Of Galls and Coyotes
You know summer is here when you start to see Monarch butterflies.
They have finally reached Boone this week after a winter siesta in Mexico. This naturalist is still amazed that those small, delicate creatures can fly so far.
Not all butterflies migrate, however. The black, blue and orange pipevine swallowtail over-winters in its chrysalis. I have spied several of its caterpillars munching on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Dutchman’s pipe vine.
This vine has heart-shaped leaves and is common in our local forests. Turn the leaves over and you will find the beautiful pipevine caterpillar, which is black with red spines. Touch the caterpillar and it will release its protective neon yellow spines that drip with a toxin that would sicken the bird who tries to eat it.
Two great questions came in this week from locals who have kept their eyes and ears open to remarkable occurrences on the Blue Ridge Parkway:
When we were walking around Bass Lake, I saw galls on some of the rhododendron there and got home to find them on some of mine, as well. I know a little about galls but wanted to ask if you could identify the culprit and also if there is anything I should do about them?
– Norma Goldman
It’s hard not to notice the galls, which have popped up on our rhododendron this year. They are white, warty and everywhere. What are these little tumors? Fungi.
The wet, humid spring was the perfect environment for the Exobasidium fungus to colonize not only our rhododendron, but also the azaleas and laurels. It starts out as small green bumps on the underside of the leaves and eventually grows to the white lumps that are easier to see. At their white stage, they are releasing spores.
Eventually, they turn brown, dry up, and fall off.
These fungus galls are not a serious problem, but can be disconcerting because of their appearance. They generally do not contribute to long-term plant health issues.
The best way to rid your home rhododendron of the fungus gall is to hand pick the affected leaves before the fungus turns white. If it has already reached the white stage, prune the leaves back and replace your mulch.
I have been hearing coyotes at night from my porch down in Triplett. Today I saw one on my way to work near BRP Milepost 287. I have lived here on and off since the 1970s and have never seen a coyote before. Is the coyote population growing around here? If so, why? Are they taking advantage of a declining fox population?
– Jeff Eason
The coyote’s presence in the East has been a subject of controversy since they first showed up in the Southern Appalachian Mountains 30 years ago.
When the Europeans first immigrated to North America, coyotes primarily lived in the West and Midwest. As of 2005, they could be found in every county in North Carolina.
The coyote’s range has expanded in the wake of human civilization. As development increased in their native West, they began to migrate east. This migration was made easy by the fact that they are very adaptive and that we have done a pretty good job at killing off their main competition: wolves.
It seems that the coyotes have found our area to be a great place to find meals and raise young. Their presence here is stable and well-established.
I spotted one at dawn a few weeks ago hunting for mice near the Cone cemetery in Blowing Rock. They’re also known to eat rabbits, fawns, groundhogs, insects, snakes and birds. The occasional lamb or calf might make it on the list, hence the controversy.
Foxes? In every instance where the relationship between coyotes and red foxes has been studied, red fox populations decrease as coyote populations increase. This occurs due to coyotes killing, but not necessarily consuming, their close competitor, the fox.
Coyotes are considered a natural species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They do fill a much needed predator niche. However, our own Blue Ridge Parkway has yet to make a judgment call.
One thing is for sure: coyotes are here to stay. Even extreme measures to eradicate them have been unsuccessful in the past. Whenever coyote populations have been significantly lowered, the remaining coyotes respond by producing larger litter sizes (12 to 14 pups rather than five to seven), which results in even higher populations.
If you have a question about the Blue Ridge Parkway or its flora and fauna, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) All of your questions will be answered. Two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!
Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. ‘Dear Naturalist’ is a weekly column devoted to the questions you have about our natural world.