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Spring and early summer is baby season for raptors in North Carolina. The most often seen baby raptors in our area are Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Red-tailed Hawks. In this post we will learn how to tell these four species apart when they are babies.

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls are usually the first babies to hatch every year – usually in late February to early March. These silent hunters nest primarily in open nests but can be found in cavities starting in late November. They lay two to three eggs each year. Great Horned Owl babies have yellow eyes and a dark beak.

Barred Owls

Barred Owls begin to nest in late December and are the next species that we see hatch in the Carolinas in April. These owls, familiar because of their friendly “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call, lay two to three eggs in natural cavities in tree trunks. Young Barred Owls have dark eyes and a yellow beak in contrast to Great Horned Owl chicks.

Red-shouldered Hawks

Red-shouldered Hawks begin nesting in early February and hatch in May. These hawks make stick nests in the crotch* of large trees and lay 2-3 eggs. The Red-shouldered Hawk nestling can be identified by its grey-tan eyes and yellow cere** over their beak. These babies are very vocal and may lay down when they are stressed.

Red-tailed Hawks

Red-tailed Hawks start nesting in late February and begin hatching in May. These hawks lay 2-3 eggs in bulky twig nest structures, generally found in tall trees next to open land. The babies have grey eyes, a green-blue cere** and extra large feet. When stressed, they will stick out their tongue.

* A tree crotch is a pocket located at the bottom of a point of connection, between two or more tree limbs or tree trunks.

**The cere is the waxy fleshy covering at the base of a bird’s upper beak.

What do you do if you find a baby on the ground during nesting season? Here is a handy flow chart to help you decide.

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Updated: Jan 20, 2022

by Kristin Rosser, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation

Do you miss the colorful surprise of wildflowers in the winter? You should try looking for mushrooms instead! Winter in the Carolinas is a great time to search for these little wonders of nature. Below are a few common mushrooms you can search for year round– they’re fun to spot and they fill an important role in the ecosystem. Fungi break down detritus to keep our woods clean and are a delectable food source for wild animals like box turtles, squirrels, and bunnies.

Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus spp.)

Oyster mushrooms can be found all over the world, typically on hardwood trees. Foragers delight in discovering these delicious forest delicacies, but be sure to leave identification and harvesting to the experts! The genus name Pleurotus means "side ear," referring to their asymmetrical shape. Oyster mushrooms' identifying characteristics include gills that run partway down the stalk and a unique, hard-to-describe aroma.

photo: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma

Wood Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Aptly named, these mushrooms look like crinkly brown ears. They are one group of “jelly” mushrooms and can most often be found on species of elder. Although these squishy brown mushrooms are not prized for their culinary appeal, they have been used for centuries around the world for medicinal benefits.

photo: Henk Monster

Dog vomit slime mold (Fuligo septica)

Have you ever seen a fungus that looked like vomit? This one is technically not a mushroom but is more closely related to amoebas. They’re a big mass of protoplasm (the goopy stuff inside of the cell) without any cell walls. The lack of cell walls allows them to move around, multiplying in the direction of the decaying material that they eat. They’re very easy to spot because of their bright yellow or orange color.

In my opinion, fungi are fun to find and so fascinating! Maybe they're not as exciting to you as a coneflower or bluebell, but they are no less important to the ecosystem. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for these weird forest-cleaning blobs and thank them for all of the hard work that they do!

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by Joli Reynolds, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation

If you are like me, you get true enjoyment from seeing and recognizing plants and animals in the ecosystem around you. If you are constantly trying to figure out “what is that plant?” you will understand my joy from this recent experience.

A cluster of green among the bare branches of birch in winter.
Eastern mistletoe - Andrew Dunn

Most people who celebrate Christmas are familiar with the tradition of “kissing under the mistletoe.” Did you know that the mistletoe plant is a naturally occurring parasite? You can find wild mistletoe right in your Charlotte neighborhood! When you’re getting your morning exercise, look up in the bare branches of your neighborhood trees. Do you see anything that looks like a small evergreen shrub up there? That’s Phoradendron leucarpum, or eastern mistletoe! (Ask me later how it gets established on the tree, you’ll love the story.)

A reddish plant growing in the bare branches of a shrub, adjacent to a large palmate cactus.
Desert mistletoe - Katja Schulz

Recently I traveled to Palm Springs, CA for a conference of like-minded professionals (other nature nerds). This was my first visit to the Mojave Desert. I found myself in an alien landscape with very little ability to recognize the plants and animals around me. And then I saw it. A reddish shrub with white berries growing right out of the branches of a (later identified) honey mesquite. “You seem familiar,” I thought, “you kind of look like a mistletoe.” Then, pulling out my phone, the Seek app confirmed my suspicion! Desert Mistletoe, or Phoradendron californicum. It was the same genus doing the same job in a completely different ecosystem! Nature is so cool.

The next time you explore an unfamiliar habitat, take some time to look closely and the plants and animals you find. How are they like your old friends back home? What jobs are they doing? We would love you to share your stories and finds with us any time!

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