Mild temperatures and dry conditions during much of the month of December led to some rather unlikely sightings of the insect variety at Lake James State Park. Winter is a time of dormancy for butterflies in North Carolina, but on several warm and sunny days we recorded Eastern comma, cloudless sulphur and even a monarch flitting around the park. The warm weather may also be responsible for the out-of-season sparring Ranger Jamie Cam- eron observed between two wild turkeys. On a recent outing below the Catwaba River Dam, Ranger Cameron spotted a large, dark shape moving through a grove of pine trees that he thought was a black bear. The “alleged” bear turned out to be a tom turkey, puffed up and strutting back and forth in an attempt to intimidate a rival male. Normally, such behavior is relegated to the spring breeding season, but tom turkeys will occasionally strut and flex their muscles during other times of year.
At the same time, winter birds are present, including an unusual dark-eyed junco. Fraternizing with the normal “slate-colored” juncos that breed in the high elevations and boreal forests of the East, is a single “Oregon” junco, hanging out in the native landscaping in front of the Paddy’s Creek Area office building. The “Oregon” subspecies is distinct from the “slate-colored” in that it’s back feathers are a warm brown color, giving the impression the bird is wearing a bib. The “Oregon” subspecies is normally found along the Pacific coast and winters in the Great Plains. It is quite likely this individual is the same “Oregon” junco that appeared last winter at the same location.
With most of the green foliage gone from the landscape, winter is an excellent time to take inventory of the invasive plant species trying to gain a foothold in the park. Once the growing season begins, park staff will once again take up arms against intruding kudzu vines, groves of Chinese privet, sapling mimosas and a host of others.