Category Archives: Nature


Last Saturday I took Levi up to Gramma and Grampa’s place in Watauga County, NC, otherwise known as “Mielke Mountain.” At 4,000 feet, the temperatures are usually 12-15 degrees cooler than Durham. It was wonderful to escape the oppressive heat for a little while.

This time we didn’t bring our tent, due to the presence of two black bears  on the property. A couple of nights before, one of the bears decided it would be fun to visit the front porch and eat some birdseed out of one of Gramma Sue’s feeders. Unfortunately, bear habitat destruction and a rebounding black bear population in the area means we are seeing more of them.

Gramma Sue was a little freaked out about us romping around the 12-acre property with the bears so close by. Since we  forgot to bring our bear bells, she hooked us up with some cow bells from my great grandfather’s village in Switzerland. How fitting, since the flag of the Canton Bern is the bear!

As we played, I was filled with immense gratitude for having grown up in one of the most beautiful places in the country. It was wonderful having the opportunity to share  some of those same childhood experiences in nature with my own son.

Our first day there we headed down to the creek to see if the dam we built last summer was holding.  There it was, still intact, holding back a nice pool of water—and some crawdads had moved in. I told Levi we’d created a crawdad hole and showed him how to pick up a crawdad without getting pinched. His excitement was contagious and I just had to get it on video.

We also found several large salamanders–too elusive for us to catch or photograph. I was glad to see them, as it seems there are fewer of them than in the past. North Carolina has over 60 species of them.

We woke up one morning to a beautiful scene of cloud-draped mountains. Levi exclaimed, “The clouds fell on the mountains.”

The whole week I’d been thinking about that wonderful summer of 1979, 40 years ago, in Boone, NC. Those beautiful, sometimes foggy summer mornings where you needed a light jacket, at least for the first hour of the day. Days spent swinging on grapevines, catching salamanders, picking wildflowers.  A more innocent time for sure. Our town seemed like a small village back then. That summer, when, for a brief period of time our little town was in  the national spotlight after the world’s largest windmill, built on Howard’s Knob, was completed.

How fun it was to relive some of those experiences.

The Fledglings

Our 3 bluebird babies. born on Easter Sunday, left the nest on day 17. It was a remarkable experience to see these little things on the day they were born–tiny and hairless, like little pink shrimp.

We were all amazed at how quickly they developed. By day 4, we could make out their eyes–still fused shut. When I peeked in, they opened their little mouths, thinking it was feeding time.  They were still covered with soft, gray down.

After a week or so we could make out the feathers.  The last picture  I took of them was day 16.

The bluebird parents did an excellent job guarding the perimeter, perched on our fig tree.  We became familiar with their sounds and watched as they flew in and out, delivering grub worms to their hungry babies.

Our massive tabby Franklin would occasionally look up at the house, licking his lips and making that funny, chattering sound known as the kill-bite reflex.  Too big and clumsy to scale the pole for a snack, he kept other potential predators at bay. Guardian of the yard, he resumed his usual practice of hunting for frogs in the pond.  Fortunately, they too have proved elusive.

I told Levi we’d clean out the birdhouse and let another family start over again. He seemed pleased.

Baby Bluebirds

Three little bluebird nestlings arrived on Easter Sunday. They looked pink and mostly hairless, with a little bit of wet-gray down.














We caught a glimpse of mother bird before the weekend and thought she might be up to something…














Beavers in the Park

Every weekend I strap Levi to my back–all 28.5 pounds of him–and head out into the woods for a little father-and-son nature hike. We both have a good time at some of our favorite places like West Point on the Eno or Occoneechee Mountain. It’s a good workout for me, too–I’m reminded of my backpacking days in the Boy Scouts of America.


Last weekend we decided to stay  a little closer to home with a short hike down to Northgate Park, our beautiful 17-acre city park just a couple of blocks from home. A good section of the park has been transformed into a natural habitat after a stream restoration project from a few years ago.  Along the banks of Ellerbe Creek is a “no-mow” zone which has grown wild with river birch, pine trees and a variety of plants and brush.



Apparently a group of beavers like it too, and have taken up residence there. I had spotted a small lodge a couple of weeks ago when walking across the bridge, so Levi and I decided to investigate. We followed one of the little footpaths down to the banks of the Ellerbe in view of the lodge. I took Levi out of the backpack and we both sat for a few minutes.


It wasn’t long before we saw a beaver swim from one side of the creek towards the lodge, then disappear. Regretfully, I was not fast enough to take a picture with my iphone, but Levi can vouch for me. He saw it too and started pointing and babbling excitedly. He kept running in the direction of the lodge, and I kept pulling him back, afraid that a beaver might jump out at him.

We went back a few days later, hoping to get another glimpse of beaver. Although we didn’t see any this time, we found footprints in the sand and gnawed bits of wood everywhere. We also discovered a second, smaller lodge further downstream, as well as what I think was the beginning of a third next to a concrete pipe. In the coming months and years it will be interesting to see what develops.  Will their construction projects have any negative impact on the stream restoration there, creating challenges for the City? I will have to have a chat with friends in City Stormwater Services. Who knows, maybe Durham will have a second Beaver Marsh Preserve some day.










On Top of Pond Mountain

This weekend I went hiking with my father-in-law, Ken, and my brother-in-law, Jackson.  Taking a day trip from Shawnna’s  grandfather’s place in West Jefferson, N.C., we traveled to Pond Mountain, a 5,000 foot mountain in a remote part of Ashe County.  Heading northwest, where the states of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia  converge,  we looked forward to seeing the spectacular view of three states.

Ah, Beautiful Tennova.


Thanks to the efforts of the Blue Ridge Conservancy, 1800 acres of mountaintop land  here have been preserved for future generations.


One of the most important things about the Blue Ridge Conservancy’s efforts  is the fact that the entire mountain is a major source of water.  We found several small ponds on the high ridges of the mountain, and there were numerous small springs bubbling out of the side of the mountain.  These springs  become the creeks that feed into the New River, one of the oldest rivers in the world.  The river flows south to north, just like the Nile.

Pond Mountain was  aptly named by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, when he surveyed the North Carolina-Virginia border in the 1700s.   I’ve heard that Jefferson’s surveying was slightly off, extending a little bit of North Carolina further north than it should have been.  I guess that just means there is more of North Carolina to love now.

Jefferson, along with Joshua Frye, ultimately produced a famous map in 1752, The Fry-Jefferson Map of the Royal Colony of Virginia.  Highly influential, this map had serious implications for North Carolina history, as it marked for the first time The Great Wagon Road  that thousands of Germans, English and Scot-Irish would take from Pennsylvania to the Yadkin Valley.

As we started hiking up the mountain, we passed fields of  Christmas trees.  We found more near the summit, and the very top of the mountain was cleared for planting.  It made me wonder if they had a partnership with any Christmas tree farmers.  After all, this northwestern corner of the state is the Christmas tree capital of the world.

Typical of mountains in this area, we found beautiful grassy balds.


Near the summit  we found some stands of Carolina Nightshade,  whose yellow
berries were used by the Cherokee Indians for various purposes.

pond7I’ve heard the Cherokee used the nightshade as an antihistamine, a sedative, and a pain reliever for teething babies.  I, however, was disappointed that I wasn’t looking at cherry tomatoes.   By that time we were getting hungry.

The view at the top was well worth the hike:  looking north to Virginia, we could see Whitetop Mountain and Mount Rogers; to the west towards Tennessee, Cherokee National Forest; and  to the South and east we saw numerous Ashe and Watauga County Peaks.

We slept well that night!













The Black Squirrel Winter

There’s a rumor going around that 2014 is going to be a dreaded Black Squirrel Winter for the N.C. High Country.  I am shocked that, having grown up in Watauga County, N.C., I’m just becoming aware of this phenomenon, what the Native Americans referred to as  Black Squirrel Winter  or Winter of Sorrows.  It sounds so dark and ominous, like the Winter is Coming motto from the George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. In my head I picture the ginger-headed House of Stark-of-the-Blue-Ridge-Escarpment whispering “Beware the Black Squirrel Winter” to one another, warning of the 16-year winter ahead, and the army of black squirrels that prey on human flesh.


The black squirrel is a darker version of the eastern grey squirrel, the result of a mutant pigment gene. They can be described as a melanistic variety. Melanism, of course, is the opposite of albinism. They evolved in old growth forests, which had much darker cover.  Deforestation turned these squirrels grey: with the loss of the old growth forests, the black squirrels lost their evolutionary advantage, and grey became a better form of camouflage. Still, they’ve maintained steady populations in different areas of the country, including urban areas like Washington, D.C., where fewer predators make camouflage less essential for survival. They’ve also thrived in colder places like Ontario and the U.S. Northeast because they can retain heat in the winter much better than their grey cousins.  This is probably why they don’t mind the unusually brutal North Carolina Winters when we have them.

The Choctaw had stories about the black squirrel being responsible for solar eclipses.  Apparently the rodent liked to nibble on the sun.  Villagers would try to frighten the squirrel away so that it would stop eating the sun;  woman and children would shout and bang pots, while the men shot their weapons into the distance as if hunting for game.

If only frightening the black squirrels away could enlarge the sun, melting all the snow and ice.  Winter is coming….



Tree Cookies

This month we mourned the passing of this mighty oak, one of the original trees planted on Duke’s West Campus. It was all the buzz in the sociology-psychology building.  Sadly, no one could recall the tree’s name.   We’ll have to give it the posthumous name of a dead social scientist.

Soc-Psych treeApparently the tree was terminal, suffering from a deadly fungus, discovered with the aid of sonic tomography.  A tomograph is a technology that produces a cross-sectional image of a three dimensional object.  In the case of a tooth, or a tree, it lets you see the rot that might not be apparent from the outside.  I’ve heard that a lot of the “city” trees in Durham have a lifespan of around 80 years, so I’m not surprised that Duke was monitoring these.  West Campus construction started in the 1920s.

Tree cutting soc psycbAll week we watched with fascination and a little sadness  as crews worked with a with a giant crane, hoisting huge pieces of the tree over the building into the parking lot on the other side.
By Friday afternoon there was nothing left but a jagged stump.

Although the tree was gone, Duke promised that the good wood from the tree would be repurposed for use at the University and in  the Durham community.  Soon an e-mail circulated that there were tree cookies available for interested staff.   At first I salivated on my keyboard, thinking of the Keebler Elves and their yummy confections.  Then I remembered that I’d seen a one a long time ago in a science class.  The teacher had shown us a tree cookie–a cross section of a stump or branch–to illustrate how trees grow.  I remember counting the rings to figure out how long the tree had lived.

Last week I got the word that there was a tree cookie with my name on it.   As I made the rounds, there seemed to be a cookie in every office.  Bob Jackson proudly displays his cookie below.

bob_cookieCall me master of the obvious, but this week I’ve been thinking about our attachments to trees and all the reasons we love  them–their beauty, their majesty, the cool shade that they provide.  Folks on one side of the building have suddenly found that their offices are a lot brighter.  It’s sad to think that something that was planted when West Campus was just being built from what was  Rigsbee Farm is now no more.  Feeling a little sentimental, I started waxing poetic, going back to my favorite nature-poet, Robert Frost.  Pausing for a second, I looked down at my desk to  realize that I had been using my tree cookie as  a coaster.  Feeling just a little bit guilty, I wiped off the wetness and placed my cookie next to the window.

All creatures great and small

Winter Storm Leon moved into Durham last night, dumping several inches of snow along with plummeting temperatures.  When I woke up this morning I noticed our feral cats, Sunshine and Gracie, weren’t at their usual spot waiting for me to come out and feed them.  I saw their footprints in the snow and followed them to the edge of the pond.

IMG_2879Farthing Pond had completely frozen over for the second time this year.  The goldfish  were hunkered down at the bottom of the pond, chilling until the next warm spell.  I’m sure they’ll surface again if we get any sunshine in February.  I decided to bust up the ice so the cats could have a little drinking water.


After a few minutes Gracie decided to come out of her hiding place and have breakfast.


By the time I’d gotten back inside, Shawnna was checking out the bird scene in the front yard.  The chickadees, cardinals and wrens were taking advantage of her squirrel-proof bird feeder.  Franklin, our indoor tabby, could barely contain himself as he watched behind the screen door, making that funny chattering sound cats make, known as the kill-bite reflex.

birdsWe’ve finally decided to join Project Feederwatch, the winter-long survey of birds sponsored by  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  They say that 292 species of birds have been spotted in the Durham area. Our favorite bird from today was a red-bellied woodpecker, who is just a little bit big for the bird feeder, but nevertheless decided to take a stab at it  before giving up.  Here he is   hanging out on the trunk of  the big oak tree in the front yard.


The Flowers and the Polar Vortex

I miss the mountains, but living down here in the Triassic Basin has its advantages.  The abundant sunshine is good for the soul.  I was reminded on Friday of another reason I love living here: the 12-month growing season.  After the coldest week we’ve had in a long time,  I was astounded to see our daffodils and tulips coming up in the backyard.



Flashback to Monday.  Bracing for single-digit temperatures, we left the kitchen faucet dripping.  On my daily bike ride into work, I wore ski goggles and four different layers.



And now, a few days later, my grandmother’s daffodils and Shawnna’s tulips are popping up to say hello.


Christmas on the Creeper

The day after Christmas I took my bike up to the Virginia Highlands.  My destination was the Virginia Creeper Trail, an old railroad line that was turned into a 33-mile trail back in the 80s.  It is one of the best bike trails in America in one of the most beautiful places on earth.   My mom’s family settled in the region hundreds of years ago, so it always feels like home to me.

Vrgina Creeper

Part of the magic has to do with the geology of the region, which creates some stunning scenery.  Just looking at the rocks takes you back almost a billion years.  The whole region is underlain by hard volcanic bedrock.  This erosion-resistant rock, known as rhyolite, comes from melted continiental crust, which takes you back to the time of the continental rift.  In addition to the large rocks, I noticed lots of little colorful rocks with beautiful patterns on them, which are also some kind of volcanic matter.

I met up with my cousin Pat near Damascus, Virginia, a convenient point between the trailhead, 17 miles up Whitetop Mountain, and Abingdon, Virginia, 16 miles in the other direction.  We decided to skip the mountain climb and head  towards Abingdon.  Our leisurely ride  took us around the south fork of the Holston River.  We’d stop occasionally to check out some of the more interesting geological features and massive icicle formations.


We passed through a lot of pasture land on our ride.  Next time, I’ll bring more apples for the horses.


As we rode along the south fork of the Holston, we noticed a number of cabins for rent. My favorites were the tree houses. Maybe we’ll stay there next time.

Tree houses on the Virginia Creeper

After a bend in the woods, we passed a cave.  I couldn’t resist checking it out.  Although it seemed fairly cozy, I had already made plans to crash on the couch at the house my aunts had rented for our family gathering.


As the sun faded, the temperature dropped rapidly. We cooked a quick cup of hot
chocolate and then headed back to Damascus.  That evening I stayed  with my aunts, uncle and cousins. We got up the next morning and hit the trail again.
Nothing could have been more beautiful than mist rising off a waterfall in the morning sun.


Of course, with the beautiful, there is also the ugly.  We found the head of a goat as well as a well-eaten wild turkey carcass. The coyotes must be hungry this year, and there must be lots of them.  It made me remember that the original name of Abingdon was “Wolf Hills,” after Daniel Boone and his party were confronted by a pack of wild wolves.

I’d like to come back to the Creeper in 2014.  Next time we’ll see if we can stay in one of the tree houses.







A frog named Jabba the Hutt

We’ve  got a new friend in the backyard.  An enormous bullfrog, who I’ve named Jabba the Hutt, has established a presence at Farthing Pond.  We’ve become quite close; I can sit down right beside him and he won’t even budge.  He does let me know that I’m  in his territory, though.  He even  answered my greeting of Die Wanna Wannga. Unfortunately,  that’s about all of the Huttese language  I know.  (It just occurred to me in writing that phrase that Huttese might have some relation to German, although  die in Huttese  is pronounced  day as in neighbor or way, and does not appear to be used as a modifier.)

I named him Jabba because of his resemblance to the fictional character, particularly in  his sheer  enormity, his brownish-yellow hue, and bumps around his mouth.  Later, I had some regrets about the name I gave him; after all,  the character from Return of the Jedi  exemplifies morbid obesity and personifies at least four of the seven deadly sins, including greed, lust, gluttony and avarice.

Me:  Do you think it’s disrespectful that I named our friend “Jabba the Hutt”?

Shawnna: I think he would be honored to be named after such an epic story.

My wife, master of the re-frame. Strong with the Force she is.

2013 will go down in history as “The Year the Frogs Came.”  We finished Farthing Pond in 2010, and it only took a couple of months for the word to spread amongst the amphibians. We’d hear tree frogs and the occasional bullfrog after heavy rains.  This year is different.  They’ve totally established a beachhead.  We hear them every night now, lots of them, regardless of the weather conditions.  I’ve asked several of my neighbors if the noise bothers them, but they don’t seem to mind, maybe because it  drowns out the sounds of I-85.  When I close my eyes at bedtime I can imagine I am in a more bucolic locale.

The frogs love hanging out in the various plant containers I have submerged in the pond, such as this scouring rush.

The containers are submerged in the pond and held up by pvc pipe.  The frogs enjoy them because there is enough room for them to sit  upright in the container with their eyes just above the water.  I never realized  that in placing these plants I had helped create an ideal habitat for our amphibian friends.



I found  this little one while I was re-potting one of the containers.


Feeling inspired, I decided to construct a shelter in one of the containers.  I named it “Jabba’s Palace.”

farthing_pond_houseHopefully this will be a nice place for Mr. Hutt  or members of his clan to chill on hot summer days.  Who knows, maybe it will even provide some protection from the herons, raccoons, crows and kitties who consider Farthing Pond a fun,  locally-owned restaurant and watering hole.  They are true Durham foodies, believe me.  I think that the birds have realized that it’s a nice place to fuel up on their flights from Northgate Park to the  Ellerbe Creek Beaver Pond.

For various reasons, amphibian populations have been on the decline for the last few decades, including  the extinction of some species.   It makes me happy to know that we are encouraging amphibian conservation here in Durham.  Even if you don’t have a pond at your house,  constructing a toad house  does not take a lot of effort.  Remember that frogs and toads  like to eat mosquitoes, and are a natural form of pest control.

For further reading, check out the Amphibian Specialist Group’s website.



A slice of heaven

Elk Knob

Last weekend the mountains were calling.  On Friday we headed west, through the Yadkin Valley, then over the Blue Ridge escarpment to Elk Knob State Park in Meat Camp, North Carolina. The park is about nine miles north of Boone and only three hours from Durham.

(For those of you who are wondering, Meat Camp got its name from Daniel Boone and other hunters of the day who would pack their animal kill there before taking it back to the lowlands.  It is not, contrary to what some might think, an Atkins-style weight loss camp.)

Elk Knob is North Carolina’s youngest state park, and owes its existence to the efforts of the Nature Conservatory and local landowners who kept it from being developed.  The 3000-plus acres include a 2-mile trail to the summit of Elk Knob, Watauga County’s second-highest peak.  The trail was completed in 2011.


The park is like nothing else I’ve ever seen in North Carolina, and I’m not being hyperbolic.  I was in awe the whole time I was there.  Once we reached about 5,000 feet, I started getting a little light-headed, as if I were  hiking the southern Rockies again.  Perhaps that might explain part of my euphoria.

Elk Knob is one of twelve mountains north of Boone known as the Amphibolite Mountains, composed of blackish-grey  metamorphic rock known as amphibolite.  We saw tons of it, as well as huge pieces of quartz.  For a while I couldn’t stop taking pictures of all the interesting rocks.

These rocks are rich in nutrients, and as  a result you find a lot of interesting plant life there, including endangered plants like Gray’s Lily.  As soon as we got out of the car, we saw Trilliums everywhere, some together in large clusters.  A kind stranger, probably as giddy as we were, told us that the White Trilliums become pink as they get older.  We saw plenty of both.

Shawnna loved the Purple Trillium,  also known as the Wake-Robin.


The amphibolite  also makes the soil more alkaline than usual (a lot of mountain soil is acidic.)  One consequence of this is that you don’t see any acidic-loving rhododendron at Elk Knob.  Rhododendrons  typically cover the western North Carolina landscape, but not here.  In its absence  there is an incredible variety of tree life.  A lot of the trees on the mountain were ones that you’d find in northern hardwood forests.  Take the buckeye, for example; Ohio usually comes to mind.  Or the yellow birch, which is the provincial tree of Quebec.

Closer to the top, the trees became more stubby and gnarled, hardened from years of  bitter winters and harsh winds.  As we ascended, we both became somewhat light-headed.  I guess we’ve lived in the lowlands too long.  Next time we’ll stop and have a picnic at the stone bench halfway up the mountain.


The summit was breathtakingly beautiful.  On the north side you could see as far as Pilot Mountain, near Winston-Salem.  On the south side you could see as far as Mount Mitchell.  And of course, you could see all the mountains in between.   It was a true Blue Ridge panorama.

I took a nice shot of Snake Mountain, Elk Knob’s neighbor and another member of the Amphibolite range.  It sits on the Tennessee border, near the community of Trade, Tennessee.  In the 1970s,  my mom taught at Trade Elementary School, which sat at the foot of Snake Mountain.  One of my earliest memories is taking a field trip to Snake Mountain with my mom’s class  as a three-year old.  I  rode in a little red wagon while the kids from my mom’s class took turns pulling me up the mountain.

Looking at the gap between the two mountains, I could make out the course of the Old Buffalo Trail, first used by migrating buffalo, then Native Americans, then the European settlers as they pushed westward.


We’ll be back to Elk Knob soon.




Canoeing by moonlight

Friday night we took a nighttime canoe ride with our friends Cathy and Rob.  We were part of a larger group sponsored by Frog Hollow Outdoors, who provided the boats and led us on the tour.

nightcanoemattshawnnaWe canoed in the Three Rivers area of Durham, which is where  three rivers—the Eno, Flat and Neuse—converge and empty into Falls Lake.   Putting  in at the Eno River boat ramp off of Red Mill Road, our flotilla  headed east, to the end of the Eno River.

Our guides asked us to turn off our lights so that we could utilize our nighttime vision.  The full moon provided enough light for our paddle, and the weather was perfect. Occasionally a heron would fly overhead, and the owls definitely made their presence known.

nightcanoecathyrob2 Soon we reached the end of the Eno and came to the headwaters of the Neuse. The Flat river stretched out to the north of us.

We sat there and listened to the unusual sounds of the cricket frogs.  They made a surreal static popping noise, almost like a Geiger counter.  One of our companions was startled by the slapping of a beaver tail.

Although we had a blissful paddle through the moonlight, we were glad when we got back to the boat ramp.  That night we slept well, dreaming of herons and cricket frogs.


Bat houses

I just purchased a bat house for $2.00 at a neighborhood garage sale.  What a bargain!

Why a bat house? For one thing, bats are a natural form of pest control: a single bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour.  I’ve seen them flying around our pond at dusk, so I know they are already here.

bathouseDid you know that over 5 million bats have died from a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome?  This disease has decimated bat colonies everywhere, which makes  creating a bat habitat that much more important.

I’ll be the first to admit that bats freak me out a little bit, and I usually don’t have a problem with wild animals.  We had to remove one a couple of years ago that came down our chimney, and I still remember those sharp little teeth, those wings that were really flaps of skin, and its dark onyx color.  Creepy.

Bats are rabies carriers of course, but it turns out that a very low percentage of bats carry rabies.  They also don’t live very long after they become infected.  I’ve never heard of someone contracting it from a bat.  In fact, there is a bridge in Austin, Texas that is home to almost a million bats; it is the largest urban bat colony in the U.S. and there has not been a single bat-biting incident.

Now I have to think about how I’m going to hang the bat house.  I’ve been looking at some bat-house best practices which happen to be confirmed with statistical data.  It turns out that a higher percentage of bats prefer their homes mounted on the sides of buildings or poles rather than a tree.  They love being near water and in an area that gets adequate sunlight to warm up their homes.  The bat house also needs to be around 20 feet high.  I think I’m going to find some very large pieces of bamboo and mount the house on that.  Currently I’m trying to find something long and thick enough. Pictures to come soon!

The blue herons of Duke Gardens

Now that the weather is warming up, I’m looking forward to seeing the blue herons who hang out in Duke Gardens.  I’m assuming there are more than one of them although I’ve never seen a pair.  They are fearless and let you get really close if you want to take a picture.  Here’s one I snapped a couple of years ago in the Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens.

These creatures have always fascinated me.  A couple of years ago during one of our awful summer droughts, I saw one  walking upright on its spindly legs through an almost-dry Ellerbe Creek.  The heron reminded me of a dinosaur or a freaky creature from another planet.

I wanted to find out more about these birds, so I contacted my friend and ornithologist-extraordinaire  Becky Browning. Becky was the bird collections manager at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and is now living with her husband in Amsterdam.  She works as a bird conservator at Naturalis Biodiversity Center there.

Becky told me that the herons nest colonially in trees, and are partially nocturnal.  (No wonder I don’t see them eating the goldfish out of my pond, I thought.)  Apparently they are increasing all across North Carolina, breeding in places they haven’t before, and moving to higher elevations in the Appalachians. In fact,  they’ve been spotted in Watauga County at Bass Lake, over by the Cone Manor, one of our favorite places.  They were one of those birds, like the osprey and the eagle, who suffered from DDT in the 60s and 70s but have since made a comeback.

They eat anything: mostly fish, of course, but also crawdads, large insects, frogs, small snakes, and if an unlucky mouse is nearby, mammals too.  You hear folks with garden ponds complain about the herons who swoop in and eat their koi. That’s why I stock my pond with 10-cent goldfish!

I’m sure we’ll be seeing them again in Duke Gardens in the coming weeks.  For more on herons, check out The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s heron page.

The elusive beavers of Penny’s Bend

I’ve been reading the excellent field guide, Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas, written by Kevin Stewart and Mary Russell-Robinson.  It is a great introduction to geology for those of us who’ve never taken a geology course before.  One of the other neat things about the book is that each chapter serves as a guide to a geologically-interesting place in the Carolinas, complete with maps and directions.   A couple of weeks ago,  I decided to visit one of these places, Penny’s Bend, which is only 5 miles down the road from our house.  A word of caution: there are a lot of ticks  at Penny’s Bend, so you’ll want to wear long pants and a cap if you venture out there.

Penny's Bend

Penny’s Bend has lots of exposed rocks from when the continents of what are now Africa and North America pulled apart.  The volcanic rock also makes the soil at Penny’s bend alkaline.  As a result, you find a lot of plant species there are similar to what you find  on the prairies of  the midwest.  Most things aren’t in bloom right now, but some of the flower species at Penny’s Bend include:  asiatic dayflower; blue wild indigo; smooth purple coneflower, hoary puccoon, and Dutchman’s breeches.


As I was hiking, close to sunset, a friendly dog started following me. I noticed he would occasionally run ahead of me to the edge of the river and bark.


After a few minutes I realized that he was barking at the beavers who live in the area. On the bank at river’s edge, I saw a mass of sticks and mud which appeared to be a beaver lodge. The gnawed-off trees around  me appeared to confirm this.



I don’t know why I did this, but I yelled “go get em boy” at which point he ran down to the the lodge.  A few seconds later, I saw something swimming in the river. It was way too big to be a fish. Unfortunately it was getting dark and I had to get back home.

I decided to go back early in the morning to see if  I could get a glimpse of the beavers.  I didn’t have any luck, but  I managed to get more pictures of the beautiful rock formations, and hiked up to a nice bluff overlooking the Eno.  You don’t get a lot of nice vantage points like this in the Triangle.


As for the beavers, maybe I’ll see them at one of their other Durham locations. For those of you who don’t know, one of the largest beaver ponds in eastern North Carolina is Behind the Big Lots off of North Roxborro street.  It’s been turned into a preserve thanks to our friends at the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association and the group of neighborhood activists known as the “Beaver Lodge” of Durham.  They’ll be having their annual Beaver Queen Pageant on June 1st, which helps raise money for the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.