times, the caterpillars disperse in solitary journeys to find a safe place under boards, beneath bark, or some other protected nook to start the next step in their journey, the pupa stage.  This is the stage where they are in a cocoon and one of nature’s most magical transformation occurs; that of a caterpillar becoming a moth or butterfly.    

    These little moths are not long for the world; their only task is to mate and lay eggs for the next season.  Perhaps having such a short adult life is for the best, as Aldo Leopold once said “Adult hood is merely a dilution of the essentials, worn down by the trivialities of living. (Paraphrased)

    On a side note, my son seems to have the same proclivity to go on insect safaris as well.  Once he burns it out of his system as I did, the boy might become the nature nerd his father became.  I can only hope.  Enjoy this video of a shedding tent caterpillar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_A83dRYqbw 

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

  • 03/16/2020 2:34 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Flowering dogwoods have always been an integral part of my life, and their beauty in the spring and throughout the year is unsurpassed.  North Carolinians, Virginians and Missourians proudly call it their state tree.  I can’t imagine a spring without them, and I watch for their beautiful white bracts with eager anticipation.  It would not be out of bounds to clap when you see them.  It is that good.  George Washington himself, planted a circle of dogwoods with a redbud in the middle at Mount Vernon.  This act was visionary and proof of his worthiness to be our first president in my opinion.

    While climbing dogwoods as a boy, I learned that they were tough and hard to break.  They were some in the woods I climbed and bent over till they dropped me on the ground.  One, me and my friend Rudy  would climb together and make it bend with our combined weight till one of us dropped off near the ground, thereby sending the other back up with the tree.  I later found that dogwood was used in the textile industry due to this strength and high resistance to splitting. 

    Dogwood has had some obsolete uses in the past.  When the southern ports were blockaded during the Civil War, medicine was hard to come by, so the southern soldiers used a lot of natural remedies.  Dogwood bark was the south’s answer to malaria when they couldn’t get quinine.  Before this, some native American tribes used the roots to make a scarlet dye.

    Dogwood is also known to be an important wildlife food plants, feeding many birds, and mammals like rabbits, gray squirrels, chipmunks and deer.  I have watched groups of birds gorging on dogwood fruit in the fall and it always seems a raucous affair.  The bitter fruit is considered unpalatable for humans. 

    Here is a story from Ernest Thompson Seton in his classic book, Woodland Tales called “The Devil and the Dogwood.”  It was Adam’s favorite tree they say, in the Garden of Eden.  It grew so high and gave so much pleasure that the Devil wanted to kill it.  He made up his mind that he would blight and scatter every shining leaf of its snowy bloom. 

    So, one dark night he climbed a Honey Locust tree near the gate, and swung by his tail over the wall, intending to tear off its lovely blossoms.  But he got a shock when he found that every blossom was in the shape of a cross, which put them beyond his power to blight.  He was furious at not being able to destroy its beauty, so he did the worst he could.  Keeping away from the cross, he bit a piece out of the edge of every snowy flower leaf, and then jumped back to the Honey Locust tree. 

    The Locust was so ashamed when she found that she had helped the Devil to do such a mean bit of mischief, so she grew a bristling necklace of strong thorns to wear;  they were so long and sharp that no one since, not even the Devil himself has ever been able to climb that Honey Locust tree.

    But it was too late to save the Dogwood bloom.  The bites were out, and they never healed up again, as you can see to this day. 

    On a natural history note on this story; the notch that devil bit out in the story is a remnant of the bracts former function as bud scales that protected the flower in the winter.

    Know more to see more,

     

    Ranger Billy


  • 02/13/2020 9:57 AM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Bluejays are in the Corvidae family, which includes Ravens, Crows, and Magpies. This family includes our largest passerines (perching birds/songbirds) and is without a doubt, taken as a whole, the brains of the U.S. bird world. The term “Bird Brain” is meant as an insult but studies of the Corvid family should turn this insult into a compliment. If you want to read how smart the Corvids are, read the “The Genius of Birds,” by Jennifer Ackerman.

    My relationship with jays have changed since I was a boy. They were the annoying guardian of the forest then, scaring away my b.b./.22 gun prey with their raucous “Sneaakk, Sneaakk.” I learned at an early age that the whole forestlistens to bird alarms and responds accordingly.  It took me quite a bit longer to learn that I could take advantage of these alarms myself.  But that is a tale for another time.

    I have been in the woods when I heard a rowdy group of jays coming near, screaming, making hawk sounds, seemingly just to disrupt the woods and have fun.  It reminded me of a loud bunch of teenagers at the beach, loud and obnoxious, reveling in their fun and annoyance of others. They take this behavior to a new level when they are mobbing hawks or owls. They gather around the offending bird and scream together and dive at them until the big birds move off or the blue jays tire of it.  I have, however, seen some owls and hawks who were Zen masters of ignoring this hubbub around them.

    Perhaps like me, you have seen a Jay prey upon a sparrow, warbler or vireo. Watching them use their heavy bill to kill a hatchling never failed to disturb me as a boy, but as I grew older, I adopted the classic James Bond biological theme song of “Live and Let die.”  Jays are mainly vegetarians, primarily eating nuts, fruits, and seeds, and the forest is thankful that they are. They are cachers, burying acorns and other nuts for winter use, and the fact that many go unclaimed results in new oaks and beeches each year.  It is thought that Bluejays took a major role in quickly reestablishing trees up north when the last glaciers retreated.

    Jays are beautiful in that way where you are thunderstruck, standing with your mouth open.  Maybe it is just me.  I pick up a lot of things in the woods, some that horrified my mother when she found them in the freezer when I was young, and I still find joy in every bluejay feather I find.  For fun, check out this bluejay video, from a self-named bird nerd who has some great bird videos.  If you don’t think jays are beautiful by the end of the video, then maybe it’s time for a long sabbatical and time of introspection into who you are and why you are like you are.

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy


  • 01/14/2020 4:53 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    I remember trail running at small county park in Plano, Texas, some years back, and I cut off a side trail and came face-to-face with a coyote coming from the opposite direction. We froze six feet from each other, and he showed no signs of animosity. His yellow eyes possessed equal parts of awareness, curiosity, and intelligence. I don’t know how long this moment lasted ‘til he loped off to the right, but I still remember his eyes so vividly.

    I ask kids which animal was known as the trickster/creator/fool/magician by many native American tribes. No answer. When I next compare this animal to ninjas with their skills to live or move through an area unseen, disappear quickly, have a multitude of tricks up their sleeves, yet currently have more reported sightings in Wake County than other N.C. counties, the kids get interested but still have no answers. It proves the old maxim: out of sight out of mind.

    Coyotes are indeed among us, in all 100 North Carolina counties, and they have proven themselves unstoppable, unlike the mountain lion and some bears and wolves, which were driven/hunted/trapped out of the East. The smaller, stealthier and more adaptable coyote has withstood all attempts to drive its population down. In the Carolinas, you can hunt coyotes all year with a hunting license and this hasn’t put a dent in their population. Even if you could reduce the local coyote population by 90%, studies have shown that they can replace the population numbers in 5 years.

    Rangers here in Umstead see coyotes frequently, but we still tell each other each time we see one. One has a route that comes about 150 yards from my residence; often enough to make me nervous with my four-year-old playing in the yard by herself. Coyotes rarely attack people, but attacks are happening here and there throughout the state, both rabid and non-rabid coyotes. The problem is likely to increase in the future; just read about packs roaming neighborhoods in Charlotte. The following link is about little girl from Illinois that would have been attacked had she not turned around at the last millisecond. 

    Coyotes are in the season of love right now, and the Alpha couples are still courting or have already mated by now here in the South. Gestation is generally around 63 days, and litter size (4-7) adjusts for population density and food abundance. At my boyhood home in South Carolina, I became good at locating grey fox dens, but to date, the coyotes have skunked me. I continually look in tight brushy areas for a hole entrance being around one foot wide, and I remain hopeful.

    Pups can be seen as early as three weeks outside their den, and their parents — and sometimes young from the previous year — feed and care for them. They disperse in autumn or winter with a typical dispersal range from 25 to 100 miles. This is the most dangerous time of their lives, and mortality is frequently high. If they make it to adulthood, they survive by being so adaptable in their ways and diet. According to Mark Elbroch (fantastic author on tracking and animals), a study in Missouri identified 47 animal and 27 plant foods that coyotes eat. That is a diverse diet indeed.

    I’ll end this article with a quote you might have heard: “In case of a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches will be the only survivors.” People who know coyotes will probably add them to this list. Enjoy a good audio of coyote sounds that might help you discover that coyotes live close to you.

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

  • 12/17/2019 10:11 AM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    I went to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving in South Carolina, and when I put my dog in the backyard, I turned over a metal pail to use as a water bowl.  My fingers were a good 8 inches away from the Black Widow, but it still caused a visceral reaction due to a horrific story I have carried since childhood of my Uncle Archie being bitten in the gonads while in the outhouse.  I think about it every time I go by the outhouse at Youth Tent Camp.

    Taken by itself, the black widow female is a beautiful spider.  The black part is so dark in fact that it seems like a menacing, though slightly gleaming, little black hole.  I guess what I am trying to say is that there is a dark night of the soul, and then there is the black widow female dark night of the soul.  And then when you are getting pulled into that blackness, the vivid red hourglass appears to repulse and push you away. 

    On a fun note, Gary Larson of Far Side Comics fame,  penned the Spider Personals where you see ad after hilarious ad of Black Widow female personals trying to get a mate.  Black Widows are not the only spiders, or insects for that matter, to eat their mate after sealing the deal.  Though this does not happen all the time, it occurs frequently.  I have often wondered how many human males would still proceed knowing they may be devoured afterwards. 

    Nowadays, the black widow can be found under rocks, boards, stonewalls, water and electric meters, garages, crawl spaces and other dark and damp areas.  They can inhabit closets and live under appliances, furniture and even seldom worn shoes.  The best way to not get bitten is to stay alert and wear gloves if you are frolicking about in such places.  If you see one and want it to die, then spray insecticide on it and the problem will be solved.  You can even spot treat an area if you worry about an infestation.  However, please know that black widows in general are the poster children of minding their own business.

    If by chance you are bitten, then you may be in for a rough couple of days.  Pain may last for eight to twelve hours and the other symptoms may continue for days.  The best plan is to get to a medical facility, especially for younger kids and pregnant women.  There is antivenin available now for this bite, and doctors will determine if you need it.  There are possible side effects from the antivenin.

    One arachnologist, W.J. Baerg, in an inspired attempt to further scientific knowledge, coerced a black widow bite him in 1922.  His account was documented by Paul Hillyard, the “spider guy” at London Natural History Museum and it reads, “The pain at first was faint but very soon began to increase into a sharp piercing sensation.  In less than one hour the pain had reached the shoulder and within two hours the chest was affected; the diaphragm seemed partially paralyzed, breathing and speech became spasmodic.  After 5 hours, the pain extended to the legs and after 9 hours I was taken to a hospital.  A severe nausea and excruciating pain not only kept me awake but kept me moving throughout the night.  I left the hospital after three days but found that recovery was not complete; a feeling of wretchedness remained for a couple of days.”

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

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The Umstead Coalition

We are dedicated to preserving the natural integrity of William B. Umstead State Park and the Richland Creek Corridor.