All posts by Michael

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.

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.