Delights of the Preserve
The clicking of chorus frogs. The call of the prothonotary warbler. The sight of a Falcate orange-tip butterfly. Catawba College students witness a host of sights and sounds on the college’s 189-acre ecological preserve, where they conduct field research.
Before the first tender green leaf appears on the trees, thousands of chorus frogs assault the ears with their Geiger-counter clicks at every pond and puddle. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and brown creepers flit through the trees in the winter and early spring just as blue-headed vireos and blue-gray gnat-catchers return from the tropics.
“We have the greatest diversity in the spring,” says Dr. Steve Coggin, chair of the Biology Department. “You can see both the winter birds and those that are passing through.”
Dr. Joe Poston, assistant professor of Biology, hopes to see a prothonotary warbler this year. “They are cavity nesters, which is unusual in warblers,” he says. “They specialize in swamp habitat, and our swamp forest in the preserve is just getting old enough to support and attract them.”
With the bright yellow on their head and breast and dark green on their wings and back, they are one of the more striking warblers, says Poston.
One of the benefits of observing birds on migration is that they are often easier to distinguish than they will be when they come back through in the fall, according to Poston. “After some species breed, they molt into a more cryptic plumage, so it’s a good time of the year to get out and see warblers and tanagers that may not breed in the preserve but will nonetheless use it on their way north.”
Red-shouldered hawks nest in the preserve. “The neat thing about having them breeding in the preserve is that during the day a pair will often engage in courtship flights than can be noisy and very conspicuous,” Poston says.
The late spring and early summer are also good times for butterfly watchers. A few species are found only as adults at that time of year. Visitors can find Falcate orange-tips on a warm day in late March or April. Juvenal’s dusky wings, which tend to fly a little later than the orange-tips, emerge in the late spring and early summer. While they are less striking in color than the orange-tips, they often appear in impressive numbers. “You can see dozens of them pretty easily in the late spring and early summer,” Poston says.
We encourage students to observe the vegetation as well. For those who are schooled in wetland communities, the preserve can be interesting indeed, but that takes a trained eye.
Even amateurs can identify swamp mallows, which have hibiscus or hollyhock-type flowers in the summer. The most striking displays in terms of color are in the fall. Fall iron-weed plants are a deep purple. Large expanses of Bidens, whose common name is Spanish needle, exhibit yellow flowers later in the year.
Coggin lists a number of wildflowers that people can observe in the early spring: hepatica, blood-root, iris, windflowers and buttercups.
He also points out that the preserve is home to gray foxes, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and deer. “When I first came, there were no deer,” he says. “Now we have probably 10 to 20.”
One of the most striking sights in the spring is the emergence of the leaves. “In a matter of two weeks you can go from having almost full sun underneath the trees to having 90 percent of the light blocked out,” Coggin says. “The leaf growth is very fast. The whole character of the wood changes. Of course, all those new leaves provide food for the animals and the insects provide food for the birds, so that’s why there is so much more activity in the spring. The availability of food is mostly driven by the leaves.”
The Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve is open to the public. We invite you to come enjoy
a walk with your family and friends today.
This drone footage of the Preserve, flooded, was captured by the Department of Environment and Sustainability post Hurricane Florence, 2018.