Monday, September 29, 2008

Condoret Nature Preserve (Chatham County, NC)

Overview: Condoret Nature Preserve, a Triangle Land Conservancy property acquired by donation in 2003, represents some of the many preserved and protected areas in and around the Triangle that are not intended for recreational use, but meant solely to preserve important ecological habitats and land for our future. The property extends 85 acres and protects riparian habitat along Tick Creek, which runs into the Rocky River (in the Cape Fear River Basin), and mainly encompasses flood plain forest and old fields.

Condoret Nature Preserve, September 2008

Directions: Again, this property is not managed for public recreation -- no trails, amenities or parking lot. If you would really like to visit, please contact the Triangle Land Conservancy at info (at) They usually respond very promptly!
My observations & ponderings: Condoret Nature Preserve is largely composed of floodplain forest and old fields. The forest is dense and difficult to navigate through, and the old field was wet and puddle filled after the recent rains. During our exploration, we startled a red shouldered hawk that had been hiding at the edge of the woods, presumably scoping out prey in the field below. We also found a beautiful female wolf spider, with young on her back and another still hefting around a large egg sac.

Woldspider with young

As we ventured towards Tick Creek, we came across a number of plant species one would expect in a wet, old field grading into floodplain forest, including purple gerardia (Gerardia purpurea), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and wingstem (Actinomeris alternifolia). As the field gave way to forest, we discovered a millipede clasping the branches of a bumpy hackberry (Celtis laevigata), young walnuts (Juglans nigra) and a strangely bent ironwood (Ostrya virginiana).

Purple gerardia (Gerardia purpurea)

Wingstem (Actinomeris alternifolia)

Millipede on hackberry (Celtis laevigata)

As I circled the strange, bryophyte covered ironwood, I began to imagine how it came to be shaped so strangely. Was this a tree bent by an American Indian to mark a long forgotten trail? Did the children of the former owners find this tree as a sapling and set about to change its natural growth pattern? Was this odd form the result of vegetative growth from a fallen clone?

Strangley bent ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)

It is difficult to reconstruct ecological history, but I was undaunted and I began to evaluate the three hypotheses regarding the origin of the strangely shaped tree. Could the tree have been bent by an American Indian? In fact, this hypothesis is easily dismissed. Ostrya virginiana is a slow growing tree with a relative short life span of at most 150 years, but maybe only 10 to 15 years (Fehrenbach, 1983). Therefore, this tree was a sapling sometime after 1858, a time when American Indians would have been absent from Chatham County. Could the tree have been bent by the children of former owners? Well, this is certainly possible, but why would they have picked that tree? In that location? Would it have been worth the effort to walk through the wet grass and weedy fields to bend this hapless tree? My sense is that this hypothesis is probably false. In fact, I'm inclined to believe that this strange shape originated when a clonal sapling arose from the roots of a fallen Ostrya virginiana, perhaps then the sapling grew across the fallen log or another fallen tree, and when that fallen tree had rotted away, the strangely shaped ironwood was left for the world to contemplate. This hypothesis is consistent with Ostrya virginiana's known habits: it does grow vegetatively from cut stumps or burned/injured trees. Sadly, we may never know the true history of this tree, but at least we will never be without natural mysteries to ponder.

Resources: Interested in North Carolina's watersheds? Visit this North Carolina Office for Environmental Education website:

Want to learn more about land conservation in the Triangle? Visit the Triangle Land Conservancy website:

Fehrenbach, W. E. 1983. Ostrya virginiana: characteristics and potentials of a little known native. Proceedings of the Fourth Conference of the Metropolitan Tree Improvement Alliance. New York Botanical Garden: New York. p61-67.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sennett's Hole - West Point on the Eno (Durham, NC)

Overview: Sennett's Hole, located at the western end of West Point on the Eno (a Durham city park), is a delightful place to spend a quiet afternoon during the week or a boisterous day in the water on the weekend. Bordered by large granodiorite rocks and floodplain forest, this water hole provides excellent opportunities to view water turtles and birds. The hole is also of historic significance: it was the site of a mill in the mid-1700s. Local lore suggests that the owner, Michael Synott drowned in Sennett's (i.e., Synott's) Hole at a ripe old age, when high water swept away his mill (Heron, 1975). WARNING: Sennett's Hole is reported to be quite deep (Bradley, 2007), so make sure that any children you bring are strong swimmers.

Directions: Please see trail map.

Sennett's Hole

My observations & ponderings: The day is beautiful and feels fully like fall. The air is cool, the breeze is moderate and rustles the treetops, and the sun seems lower in the sky, less orange than in summer, glowing a very pale yellow.

I sit at Sennett's Hole, a quiet refuge in autumn where the Eno River widens at the confluence of Warren's Creek and large igneous obstacles. A five foot tall pale pink and gray monolith, with crevaces highlighted by black bryophytes and pale green lichen, stretches 60 feet across, blocking nearly half of the river.

Here, water rushes across smaller rocks and little puddles are filled with minnows. Yellow bellied turtles sit on decaying sycamore logs and straggly river birches make their stand on rocky island mounds. Sandy outcrops are littered with bleached fresh water clam shells and imprinted with the marks of raccoons, dogs and man. The river babbles over boulders and crickets hum all around. The titmice no longer screech warnings, and the crows and red shouldered hawk have just ended their mid-day rounds. Carolina chickadees still call in the distance.

Yellow bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) at Sennett's Hole

Man has left his mark here, not only with footprints, but with dirty once-white socks left after a day's excursion. Non-native grasses and trees invade the floodplain. The rocks are said to be scarred by the remants of an 18th century mill, and an old rope hangs from a bending birch. In the distance, despite my best attempts to ignore it, I can hear civilization -- traffic and airplanes. Still, with the warm sun on my back and the chickadees chuckling nearby, I am transported into contemplative peace by nature at Sennett's Hole.

Granodiorite porphyry rocks stretching across the Eno River at Sennett Hole.

Granodiorite porphyry (upclose), a blend of plagioclase feldspar, biotite mica, horneblend and quartz.

Resources: If you're interested in the geology of Sennett's Hole and West Point on the Eno, please check out the following NCGS publication:

Bradley, P. J. 2007. A Geologic Adventure Along the Eno River, Information Circular 35. North Carolina Geologic Survey: Raleigh, North Carolina. 65 p

For more information on the history of West Point on the Eno, please see:

Heron, D. 1975. The Story of West Point on the Eno. Eno Journal 3 (1): 4-8. Online Publication. Accessed September 24, 2008.

A secretive Fowler's toad (Bufo fowleri)

Monday, September 22, 2008

North Carolina Botanic Garden (Chapel Hill, NC)

The North Carolina Botanical Garden, located off of Route 15-501 in Chapel Hill, NC is one of those rare places that can be visited and revisited time and again. The Garden offers a number of hiking trails, as well as a variety of gardens, which can be both spectacular and educational.

One garden, located behind the visitor center (the Totten center) is devoted to plant families. Here you can learn the key characteristics of major plant families, exploring plants from North Carolina and beyond. If you're interested in native plants, the garden has a beautiful ecosystem display, showcasing plants from North Carolina's rare long-leaf pine communities, wetlands and deciduous forest. Also, the garden sells a decent selection of native plants year round. This time of year, you can find beautiful Baptisia (wild indigo) varieties for sale. Particularly useful to people new to North Carolina, is the "what's in bloom" display, located at the entrance of the garden. Here you can find out which native plants are currently in bloom, the display seems to rotate weekly.

Baptisia spp. (Nachusa Grasslands, Illinois)

Finally, for those of you interested in seriously developing your artistic skils or learning about the ecology of North Carolina's native plant, check out the gardens two certificate programs. Classes run year round and are well worth the effort.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

William B. Umstead State Park (Wake County, NC) and Triangle SCB

Today I joined a great organization, the Triangle Society for Conservation Biology, at their first meeting of the year. This organization was founded last August, and is largely made up of graduate students and faculty at Duke University and North Carolina State University, with a few representatives from the University of North Carolina, the Nature Conservancy, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission. The organization is open to the community and they would love to get more people from all walks of life involved! If you are interested, please check out their website.

At the first meeting of the new fiscal year, we met at William B. Umstead State Park (Wake County, NC) and took a hike down to Crabtree Creek, which runs through the park. Due to the heavy rains from Tropical Storm Hanna, the creek was high, muddy and fast moving. We saw remnants of the park's early history, including the remains of a mill dam, the company mill stone and large piles of quartz rock that farmers had cleared from their fields. The park offers a number of great hiking trails, from 0.6 to over 10 miles, running through mixed hardwood-pine forests.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The 3rd Annual Eastern Triangle Farm Tour (Sep 20-21)

The 3rd Annual Eastern Triangle Farm Tour, on September 20 & 21, 2008 (1-5pm) is a great way to learn about Carolina farmers and local food! For only $25, if you register early, you can visit all 19 farms on the tour. These farms produce anything from edible herbs to goat's milk, and are located in and around Durham, Creedmore, Louisburg, Garner and Fuquay-Varina. For more information on the tour, check out this brochure!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Eno River State Park - Few's Ford & the Buckquarter Creek Trail (Durham NC)

On Labor Day, my family (husband and grandparents-to-be) and I hiked the Buckquarter Creek trail, located in the western portion of Eno River State Park at the Few's Ford entrance. This is a great trail to hike with friends and family, especially in early fall when vibrant mushrooms rise from the ground, leaves start to change color and one is still able to find snakes, frogs and fall warblers.

The Buckquarter Creek trail begins in the parking lot closest to the park entrance, near the historic Piper-Cox house (which you can visit with a park ranger on Saturday afternoons, call 919.383.1686 to register). The roughly 1.5 mile trail first runs along the rocky Eno River. This section of the river is a favorite for waders, as the water is generally shallow and rocky. All of the rocks, and the forested banks, make a great habitat for snakes and turtles. On this trip, we saw nearly 20 turtles (river cooters and yellow bellied water turtles) and one queen snake. Queen snakes (Regina septemvittata) are docile, non-venomous snakes that feed almost exclusively on freshly molted crayfish. In many areas, their populations are declining due to water pollution and loss of habitat. These snakes are dark brown-gray in color, with keeled (rough) scales, and light tan to white stripes on the sides of their body.

After walking along the banks of the Eno River, the trail heads into the upland forest -- a mix of hardwoods, including maples and oaks, as well as scattered loblolly pines. Look for small hopping Fowler's toads here, as well as some wild mushrooms after a night or two of good rain. This section of the trail is usually a great place to find a black rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta), one of North Carolina's most common non-venomous constrictors. On Monday, we were lucky enough to find a medium sized copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) that was about to shed it skin. When snakes are about to shed, they often appear less vibrant in color and their eyes become an opaque, milky gray. Snakes are very vulnerable to predators when they're about to shed, and they also have difficulty hunting, making them quite irritable. It is best not to handle any snake during this critical phase, but especially not a copperhead, which can deliver a nasty, although seldom fatal, bite.

This trail is a loop, so after walking through the upland forest, you can take a refreshing dip in the river before returning to your car.

If you would like further information about snakes and their conservation, please check out my doctoral dissertation, A Multiscale Investigation of Snake Habitat Relationships and Snake Conservation in Northern Illinois.

You can also click here if you're interested in guided nature hikes or other events at the park.