Wild Ideas: Critter encounters on the Outer Banks, part 2   

As I usually do when I vacation at the Outer Banks, last month I visited the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education (OBCWE), near the Whalehead Club in Corolla, to sign up for two programs they offered.

A friend accompanied me on the first one, a herp (amphibian and reptile) walk at the Audubon Pine Island Sanctuary and Center, on the Currituck Sound side, led by a marine biologist. It took a while to find any, but we finally came across a dead juvenile eastern kingsnake, and a bunch of young, lively five-lined skinks that were skittering around in one sandy patch near a meadow.

While these species are both also common where I live in Rappahannock County, another denizen of the sanctuary that our guide found, a tiny squirrel treefrog, is not. However, it is quite common at the Outer Banks, as I learned on this trip. They were in a PVC collecting tube the sanctuary uses for monitoring the species.

Traveling through a scrubby forest of mainly pine and live oak loaded with acorns, we did see a lot of two species of butterflies — common wood nymph and cloudless sulphur — also common to where I live. While the former often stopped long enough to be photographed, the cloudless sulphurs were constantly on the move, as they were everywhere while I was vacationing at the Outer Banks.

Common wood nymphs were plentiful at an Audubon sanctuary on the Outer Banks in September. By Pam Owen

We also saw spined orb weavers, which are tiny spiders that like to build their webs across forested trails, and antlion larvae (aka doodlebugs), in the Myrmeleontidae insect family. While the adults look similar to dragonflies and are not well understood, the larvae are better known because of the cone-shaped pits they build for their favorite prey — ants. Our guide dug up one at the bottom of a pit, where it backs into the sand to wait for hapless prey to fall in.

In the meadows and around a large pond we passed were a few flowers in bloom, including lovely pink meadow beauties and goldenrod. The pond was also home to lots of dragonflies and frogs, and a great egret was roosting high in a pine tree not far away.

At various places along the walk, we found several species of mushroom, which I’m still trying to identify, in the sandy soil. And we found another squirrel treefrog trying to find a niche in which to sleep on one of the sanctuary’s outbuildings, which also was home to a large black and yellow garden spider guarding her egg case.

The next day, I attended a dragonfly class at OBCWE. As with many of the Center’s programs, the class was targeted at kids, and there were a bunch from two families. We adults stood back while the instructor, wildlife education specialist Sarah Meadows, showed the kids a large plastic dragonfly. She explained a bit about their biology and how to distinguish them from damselflies, their close cousins in the Odonata insect order, and about the importance of both in the local ecosystem. But the highlight of the talk for the kids was when Sarah explained that dragonflies breath through their butts.

Arming the attendees with nets (I declined, since I joined the class mainly to take photos), we went over to the pond at the Whalehead Club. The kids quickly caught several eastern pondhawk dragonflies, which Sarah pulled out of the nets to give the class a better look at them.

Wanting photos of other dragonfly species, I went a few yards to a lush strip of vegetation along the sound, where one of the parents had spotted lots of butterflies. They were nectaring on clusters of tiny white flowers on appeared to me to a be snakeroot plant, which was also blooming back home and was the sole plant blooming in that buffer. Most were painted ladies, mixed in with a few buckeyes and skippers, ailanthus webworm moths and several species of bees. The painted ladies demurely kept their wings closed or flapped them so quickly that I struggled to get photos of them open. Nearby I found a couple of grasshoppers — a bright, yellowish-green differential grasshopper, which has black chevrons on its legs, and another I’ve yet to identify.

I also found diverse dragonfly species, including a black saddlebags (a migrating species), four-spotted pennants and a few more pondhawks. Even more plentiful were damselflies — mostly bright-blue males and more-subdued females. This was the first time I’d tried tried to sort out the species, which is tough even for experts. My best guess, after checking my field guides when I got home, was that most were American bluet species. Bluets mate this time of year, and many of the damselflies were engaged in that.

As a prelude to mating, a male dragonfly or damselfly uses claspers (cerci) at the end of his abdomen to grab the female by the back of her neck, sliding them into species-specific grooves there. The pair of Odonata then stay hooked together for a while. When and if the female is receptive, she curls the sperm-receiving parts at the end of her abdomen up to connect to the male’s secondary sperm depository on his underside to fertilize her eggs.

A male damselfly, likely in the American bluet genus, latches onto a female (left) in preparation for mating, while a second pair are completing the process. By Pam Owen

While the pair can fly slowly while hooked together, they are more vulnerable to predation. As I was attempting to get a shot of the pair of damselflies in question, that point was proven as a female eastern pondhawk swooped in and grabbed both for her breakfast.

Along Currituck Sound, a fierce female eastern pondhawk dragonfly grabs a damselfly couple trying to mate. By Pam Owen

Back at the house, I continued to take beach walks early and late, finding a lightning whelk shell, skate egg cases, empty horseshoe crab shells and lovely little goose barnacles, which had attached to a couple of empty plastic water bottles I retrieved for recycling. A local guide, “Nature Guide to the Carolina Coast,” by Peter Meyer, was a big help in sorting out the shells, along with some of the common birds, crabs, fish and other wildlife in the area.

Critter Encounters on the Outer Banks (part 2) slideshow

(See last week’s column rappnews.com/wildideas for part one of my critter encounters on the Outer Banks, including a slideshow.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”