This article appears in the August issue of 400 Life.
With its many parks, wooded areas and generous access to Lake Lanier, Forsyth County is brimming with natural wildlife.
In just a few minutes you can be walking down the Greenway looking for birds and deer or out on a boat in Lake Lanier watching fish jump and turtles bask in the sun.
But what are some of the more interesting animals or insects that live in our county? The ones you have to go out of your way and get lucky to see.
To answer that question, 400 Life sat down with Jenny Demos, environmental education coordinator for Forsyth County Parks and Recreation, to talk about five of the more elusive and rare creatures that call our county home.
Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica
Distinct with its bright blue plumage and daubed mud nests, the barn swallow is easily one of the most interesting birds to roost in Forsyth County.
Often seen flying over bodies of water, pastures and other open areas, Demos said that the barn swallow is almost constantly in motion, skimming down over water and tall grass to eat insects on the wing or scoop up water and other materials to build mud nests for its young.
According to Demos, each year this small, migratory bird travels hundreds of miles, crossing the Gulf of Mexico from South America to build nests, earning its title as a “trans-gulf migrant.”
“The amazing thing is that they are flying all the way from South America … and in order to do that they’ve got to keep flying non-stop the entire way,” she said. “They could be going 600 miles in one trip before they can stop and put down.”
Demos said that in the 1800s the barn swallow was fiercely hunted for its bright blue feathers, which were sought after and highly valued for women’s hats. But along with more than 800 species of migratory birds, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to hunt, kill, capture or take any part of the barn swallow or its nest.
Look for the barn swallow in meadows, fields, farmyards or over water. Its nests can often be found on manmade structures like homes, barns, stables and bridges.
Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata
When you are a fragile creature struggling for survival, with very little to defend yourself, sometimes the best offense is to just blend into the background, becoming just a mossy spot on a log or a leaf blowing in the wind.
And that’s exactly what the Northern Walkingstick has become an expert at, according to Demos.
At first glance the Northern Walkingstick appears to be just an oddly shaped twig, clinging on to a tree or whatever else it can find, but on closer inspection this clever insect is a master of disguise that has adapted its behavior and looks to fly under the radar of predators.
“Camouflage is their game,” Demos said. “They’ll hang out and act like sticks in a tree, but if you see them and disturb them, they actually will hold on with their legs and shimmy back and forth like they are a stick being blown in the wind.”
Demos says that in Forsyth County, the Northern Walkingstick can be found in or near the tree canopy, where it spends most of its time eating leaves and trying not to be noticed by predators.
Cope’s Gray Treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis
Like the Northern Walkingstick, Cope’s gray treefrog opts for neither fight nor flight, instead choosing to blend into the background when predators are around.
It can’t match the chameleon for color changing ability, but according to Demos, Cope’s gray treefrog has the interesting ability to morph its coloring and pattern to fit whatever tree or rock it hides on.
Spending much of its day hiding in cool, moist locations, Demos says that this little grey frog comes out at night to eat swarms of pest insects like mosquitoes, gnats and flies.
“They like to live in the understory area of forests and wooded areas,” she said. “They need to be relatively close to some sort of area that will flood in the spring, like a wetland area. They will lay their eggs in places where there are no fish.”
Look for the Cope’s gray treefrog in those forest and wetland areas, but be careful when handling. Demos says that the frog’s skin can secrete a toxic substance to deter predators.
Groundhog, Marmota monax
For an animal so totally ingrained in the popular consciousness, it’s pretty amazing how much interesting stuff about the groundhog or woodchuck goes totally unnoticed.
From its habits and physiology to its dope crib, this “giant ground squirrel” has got a lot going for itself.
According to Demos, the groundhog is often found on the edges of wooded areas were there’s plenty of weedy plants like clover, alfalfa and dandelions to munch on.
Demos said that typically the groundhog makes two burrows each year, one closer to feeding sites for the summer and one deeper in forests for the winter.
But the groundhog’s burrow isn’t just some hole in the ground to curl up and sleep in. Demos says that this giant rodent builds a home full of different chambers for sleeping, nursing, hibernating and pooping.
Even though you probably won’t be able get a look at the groundhog’s sweet digs, Demos said that many other animals like foxes, skunks and snakes are happy to pick up the lease after the groundhog has moved on to a new location.
Demos said to look for the groundhog in those grassy open areas, but don’t get too close. You’ll know you’ve startled one when you hear the signature high-pitched whistle that its other nickname, whistle pig, came from.
Eastern Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to lift and move 100 times your own weight?
Well, for the Eastern Hercules beetle, the largest beetle species in the eastern United States, that dream is daily life.
Starting out as a huge hairy grub eating decaying wood under fallen trees, the Eastern Hercules beetle eventually becomes a hulking tank-like insect that feeds on rotting fruit and tree sap.
Demos said that while rather passive and defenseless in the grub stage, adult male Eastern Hercules beetles have large pincers on the front of their head used to fight other males during the breeding season. She said that male beetles will lock horns and attempt to flip each other over.
Look for the Eastern Hercules beetle in areas with stands of fallen trees, but according to Demos, your chances of finding one will really depend on where you are and what season it is.