The life and death of an ash tree

Our next meeting will be Sunday, January 26th at 4pm, to plan for Creek Week 2014 (March 15-22) and discuss some development issues, etc. Contact us for the address of the residence where we are meeting.

Below is an expanded version of an article I wrote for the January issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out. This giant ash tree grows beside the stream that flows from the corner of Barbee and 54, through Parkwood to NE Creek at the bridge on Grandale Road.

The life and death of an ash tree

An ash tree in Parkwood is one the largest I have come across. There are taller trees, but this ash is nearly four feet across, beating large ash in the wild bottomlands around NE Creek and the big ash in downtown Chapel Hill. Parkwood’s ash is a little south of McCormick Road, near the intersection with Auburndale, beside the stream in the common green area, and can be seen from the road. Ash trees usually have very straight trunks, but this giant leans southwest and has lost huge limbs to the force of wind or ice over its long life. It is hard to say why it leans. That section of woods is relatively young and this ash is the biggest tree there. It has pale bark, and as a reaction to tilting, it grows more on the leaning side, producing unusually deep 4” furrows, resembling a baleen whale’s throat or treads. In one place the bark is brown, probably from deer rubbing the velvet off their antlers. There are rows of holes created by yellow-bellied sapsuckers, woodpeckers that winter here and tap trees for sap.

During the growing season, the ash’s massive trunk is obscured by understory oaks, dogwoods, and black cherries. American beech, increasingly common in Parkwood, and Northern red oak saplings wait for the ash to fall. This is the only spot I know of where pawpaws grow inside Parkwood, though they are quite common as small riparian trees along NE Creek. The pawpaws probably would benefit from more light, though the site might still be a bit dry for them to produce their sweet bananalike fruit. There is a seemingly innocent sprig of English ivy, a plant which is taking over in nearby sections of the woods, and a Nandina bush with purple foliage, another non-native, but much less invasive. Partridgeberry, ‘wild onions,’ and grape ferns form the herb layer under the ash.

Each ash produces only male or female flowers, and this must be a male tree. Perhaps it is a parent of large ash on nearby Timmons Drive, or even throughout the area.

Our ash is probably a white ash. Green, pumpkin, and Carolina ash also grow in Durham. They look similar, all living up to their scientific name, Fraxinus, the Latin name for ash, which also means spear, and describes their typical soaring shape. Ash have leaves and twigs growing in pairs along a stem, and their pinnately compound leaves are made up of oval leaflets, resembling the leaves of walnuts, hickories, and locusts. In fall ash turn gold, orange, and purple. Ash saplings have smooth gray bark and mature trees have somewhat furrowed or rough bark, depending on the species.

White ash is the most economically valuable ash. High-quality baseball bats are made from white ash, as well as other objects requiring lightweight, strong wood with a spring, like oars, lacrosse sticks, musical instruments, furniture, and bowling lanes. It is also an easy to split, hot burning firewood. White ash has been used to relieve fevers, sores, and snake bites, as a laxative, and as an aphrodisiac, among other medicinal uses. Ash have a long history in mythology, for example the Norse axis mundi/world tree Yggdrasil is supposed to have been an ash, and according to folklore snakes don’t like ash trees. White ash likes well-drained, but not very dry soil and is one of the first trees to sprout in abandoned fields. White and green ash can tolerate shade as seedlings, waiting for their chance to shoot into the canopy when an old tree dies. The big snowstorm that left two feet of snow and ice and other bouts of freezing rain have knocked down most of the young pines behind the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Station, leaving a woods of only ash and winged elm in places. Pumpkin and Carolina ash like wet habitats, and ash are one of the main trees in swamps and bottomlands. Ash trees can be seen next to the Parkwood Association office, where there used to be a trailer, and at the Parkwood Convenience Store, at the corner of Seaton and Revere. Ash of some kind can be found on most streets in Parkwood and are common throughout the Triangle.

Late last summer I watched big pale green, red, and yellow hornworms on an ash sapling at Falls Lake. These were waved sphinx moth caterpillars, but the red markings were unusual. Usually their larvae don’t have any red coloration, but these were mostly red with yellow markings when small and then mostly green, but with red heads, horns, and markings. A few other sphinxes feed on ash, as do caterpillars of black and yellow Eastern tiger swallowtails. These green caterpillars have fake eyes complete with angry eyebrows, to mimic snakes, and if that fails, they can send out bright orange ‘horns’ that emit a smelly fluid. The big, shiny black rhinoceros or unicorn beetles sometimes found under streetlights at the Parkwood Shopping Center also eat ash. Ash have wind-pollinated flowers in early spring, but honeybees and other insects sometimes harvest pollen from male flowers. The winged seeds, or keys, of ash trees are eaten by weevils, mice, and birds such as wood ducks, turkeys, and purple finches. Large ash often have hollows where birds and squirrels can nest. Our ash seems to house a colony of big black ants, judging from the seemingly arboreal ants walking along its trunk last summer. Deer and rabbits eat the leaves while beavers like ash bark. Ash growing around the beaver impoundments on Grandale or elsewhere could host mistletoe.

Native beetles and two species of dayflying moth that mimic wasps bore into living or dead ash trees, but a new ash-boring beetle from East Asia is on its way to killing virtually all ash. Emerald ash borer or EAB reached Michigan in the 90’s, probably in shipping materials. It wasn’t noticed until 2002 and has since spread throughout the Eastern US and Canada, in part because people violated quarantines on firewood and other products. Their grubs tunnel under the bark of trees as small as 1” across, and since these are non-native animals, they come in out of control numbers that girdle our naïve ash, killing them within a few years of colonization. A good online resource to check out is www.emeraldashborer.info .

Earlier this summer emerald ash borers crossed into Granville County from a pocket across the border in Virginia and a quarantine was imposed (see http://www.ncforestservice.gov/forest_health/fh_eabfaq.htm ). This is likely to be the end for Parkwood’s great ash in the near future, when the emerald ash borer gets to Durham, on its own power or by hitching a ride, and a great many beetles could come from it. There is cause for hope – some ash seem to have survived the borer up north, introduced Asian and native parasitoid wasps could help control the beetle, and individual trees can be protected with insecticides that are relatively safe for the environment. Emerald ash borer has a big ecological and economic impact, and even harms human health, so communities in the Triangle should prepare.

You can read more about emerald ash borer in my article in the February issue of Carolina Gardener magazine (www.carolinagardener.com).

Holiday Parade a success

December 15th was sunny and relatively warm, and lots of people turned out for the re-scheduled parade in Parkwood. The event started about an hour late because of a problem with the buses taking marchers from the staging area to the parade route. Our group had a great blue heron riding on top of a red Triumph Sprite 1960’s convertible and members dressed as a beaver and a deer gave out cards publicizing our website. I will try to post a photo later. The costumes were popular, though I think some kids thought the heron was everything from a swan to a pterodactyl. One little girl she said it couldn’t be a great blue heron, because it didn’t have yellow legs, which is partially true. We were behind a car with a panda on top (Kestrel Heights Academy?) and in front of a fire truck. Mr and Mrs. Claus headed up the end of the parade and greeted people at the Fire Station afterward. Thanks to the participants and everyone who turned out.

This week we are doing quarterly water testing at the Sedwick and Grandale road sites. Our next business meeting will be January 26th at 4pm.

Events for Durham Creek Week

Durham Creek Week is coming up ( www.durhamcreekweek.org), and there are two events in the Northeast Creek area.

Evening nature hike

Join Northeast Creek Stream Watch for an evening nature hike to see spring wildflowers, singing frogs and toads, and possibly beavers Monday, March 18th at 6pm, starting at the Audubon Park pool (corner of Whisperwood Drive and Solitude Way in southern Durham) and heading towards Parkwood Elementary School.

Northeast Creek trash cleanup

South Durham Green Neighbors (www.sdgn.net), NECSW, and the City/County of Durham are organizing a trash cleanup along the Creek Saturday, March 16th, 9am-12. Parking is available at the intersection of Custer Circle and Euclid Road in the Parkwood neighborhood. Supplies will be provided, but wheelbarrows and wagons would be helpful to get trash out to the road for pickup.

Watch out for blooming catalpas this month

This month there will be many showy white flowers on the small catalpa in front of the condos on Revere Road in the Parkwood subdivision in southern Durham. There are actually two very similar species, Catalpa bignonioides, the Southern catalpa, and C. speciosa, the Northern or hardy catalpa. Southern catalpas grow naturally in the Deep South while Northern Catalpas grow in the region where the Ohio joins the Mississippi. The Revere Road tree is probably a Southern catalpa. The species difference is dramatically revealed in spring, when they bloom at different times, but there are some other differences. Southern catalpa flowers have more spots and fewer blossoms per cluster. They also don’t grow as tall as Northern catalpas and there are differences in the seed pods and bark patterns. Apparently the crushed leaves of Southern catalpas have a bad smell. Northern catalpas might be the only ones that have glands at the base of the leaves, perhaps to attract ants for defense. Catalpas resemble royal paulownia, Chinese natives with big leaves and clusters of pale blue flowers in March or April, and have round seed pods. Catalpas are related to native crossvine and trumpet creeper. The word catalpa is supposed to be a native term for this tree while bignonioides refers to a vine with similar flowers and speciosa means ornamental.

Catalpas self-seed here, but are still pretty rare. The only other specimens I can think of are a few at Sedwick and Prospectus Drive, one on Grandale, one growing beside Northeast Creek near Jordan Lake, and several individuals of both species in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. There is a towering Northern catalpa across South Road from Coker Hall at UNC. A week ago it was crowned with white blooms and is probably peaking or past peak by now. There were one or two large catalpas near the corner of Fayetteville and 54, by Crooked Creek. Catalpas stick out because of their peculiar yellowish green leaves and pagodalike canopy. In their native habitat, catalpas grow near waterways and in bottomlands. They seem to prefer full sun, which could be a reason they aren’t more abundant here.

Catalpas were probably planted so widely for their flowers, and sometimes to grow caterpillars for fishing bait. Catalpa wood is sometimes used indoors, but is mainly used for posts, railroad ties, and telephone poles, because it is rot-resistant though brittle. Bark tea has been used as an antiseptic, laxative, sedative, and to treat snake bites and worms, while the pods were also thought to be sedative and to have an effect on the heart. The leaves were used to treat flesh wounds, as was seed tea, which was also used for respiratory problems. Catalpas are also sometimes called Indian cigars, which could be because kids smoked the pods

The flowers are grouped in panicles on the ends of new shoots. When they open, the large frilly white flowers are tubular and have five asymmetrical petals. They have dark purple spots and two yellow lines inside to guide pollinators. Bumblebees, honey bees, moths, butterflies, and ants are among the insects attracted by the nectar and pollen, yet one source says the nectar is toxic to skipper butterflies and ants. Catalpas will probably bloom for a few weeks, and then the trees sprout long, thin green pods all summer.

Catalpas are noticeable again in summer when they attract catalpa sphinx moths. Apparently their only larval food is catalpa, and the adults don’t eat. Like other sphinxes, catalpa sphinx caterpillars are hornworms, with a ‘horn’ on the tail, and they have striking yellow, black, and white stripes from head to tail. They are unusual for hornworms in being social during most of their caterpillar stage, and groups sometimes defoliate even a tree the size of the one in Parkwood. If Wikipedia is to be believed, cropdusting was first used against catalpa worms. When irritated they vomit a green liquid and thrash.

Nothing else seems to eat catalpa leaves much, so the trees are quiet until the brown pods attract angular gray leaf-footed bugs in late fall. As the weather gets cool, the pods split in half lengthwise, releasing winged seeds, while the husks remain on the trees into winter.

Natural history along the Creek: mink and otters

We will be posting occasional natural history articles, starting with this one on mink and otters. Note the announcement about the February hike to Sears Mill, after the article.

Meeting a mink in the Triangle

This article was originally written as a follow-up to my article on otters in The Durham News (February 6, 2010). Otters are apparently seen throughout the Triangle, even in urban areas. Otters have been seen in the Jordan Lake area, along Farrington Road, at the New Hope Creek impoundment dam off 54, and in 2010 a family lived in the wilds where Panther Creek joins Northeast Creek. Based on reported sightings, Ellerbe Creek, Northeast Creek, and maybe New Hope Creek are the best places to look for otters. I haven’t seen a wild otter yet myself, though I did see where otters might have been eating fish at the NE Creek location. I have seen another large aquatic member of the weasel family, the American mink.

Mink are not commonly seen, but these large aquatic members of the weasel family may be more abundant than it seems. They are chocolate brown, with white patches below their chins, and are more svelte than otters and lack fully webbed feet, but they are almost as playful and aquatic, and can climb trees and purr like cats. Their scientific name is Mustela vison, both words meaning weasel, the first Latin and the second Swedish. “Mink” itself also comes from Swedish, and meant “the stinking animal from Finland.” Mink produce musk like related skunks, but can’t spray.

In 2006 I was working at Eno River State Park and saw my first mink, where Pleasant Green Road crosses the Eno River. Water going over a decommissioned Duke Power dam existing at the time created a pool ringed by logs downstream. Very early one morning, probably in October or November, I was surprised to see a large brown weasel walking on the logjam, before vanishing into a log. It was too big to be a long-tailed weasel and it wasn’t an otter. Around that time a visitor saw a mink or otter porpoising along in a stretch upstream. An unfortunate mink killed on Pleasant Green Road a few years ago can be seen at the park office.

In February 2008 a Harris Lake ranger was showing me Wake County’s Tobacco Trail facilities during a job interview when I spotted a dead mink beside a rural road, and it must be the specimen displayed at their visitor center.

In July 2009 a blackish animal walked in front of me on 15-501 late one afternoon as I was leaving White Pines Preserve, where the Rocky and Deep rivers join. It had an arched back like a weasel, but it had a large, spiked-up tail. Despite having a relatively good view of it, as I was stopped in the middle of the empty highway, I’m not sure if it was a mink. Now I regret not following it when it trotted off the road and along a ditch. I have seen dead striped skunks on 64 near Pittsboro, but if it was a skunk, it was all black.

Mink have definitely been seen in every nearby state park except Jordan Lake. Early one afternoon in spring 2010, Eno River Ranger Christopher Greiner saw one cross Old Cole Mill Road. In all park staff there have seen six mink in seven years, including the one killed by traffic. Mink are probably found along most creeks, and might be easier to see than otters, since mink sometimes hunt during the day and are said to be bold.

Mink are muscular carnivores, eating everything from fish and crustaceans to ducks, muskrats, and rabbits, as well as some fruit. Individuals can be violently territorial, and relocate frequently within their domain. They den in stolen or abandoned rodent burrows, logs, or their own excavations, which typically have multiple entrances, four to six inches wide, and are close to waterways.

Like many mammals, mink breed in late winter. Males mate repeatedly each year, but usually assist their final mate. There can be up to twelve young, but four is usual, and families usually stay together into the fall.

February hike to Sears Mill

Join NECSW for a hike Saturday, February 18th to see the remains of Sears Mill, a 19th century mill on Panther Creek, as well as early spring flowers and amphibians. Beavers, deer, otters, turkeys and nesting great blue herons have also been seen in the area. We will meet at 3pm at the southeast corner of the O’Kelly Church Road bridge over Northeast Creek (about one mile east of 751) in Chatham County.

Durham Watershed Improvement Project in Northeast and Crooked Creeks Begins Monday

From the City of Durham:

Stream Walks Help the City Identify Potential Watershed Improvement Projects

Beginning Monday, September 12, Durham residents who live in the Northeast Creek and Crooked Creek watersheds may see scientists and field crews in orange vests walking along the creeks as the City of Durham begins field work for a study aimed at revitalizing the health of these creeks and its surrounding areas.

[pullquote]Durham residents who live in the Northeast Creek and Crooked Creek watersheds may see scientists and field crews in orange vests walking along the creeks as the City of Durham begins field work for a study aimed at revitalizing the health of these creeks and its surrounding areas.[/pullquote]

According to Sandra Wilbur, project manager with the City’s Stormwater Services Division, over the next three weeks residents living in the assessment area, which encompasses over 40 miles of streams, may see field crews walking through neighborhoods and along streams in the watershed. These crews will present their identifying credentials and project information sheets upon request. Some of the neighborhoods included in the assessment are Emorywood, Carpenter Fletcher Road, Parkwood, Audubon Park, and Woodlake.

The goals of the project are to improve the health of creeks and ensure compliance with water quality regulations. The first step in meeting these goals is learning about current conditions of the watersheds. In June and July, field crews evaluated stormwater control measures that filter polluted runoff in each watershed. Examples of these measures include stormwater ponds, wetlands, and bioretention areas.

“Our field crews will assess the streams in the project area for overall stream quality, including evidence of stream bank erosion, pollution sources, and other water quality problems,” Wilbur said. “The teams will also identify restoration potential of specific stream reaches. After the field work is completed, we’ll use the engineering analysis and public input to develop a prioritized list of potential improvements projects.”

Residents interested in providing input to help shape the project and prioritize the water quality improvement opportunities may participate in the stream walks or attend public meetings that will be announced at a later time during this project. To view a map of areas that are included in the assessment or the project schedule, visit the City’s website at www.DurhamNC.gov/Stormwater or contact Wilbur at (919) 560-4326, ext. 30286 or via e-mail at Sandra.Wilbur@DurhamNC.gov

South Durham Green Neighbors is sponsoring three upcoming programs

Sustainability and Our Infrastructure

Thursday, September 15, 7pm, South Regional Library

Scott Huler the 2011 Piedmont Laureate and author of On the grid : a plot of land, an average neighborhood, and the systems that make our world work, will be speaking on “Sustainability and Our Infrastructure” at the South Regional Library on Thursday, September 15, at 7:00 p.m.

Menu for the Future (registration required)

September 29, October 6, 20, 27, and November 3, 10 and 17 from 7:30-8:00 pm, Southwest Regional Library

Southwest Regional Library
3605 Shannon Road
Durham, North Carolina 27707
Contact: Jennifer Lohmann
Contact Number: 919-560-8594

To register:
Go to Southwest Regional Library ; click on the calendar and then the event.

This eight-session discussion course from the Northwest Earth Institute looks at where our food comes from and how we can help the environment with our food choices.

Topics Covered:

  1. What’s Eating America: Given the array of food choices and advice, eating in modern industrial society can be wrought with confusion, contradictions and anxiety. Session One considers the effects of modern industrial eating habits on culture, society and ecological systems.
  2. Anonymous Food: Session Two traces the historical shift from family farms to industrial agriculture to present day questions surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO) and industrial organics. The session examines the ecological and economic impacts that have accompanied the changes in how we grow and prepare food.
  3. Farming for the Future: Session Three explores emerging food system alternatives, highlighting sustainable growing practices and the benefits of small farms and urban food production. The session considers how individuals can make choices that lead to a more sustainable food supply.
  4. You Are What You Eat: Session Four explores food systems from a human health perspective. The session considers the influences that shape our choices and food policies from the fields to Capitol Hill, and the implications for our health and well-being.
  5. Toward a Just Food System: The readings in Session Five examine issues of hunger, equity, and Fair Trade. The session considers the role that governments, communities and individuals can play in addressing these issues to create a more just food system.
  6. Choices for Change: Individuals and communities are discovering the benefits of choosing local, seasonal and sustainably grown and produced foods. Session Six offers inspiration and practical advice in taking steps to create more sustainable food systems
  7. .

A World of Health (registration required)

Tuesday evenings, September 27-November 15, 7:00-8:30 pm.

South Regional Library
4505 S. Alston Avenue
Durham, North Carolina 27713
Contact: Cathy Starkweather
Contact phone; 919-560-7410
Contact email: cstarkweather@durhamcountync.org

To register:
Go to South Regional Library; click on the calendar and then the event.

A World of Health is an eight-session discussion course from the Northwest Earth Institute. Come explore “good health,” the connections between human health and the environment, and how we can sustain both.

For more about the course: Northwest Earth Institute.

Topics Covered:

  1. Redefining Health: Good health is something most of us strive for, but what do we really mean when we talk about it, and how might we go about creating the conditions that foster it? This session explores how we define health and how that understanding informs our individual and collective well-being.
  2. Eating Well: Most people agree that eating well is a foundation of good health. Yet many of our decisions are now focused on avoiding foods that might be harmful to ourselves and our planet. How did we arrive at this point where food, which sustains us, has often become something to fear and worry about?
  3. Cleaning House: Americans now spend nearly 90 percent of their time indoors, much of that at home. We look to it as a safe haven, a place to escape from the stresses and trials of the outside world. But recent studies suggest they may not be the safe refuges we think. This session uncovers dangers of household toxins and empowers participants to minimize exposure to health risks.
  4. Building Healthy Communities: Many of Americans’ health problems may be traced not only to what we eat, but also to where we live. The readings in this session examine how issues of proximity to major roads and industry, urban and suburban sprawl, and access to amenities and green space impact our overall well-being.
  5. Curing Consumption: Having considered some of the more direct links to health in previous sessions, the authors in this session look at health within the broader context of a consumer culture. While it is easy to see the connection between health and what we eat, drink and breathe, making connections between the products we buy and our health can require some additional effort.
  6. Healthy Planet-Healthy People: The focus of this session widens to consider health within the context of Earth’s dynamic and life-sustaining ecosystems. The readings explore the importance of biodiversity, the health of the oceans, climate change and the interplay between the forces of nature and our individual and collective health.

Tabling at Audubon Park for National Night Out

NECSW braved the late day heat August 2nd at the Audubon Park subdivision’s 6th annual National Night Out event. It was organized by resident Ron Carroll and the homeowners’ association, in partnership with the Durham Police Department and the National Association of Town Watch. It is mainly about preventing crime, by educating people on crime prevention strategies, increasing participation in anti-crime programs, such as neighborhood watches, encouraging community solidarity and community-police relationships, deterring criminals from targeting communities, and demonstrating community concern about crime. Audubon Park (audubonpark.org) is on a ridge just above the Creek, so they invited NECSW to participate. In 2010 Audubon Park received a National All Star Award from the National Association of Town Watch for the [third] year in a row and Durham ranked 9th in participation out of a group of over 145 similarly sized municipalities.

Our table had maps and displays about the Creek’s natural beauty and problems, trash cleanups and other NECSW events, information about stormwater runoff, etc. Several people took our cards or signed up for email updates, and we exchanged information and fish stories.

Fire trucks and police vehicles were on display and many police personnel attended. There was also ice cream and other refreshments and a clown. It was orange in the west, after sunset, when five or six brilliantly red and blue flashing police motorcycles arrived in the pool parking lot, heralding Mayor Bill Bell and Police Chief Jose Lopez, who spoke at the end of the event.

Durham County Residents: Participate in Strategic Planning Survey for County Government

The Durham Board of County Commissioners’ web site provides this description of the survey:

What will Durham County look like 5, 10 or 50 years from today? What current and emerging issues do we need to consider now as we strive to make this community an even better place to live, work, learn, play and grow?

These are just some of the visioning questions Durham County Government will be asking as we journey through a strategic planning process, which culminates in early 2012 with a Strategic Plan adoption by the Board of County Commissioners. Between now and then, the Board of County Commissioners, citizens, county employees and countless stakeholders will be working to shape a plan that will help guide Durham County forward in the years to come.

Durham County Strategic Planning Survey

Homeowners Guide to Stormwater Management

New Hampshire Guide to Stormwater ManagementNew Hampshire Homewoners Do It Yourself Stormwater Management
(PDF 56 pp, 10.4MB
The State of New Hampshire has prepared a New Hampshire Guide to Stormwater Management (PDF 56 pp, 10.4MB). The techniques for managing drainage on your property are applicable here.

The guide to native plants, however, is for New Hampshire. Look at the list of native plants under the Explore Your Neighborhood menu on this site for ideas about suitable plants for Chatham, Wake, or Durham counties. Or contact your Agriculture Extension Agent.

Volunteers Preserving the Natural and Cultural Heritage of Northeast Creek