Category Archives: Event Notices

Posts of notices of events.

Hopson and Grandale Updates

There will be a second City Council hearing on the massive NC55-Hopson rezoning and annexation proposal Monday, February 7th (see durhamnc.gov/AgendaCenter/City-Council-4/ for the January 3rd agenda with details and the February 7th agenda will be available here closer to the meeting).

The rumored extension of Hopson from 55 to Grandale is discussed in Amendment #4 to the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan, up for public comment through Tuesday, February 22 ( www.dchcmpo.org/what-we-do/programs-plans/comprehensive-transportation-plan ). The amendment would change the planned connection from a road with a median to a road without a median, and would include bicycle lanes and sidewalks. Nothing is said about how Grandale would be modified for additional traffic.

Amendment #4 also brings up a new issue of concern. Nothing is said about changes to Grandale Road, but images in the report show Grandale being extended south of Wake Road, in Chatham County. It is unclear whether the road extension would cross Kit and Panther creeks, major tributaries of Northeast Creek, or cut through publicly owned bottomland forest along the creeks.

In 2017 the Wildlife Resources Commission commented about the plan to extend Hopson Road, regarding fragmentation of important and intact natural areas and the impact of construction on aquatic life. These plans go against the recommendations in the NC Natural Heritage Program inventories, quoted in an earlier post. If Hopson Road is extended, would extending it west of Grandale be the next step, since the extension as proposed would not connect with Scott King Road directly? Building a new road paralleling Northeast Creek would be a threat to wildlife that regularly crosses between the bottomlands and uplands, such as amphibians and turtles. Obviously there would be polluted runoff, light pollution, traffic noise, and litter from a new road. Grandale Road near the Creek already poses a problem for wildlife, with a lot of roadkill at times, and the government is aware of this, but seeks to worsen the problem with these plans. Much of the existing traffic on Grandale seems to be coming from or going to Cary, so would this environmentally damaging road expansion in Durham mainly be for the benefit of Cary and Chatham County?

Durham city and county supposedly seek to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, but they build new roads to fill with cars and extending Hopson would probably involve a great deal of blasting and earthmoving, since Hopson currently faces a steep hillside on one of the highest ridges in the area and on the east side of 55 it cuts through another high ridge. Hopson has been re-routed a number of times and used to end at TW Alexander Drive (since Hopson was extended to 55 this section has been made part of the new Louis Stephens Road), after a mostly straight path for many miles. I think bus service curently only extends as far south as the corner of TW Alexander and 55.

The report dates the Hopson Road extension plan only to 2017, but I thought the idea had been defeated many years ago, so it could be prevented again, as was the idea of a connector paralleling the Eno. On the other hand, so much is being proposed around, or through, one of the largest and wildest areas of unbroken wild land along Northeast Creek, with many people living nearby and enjoying the public gameland along the creeks, yet there hasn’t been much of an uproar. Maybe people are still unaware of what is planned.

The 2050 Metropolitan Transportation Plan is also open for public comment, through February 1st. It is unclear what the 2050 Plan would mean for the Northeast Creek basin. The plans are at 5-year intervals.

City Council hearing on NC55 – Hopson tonight, January 3rd

The Durham City Council will hold a virtual hearing regarding the 55-Hopson annexation and rezoning request tonight, Monday, January 3rd. There will also be hearing on 2211 Page Road. Below are some comments, mostly reiterating what has been posted here earlier:

I am not necessarily against building anywhere on this vast site but I have several concerns about this application and some issues tied to this application but not addressed in any public meetings that I am aware of, especially road expansion. 

The entire proposed project extends from the east side of Highway 55 to within sight of Grandale Road, an area probably a mile or more across, and this is the site I am commenting about, not only the smaller, but still very large, portion the applicant wants rezoned Industrial Light. It appears that the staff report recommends just zoning Industrial, if IL is deemed acceptable, but I only just noticed this and have not looked into what that would allow. [The staff report and other documents are linked from the meeting agenda, posted at durhamnc.gov/AgendaCenter/City-Council-4/ ]

There is too much ambiguity about what would be built where. There would be few limits on construction near the neighbors, and much of the site was clearcut, including the portion closest to Audubon Park and Parkwood at the north end. The clearcutting is convenient for the Kimley-Horn memorandum on the environmental condition of the site, though it should be noted that a field or young pine forest is still habitat for some species. Rare plants such as pink ladyslipper orchids might prefer relatively young pine forests and red-tailed hawks hunt over fields and clearcutting probably benefits deer.

The publicly-owned bottomlands along Northeast Creek are noted as a buffer, but they are not that wide and I would like to hear some concern about avoiding harm to this land and those who use it. At times many vehicles are parked along Grandale on a weekend. The Federal land is managed as gameland by the NC Wildlife Commission and if hunting decreases because of building there might be an increase in the number of deer in nearby neighborhoods, which is probably already high. There is also the issue that some species might need larger areas of forest than just what is protected on public land, or species might need upland as well as bottomland habitat, so construction could lead to the loss of species despite the large amount of protected land. There is also the issue of species associated with human activity, such as English ivy, Norway rats, and feral cats, coming in and harming native plants and animals. Nearby I have seen some non-native trees common on vacant land downtown sprouting on clearcut land and utility corridors, though so far they are uncommon in this part of Durham.

There is talk of a 40-50′ buffer around the site, but most of the land has already been cut, though large saplings have grown since then.

The NC Natural Heritage Program inventory reports noted nesting black-and-white warblers and probably nesting sharp-shinned hawks and the presence of ribbon snakes as rare animal species in the areas studied along Northeast Creek at the south end of the County, as well as Douglass’ bittercress and other state or regionally rare or unusual plants, and there were otters and mink along the Creek, but the area has not been re-surveyed since 1999. The most recent Durham report recommended that “Preservation of upland buffers along the edges of the bottomlands should be given a high priority. These slopes provide denning areas for terrestrial species, as well as refuges during periods of high water” while the 1999 Jordan Lake Inventory recommends that “No more utility corridors should be allowed in the area” along the Creek between 55 and 751. These recommendations directly relate to this rezoning application, but aren’t being brought up.

This site is already vast, and I suspect that the Wrenn family’s land to the west, which was also recently clearcut, is available for sale. Does the applicant know something the public doesn’t? I am concerned that approving the rezoning under consideration will be the signal to sell more land in the area, so the near future of a larger area is in question. Similarly there was a lot of change along Ellis Road over a short period. The applicant says that housing will be built at the south end of Grandale and a new road will connect 55 and Grandale. What are Cary’s plans along the county line? In recent years they did so much just south of the county line, along Kit and Panther creeks, major tributaries of Northeast Creek.

I am not aware of any discussion of the government’s road plans relating to this site. There are rumors that there are plans for a new connection from 55 to Grandale and that Grandale will be widened. While it might not be ideal, there is already a connection between 55 and Grandale along the county line, but made harder to use by the changes along 55 around a decade ago. If Hopson were extended, there would still be a jog to get to Scott King Road, so would the DOT next want to extend Hopson to 751, crossing the very large and mostly unbroken publicly owned forest along Northeast, Crooked, and Kit creeks and the Tobacco Trail? I was informed that the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Comprehensive Transportation Plan calls for a “major thoroughfare” from the intersection of Hopson and 55 to Grandale, though nothing is listed in the State Transportation Improvement Program from now to 2033. The application shows a road passing north of the abandoned claypit, which I think is also part of the site that has older trees and steep slopes. A lot of blasting would be required, since 4-lane Hopson currently ends at a steep hillside, on one of the highest ridges in the area. When they blasted away the hill at the corner of TW Alexander and 55 nearby, working day and night, it could be heard for miles and I think there were complaints to the police from Scott King Road. Building new roads obviously contributes to climate change, aside from the traffic and deforestation, and there are already connecting roads. How would a new road change traffic patterns? Traffic has increased on Grandale, probably because of all of the recent building in Wake County, and there is a lot of roadkill. I remember a report demonstrating that the government knows that Grandale at Northeast Creek is a chokepoint for wildlife movement. Would the bridge be raised so that wildlife might tend to cross underneath, as was discussed where expanded 15-501 crosses New Hope Creek? The bend at the bridge on Grandale isn’t very safe for pedestrians and bicyclists and neither is Scott King Road, site of a future elementary school. Many turkey and black vultures used to or still roost close to Grandale and might be driven off, as well as other wildlife. The Kimley-Horn memorandum notes a past report of a waterbird colony and I saw a heron rookery near Grandale. A large amount of traffic, usually going much faster than the speed limit, on residential Sedwick Road is a problem now, but it would probably increase on Grandale and Scott King if Hopson were extended, even if it decreased on Sedwick. I have heard that building new roads tends to increase traffic overall, increasing carbon dioxide emissions. It would be less polluting if the existing rail connection could be used for freight or passengers, but it is on the east side of 55.

If Grandale were widened, it would be good to improve parking at the bridge and maybe more traffic would decrease the risk of harassment there. I use that area and there are other people who hike, hunt, or fish, and people probably still drive ATVs on the City, County, Federal, and Parkwood land. On the other hand maybe a new business park would be like the Ellis Research Center on Ellis Road east of 147 and put up signs threatening the public on a public road and reflecting badly on Durham.

An IL zoning allows many possible uses, and there is not a gurantee about what would actually be built. It is possible that an office type business park would be more environmentally benign than housing, though possibly an unkempt junkyard would be more benign than a business park with close-cropped, chemical and fossil fuel-dependent lawn and large parking lots. Freight would increase traffic and air pollution and waste management would probably increase windblown litter as well as air pollution.

Would IL zoning allow large greenhouses? That would seem to fit with research and development use. The “buffer” provided by Northeast Creek would not be enough to prevent a significant impact on Audubon Park and Parkwood. I live miles away from greenhouses near the intersection of TW Alexander and Highway 54 but I see an area of especially bright orange or yellow light reflected when there are low clouds (higher clouds also get lit up, but the light is less glaringly obvious) and when it is clear that light is still there, obscuring my view of the sky. This is a huge impact, but the UDO considers all of this stray light indoors and therefore not regulated, though the night sky is lit up for miles. I’m not sure that I have ever seen the Milky Way and light pollution in the Triangle must increase every year. The Stonesthrow apartments are adjacent to the greenhouses and don’t need streetlights when there are low clouds.

Greenhouses would have a large impact on the bottomlands along Northeast Creek, and there is the more ordinary light pollution from parking lots and area lights and also noise. The area is currently relatively dark and this large rural area of forests and fields probably serves as a refuge for many nocturnal species. Fireflies of several species are numerous and for more than 10 years I have observed at a location on Grandale for the Firefly Watch program. Fireflies are much more abundant at Grandale than along my street and I see more species there, though I live near woodlands. Bobcats have been seen several miles away at Jordan Lake and it is possible that they live at the south end of Durham and are an example of a rare species that would be driven out by light and noise pollution. I thought birds such as chuck-will’s-widow and whippoorwills had been driven out of the Triangle, but then I encountered one at the elementary school site nearby, obviously trying to lead me away from a nest or chicks. River otters live in Northeast Creek nearby if not here, and turkeys, and wood ducks can be seen near Grandale.

What would be done to prevent chemical releases, including gases, adjacent to Northeast Creek? The applicant notes how far Audubon Park and Parkwood are from the Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant and compares it to the distance between those communities and this site. At one time the WWTP probably had a large quantity of gaseous chlorine on site and it is my understanding that in the event of a chlorine release that buffer would not have been enough for safety. Things have improved, but at one time the WWTP and/or the sewer lines could be smelled strongly in the Frenchman’s Creek and Audubon Park area if not in Parkwood and the Creek had a strong chlorinated smell as it left Durham County around Grandale. I have heard from City employees that Northeast Creek or other creeks have elevated copper levels because of aerial fallout from a smelter downtown and organic chemicals that might come from the freeways. What about the escape of GMOs or disease-causing organisms?

Where would the utilities be located? Fragmenting a forest by putting in utility easements can reduce its utility for forest species and encourages cowbirds, non-native plants, etc. I think there was discussion of building a pipeline for 751 South though here at one point. At that time I thought Durham had a policy of not extending water utilities south of Scott King Road.

The report lists many items that might be good to have in the planning process, but then they are rendered useless if there is not a development plan. There are obviously plants, animals, communities, and ecosystems on the site, since it is a location on the living Earth (though after mass grading the site would like more like a tract on a lifeless celestial body). It is very easy to avoid finding things. I would be surprised if there are not any steep slopes, such as around the old claypit and near 55, and the site seems to include wetlands, such as along the high-tension powerline. The claypit might also count as a wetland and looks like a lake in the recent aerial photo. The photo might show the remains of that ancient hill overlooking 55 at TW Alexander, blasted away as fill for the toll road, with the excess dumped in the claypit.

It would seem likely that there are at least scattered archaeological remains on the hillsides overlooking Northeast Creek and there is a small cemetery on Green Level Church Road near the claypit and 55. I think local universities found significant fossils in the claypit and it is a historic use, so it would be good to preserve it in some form. I found plant fossils a few miles away. There are igneous rock outcroppings in the area, which could encourage rare plants, besides the low level of disturbance by human activity in recent decades, aside from the clearcutting. The claypit is a former industrial use, but as far as I know it is not polluted and has been left in a natural state, without any buildings or trash, though there have been tobacco barns in the general area.

The announcement that this case would be on the Council’s agenda came in late December, before the agenda was even posted, presumably because of the holidays, and the public might not have been paying attention because of the holidays.

Seasonal Nature Notes for winter

This is a revised version of an article I wrote for Cathy Starkweather’s South Durham Green Neighbors Newsletter, posted each month on the sdgreenneighbors Googlegroup (there is also a Facebook group), outlining some of the natural sights and wonders people can look out for this winter.

Seasonal Nature Notes

Despite the cold winter weather, some plants regularly or potentially bloom in December. East Asian camellias bloom in yards from fall into spring, depending on the variety. They don’t seem very attractive to insects, but yellowjackets check them out in the fall. Red maples can start blooming well before spring and when they do small insects can be seen flying around the canopy on relatively warm days.  Many years ago pastel pale blue bluets bloomed in December outside Eno River State Park’s main office, though they normally bloom months later. Peaches on the south-facing side of Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough also bloomed in winter that year and still developed fruit. There were cold temperatures that winter, and there were frigid and icy mornings on the shaded north side of the small mountain. I was surprised to see a white atamasco or Easter lily, usually a flower of mid-spring, blooming near Little Creek in Orange County in early November 2020, after herbaceous brush had been cleared. Hepatica, a pale lavender to blue, and occasionally white or pink, early spring woodland wildflower often found on rocky hillsides, can bloom in January or February if not December. Witch-hazel, a diminutive relative of sweetgums, also might bloom on hillsides around now. This is also a good time of year to look for evergreen mistletoe, a semi-parasitic bush growing in the bare treetops. It is common on silver and red maples near the intersection of Sedwick and Revere roads and it often appears on oaks along city streets in downtown Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, and Raleigh. It seems to be most common in built up areas but sometimes grows on red maples around beaver ponds and large waterways. It was unusual to see one high in a Northern red oak surrounded by other trees at Cary’s Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, near but not immediately next to Swift Creek. There are a few deciduous tree species that mistletoe seems to prefer, but it can grow on a range of native and non-native trees. Recently I have been admiring the shape of the fallen leaves, especially those of Spanish or Southern red oaks. There are many species of oak, each with a different leaf shape, and the form of each leaf is individual, depending on how shaded it was, its history during the growing season, etc. Oaks are among the last trees to lose their leaves, probably finishing in early December, and some oaks and other trees regularly retain their earth-colored dead leaves until spring, at least when young. The whitish paperlike leaves of related American beech, increasingly common in Parkwood, are picturesque in brilliantly lit deciduous woods in winter. Lingering winged seeds can be seen in the skyscraping crowns of bare tuliptrees along Northeast Creek and the sweetgum gumballs won’t fall off for a few more months and attract seedeating birds during the winter. Fruit might linger on plants such as greenbriars, hollies, hawthorns, and Japanese privet while December is likely too late for the last American and Asian persimmons. Apparently cedar waxwings can be poisoned during the winter by the red fruit of Nandina, an East Asian shrub with compound leaves.

It seems like live oaks drop their acorns in winter and other oaks might still be scattering the last of their acorns in early December. The official Landscape Manual for Durham recommends against planting Virginia live oaks, native along the coast into Virginia, but those growing around the old Parkwood Shopping Center, at the intersection of Revere and Seaton roads, don’t appear to have any problems with damage from cold temperatures or ice and their acorns, very abundant under the trees around now, sprout if scattered in yards while still viable. The only drawback might be that they grow slowly, at least when somewhat shaded. Live oaks are evergreen, hence their common name, but might have fewer leaves during the winter. Young oaks of many species are often semi-evergreen or retain dead leaves in winter, and water oaks, which are native to Durham and have reached a pretty large size in some yards and on the UNC campus, are a little closer to being evergreen. This is another native oak Durham seems to unfairly malign, claiming that it is prone to “untreatable decay,” and they have problems with the supposedly “exotic” pin oak, which seems to be native in central NC if not Durham. They did not seek public input before updating the manual in 2020. Oaks often turn red in the fall, some species strikingly so, but when fallen leaves are picked up they are usually more brown than red.

This is a good time to look for migratory waterfowl, including American coots, pied-billed grebes, ring-billed gulls, non-resident Canada geese, and ducks such as black scoters, long-tailed ducks, and mergansers. Some species, such as hooded mergansers, can stay well into the spring and might breed here but it seems like the majority of the migrants fly north by or in February. I like to look for them at Crabtree Lake in Cary but they also visit Parkwood Lake, large stormwater ponds, the waterfowl impoundments, and sometimes even small beaver ponds (see my February 2014 article at www.northeastcreek.org/wordpress/784/ ). I sometimes spot unusual shorebirds, terns, etc. at various times at the large reservoirs, but only one or a few at a time and it is easier to search smaller lakes. Migrating shorebirds can also turn up on dry shorelines around small beaver ponds. Small flocks of colorful wood ducks can be seen in Northeast Creek now, but they are very wary and I usually only catch a glimpse as they shriek and fly off. Woodcocks or just their tracks and probings can be found along waterways in winter, though I might see them more often in late winter than now. Seeing a well-camouflaged woodcock usually means not seeing it until one gets close and it flies away, though maybe not with quite the speed of a wood duck. Flocks of turkeys and their tracks can also be found in bottomlands in winter; despite their reputed wariness about 20 landed above me in a swampy area after sunset on a Thanksgiving Day, and I think they didn’t fly off as I left. Maybe they were experienced enough to know I wasn’t hunting. According to John K Terres they roost over water for protection from great horned owls and presumably other predators. Woodcocks start displaying around January and the NC Botanical Garden usually has excursions to see their displays, rising 300 feet in the air above open areas at nearby Mason Farm Biological Reserve as night falls. Barred owls, bald eagles, and hooded mergansers are among the birds that can begin to breed in December or January. The plaintive calls of yellow-bellied sapsuckers are a common winter sound in Parkwood. These migratory woodpeckers spend winter here, chiseling rows of holes in many tree and shrub species for sap; they also eat insects. They breed further north and at high elevations in Western NC. Other birds and insects also visit sapsucker holes, potentially including overwintering butterflies. Wounded trees, as well as fruiting persimmons,are good places to look for butterflies in the fall. The ground can be heavily littered with fruit under untended pear trees, but in my experience they don’t seem very attractive to butterflies and other insects, or maybe it is late in the season.

Winter is also a good time to observe some insect life stages, such as the egg masses of mantises and Eastern tentworms and the large cocoons of some giant silk moth species. I frequently see large cocoons dangling from the twig tips of birch planted around buildings. Some species attach their cocoons to the twigs while others allow their cocoons to fall with the leaves, one reason it is important to leave fallen leaves. For example, both promethea or spicebush and tuliptree silk moth caterpillars can be found on tuliptrees, but promethea caterpillars usually spin their cocoons so they won’t fall while tuliptree moths let them fall. Related polyphemus moth caterpillars usually either travel to the ground to pupate or fall with the leaves. Sometimes they do attach their cocoons to twigs, and these might be the cocoons I see on birch. This group of very large moths can be found in Parkwood and there are plants for their caterpillars, but they seem more abundant in places like UNC and Falls Lake. Insects have many ways of surving winter and one frigid winter morning I jostled a holly and very small green inchworm caterpillars dangled on silk, though the ground below was hard with ice. At other times I have seen insects and spiders out as snow melts. Carolina wrens and other birds can be seen investigating lingering dead leaves. The various species forage in different ways, searching the tips of branches or along trunks and working in different directions, avoiding competition. Galls created by insects or other organisms can be seen on the stems of goldenrods and other plants. Under hickories carefully pruned twigs can be found, cut off by twig girdling beetles. The round exit holes of weevil grubs can be seen in this year’s acorns and other nuts. Don’t bring eggs masses, cocoons, etc. indoors for long or they might hatch early, with disastrous results. It is now safe to examine the nests of social paper wasps, often hidden in brush or under eaves and bald-faced hornet nests suspended from tree branches. I sometimes find the tiny mud vases of solitary potter wasps hidden in closed up wild carrot or Queen Anne’s lace seedheads. Even on what seem like freezing nights some moths can be on the wing, as well as bats. I found a large gray hoary bat roosting at ground level on the outside of UNC’s Greenlaw building one day in mid-January. During warm spells hibernating butterflies and moths can appear and in some cases last year’s caterpillars emerge as adults, possibly too early. Black swallowtail butterflies, especially males, frequently hatch when it seems too early, and it might have been on a night at the end of a warm spell in December, with the wind picking up as a cold front approached, that I saw a large pastel green luna moth unseasonably fly by a streetlight at Eno River State Park.

Depending on the weather early spring frogs can start singing in December. I sometimes hear individual frogs call quietly on mild, cloudy days in the fall and while species such as upland chorus frogs are so loud in late winter and early spring it might be easier to actually see them in the fall and summer. Marbled salamanders silently court and lay eggs in dry depressions in early fall, females guarding their eggs until these vernal pools fill up. The dark brown or black larvae with a collar of frilly gills can be seen, developing front legs first, unlike frog and toad tadpoles. What are probably marbled salamander larvae can be seen in the bottomlands around Northeast Creek and in puddles next to some nearby roads. Like frogs and toads they can breed in pools created by human activity, though they seem to prefer ‘wilder’ pools. Construction destroyed some nearby breeding pools and might have killed off the adults and they also get killed crossing roads to reach their customary breeding locations. Closely related spotted salamanders breed later, dancing underwater in the now brimming pools, and their larvae can be prey for the older marbled salamander larvae. At least in the case of spotted salamanders breeding adults prefer to return to their natal pool, and can follow the same route every year. I haven’t ever found an adult spotted salamander myself, so as far as I know they aren’t found in southern Durham County, but I occasionally find marbled salamanders hidden under debris on moist hillsides near creeks. Spotted salamanders famously breed in large vernal pools at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and there are usually tours, which fill up quickly. One or more small salamander species can be found in Parkwood’s streams, possibly only breeding there, but they are well hidden or uncommon so I rarely see them. Salamander biodiversity is very high in North Carolina but they are usually not as conspicuous as frogs and toads.

I think of lizards as animals of summer but Carolina or green anoles are easy to see in the fall and winter. I first noticed them in Parkwood about 10 years ago and several moved into my yard in the summer of 2020. I wonder if this is a sign of climate change, but they were known in Chapel Hill by at least 1995 and according to roadsendnaturalist.com/2021/09/05/yard-mystery/ anoles have lived in that part of Chatham County for at least decades. I started seeing them in Orange County around the same time as in Parkwood and a few years ago they were common in places at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area. I haven’t seen them further north near the Eno, though Falls Lake is a rich in reptiles, including species that I had not realized live in the piedmont. Despite changing color to match their surroundings, anoles are conspicuous and I would have noticed if many had been living around here. Last fall and winter I would often see them on sunny south-facing walls and an air-conditioning unit, even in December, and I was afraid that they might not survive the winter, but they did and were out again this year. Fence lizards live or lived at Parkwood Elementary School, spiraling around trees to escape capture, but otherwise seem very rare in this part of the Triangle. They are common in places at Falls Lake State Recreation Area. I found one near the Eno on a cold, wet day, probably in late fall or early winter, but it seemed dangerously chilled. I can’t recall seeing any skinks out in fall or winter.

The Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice is Tuesday, December 21st this year, when the night will be longest. Daylength changes little from day to day close to the solstice, but changes faster closer to spring. I thought the first frost was usually in mid-November, and that was the case this year, but some sources ( such as gardening.ces.ncsu.edu/average-first-and-last-frost-dates/ ) say it is earlier. We can get significant snow in December, but the coldest temperatures are usually in the New Year, in late January, when snowstorms are more likely and snow and ice can linger. The Earth’s orbit actually takes us closest to the Sun during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, but the Earth’s tilt reduces the amount of heating produced by the Sun’s rays and it takes time for the land and oceans to warm or cool. For a few years it seemed like we often had balmy weather in late December. So far mild to warm weather is forecast for much of early December.

Winter is the best time to see atmospheric phenomena created when sun or moonlight interacts with ice crystals in motion, in clouds such as cirrus and cirrostratus, though optical phenomena can appear in any season. There are many kinds, including various haloes around the Sun or Moon, often indicating approaching stormy weather; sun and even moondogs, also called mock suns/moons and parhelia/paraselene, on one or both sides of the Sun or Moon; circumzenithal arcs, like rainbows in the center of the sky; and many other kinds, ranging from relatively common to very rare. Around midday on about November 15, 1996 the sky over southern Durham seemed to be full of lines and I wonder if anyone else noticed. That might have been when I first noticed sundogs. There are also the optical effects created by water droplets; rainbows are more common in the summer, but coronas often form around the Moon when it shines through a thin bank of the mid-level cloud altocumulus.

With the Sun setting early and the trees bare, this is also a good time to see both the colorful sunset in the west and the bands of color in the east as we enter the Earth’s shadow.

The night sky is also interesting and the sky is often limpid if burning cold in winter. Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mercury will be plainly visible in the evening and Uranus and Neptune will be visible through binoculars. Before dawn on the 31st the delicate, gleaming white waning crescent Moon, reddish Mars, and the reddish star Antares, in the heart of the constellation Scorpius, will appear close together low in the southeast. Scorpius appears shortly before the Sun rises now, but is up much of the night during the summer. Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) might become bright enough to be visible to the unaided eye, after having spent tens of thousands of years approaching the inner solar system. On the 17th Comet Leonard will appear near Venus. There are other comets in the sky as well, but they are not expected to become very bright. Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt, will be visible using binoculars in the constellation Taurus. It was the first asteroid discovered, January 1, 1801, and could harbor extraterrestrial life.

There are several annual meteor showers, mostly weak, with only a handful of meteors per hour on average, or even fewer. Some but not all of the showers potentially visible now are listed below, based on David H Levy’s The Sky: A User’s Guide, the American Meteor Society’s website (see below), and other guides. The Southern Taurids already peaked, but can be seen until December 2nd; they are relatively slow-moving and often form bright fireballs. The Northern Taurids are also supposed to end December 2nd. Meteor showers are named for the constellation they appear to radiate from, in this case Taurus, but they can be seen looking elsewhere in the sky. The Leonids are visible November 3rd to December 2nd, peaking November 18th, and these meteors have the greatest speed of any annual shower. Andromedids appear occasionally but not every December and the AMS says this shower ends December 2nd. The Monocerotids can be seen until December 26th, peaking on the 11th. The Geminids are supposed to be the strongest meteor shower of the year, visible December 4th – 17th peaking early on the 14th. The Geminid and Leonid showers are strongest, especially the Geminids, but the Moon and light pollution can lower the count even if it is a clear. Showers can vary in strength and some occasionally produce extraordinary storms of meteors. There is a Leonid storm every 33 years. The Ursids are visible December 17th – 26th and peak on the 22nd. The Coma Berenicids are visible until December 23rd and peak December 15th. The Quadrantids, named for Quadrans Muralis a superseded constellation bordering the Big Dipper or Ursa Major in the north, are visible December 28th – January 7th and peak briefly on January 3rd. Some years I’ve tried to see all of the main showers. 

Satellites and sometimes larger objects, such as the very bright International Space Station, can be seen passing slowly overhead (some of the websites below give the dates and times when the ISS and other objects transit over the area). It is easy to see satellites early in the night and in the pre-dawn hours, when they are bathed in sunlight while we are in shadow. Huge numbers of satellites, mainly “constellations” of communications satellites, are being sent into low Earth orbit now, a growing problem for astronomers and other satellites.

Some of Parkwood’s green areas are good places for stargazing, but are closed at night, though I suggested to  the Parkwood Association that it would be good to have places to look at the sky. There are also more streetlights, but it is possible to request that they be better shielded or removed altogether ( the contacts were listed in the Association’s newsletter a few years ago). Despite streetlights the areas around Revere and Seaton roads; places along Highway 54, such as the watershed between Northeast and Crooked creeks, topped by Barbee Road; large ponds and lakes; and possibly Southpoint Mall, despite all of its lights, have good views down towards the horizon. The Jordan Lake Wildlife Observation Site off Martha’s Chapel Road and the nearby gamelands don’t seem to have closing times and state parks are open all night for campers. CHAOS, the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society, organizes local events and trips to darker locations and Morehead Planetarium at UNC hosts events.


Stargazing:

Heavens-above.com
spaceweather.com
skyandtelescope.com
astronomy.com
amsmeteors.org
chaosastro.org
moreheadplanetarium.org
spacewatchtower.blogspot.com

Atmospheric optical phenomenon:

atoptics.co.uk
atoptics.wordpress.com

See also the Audubon and Peterson weather/atmosphere guides; the Peterson guide has diagrams showing many of the optical effects.

The Planning commission vote on 55-Hopson

At the Tuesday, October 12th meeting the Planning Commission voted 12-0 against recommending the Industrial Light rezoning around the intersection of Hopson Road and 55, bordering RTP and extending west, south across Northeast Creek from several communities.  Members of the public had about 3 minutes each to comment and a few neighbors and I spoke. As I recall the comments were generally questions or negative on the proposed rezoning and there were not any ringing endorsements.  I  wasn’t the only person to bring up light pollution and I think noise was an issue at the community consultation meeting in January if not on the 12th.  One or more neighbors mentioned concern for wildlife, and mentioned seeing a bald eagle in their yard, but without noting that the adjacent gameland was inventoried by the NC Natural Heritage Program as an important natural area in Durham County and greater Jordan Lake that ideally should not be disturbed further and is also used for hunting and fishing.  There was a proposal to move to a text-only development plan addressing some of the concerns brought up at the hearing, to be heard again in 60 days, but the original application was voted upon in the end.  Despite this negative recommendation by the Commission the proposed rezoning could soon go to City Council.  So far nothing has been announced. 

The applicant said that their plan is to build a business park housing valuable biomedical companies, but I wonder if the research and development component of an Industrial Light zoning would allow large greenhouses, similar to those on TW Alexander Drive and Davis Drive.  When there are low clouds light reflected from large greenhouses is conspicuous for miles and when it is clear the light isn’t so obvious but still contributes to light pollution obscuring the night sky over the Triangle.  Humanity has been able to look up and see the Milky Way as well as other galaxies for thousands of years,  but I’m not sure if I have ever been able to see our greater galaxy from the Triangle or anywhere. An Industrial Light zoning allows many uses, including warehouses, recycling centers, junkyards, wholesale trade, etc.  Some of these uses would probably increase windbown litter, traffic, noise, and air pollution. 

Would there be a risk of hazardous material spills?  Early in the applicant’s presentation to the Commission the relatively large distance between this site and neighborhoods to the north was compared with the distance between the nearby Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant on 55 and the neighborhoods.  Not so long ago the Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant used chlorine for disinfection, leaving Northeast Creek with a chlorinated smell far downstream, so presumably there was a supply of chlorine gas on site.  If there had been a leak houses were probably dangerously nearby and today houses have been built even closer.  The rezoning application predicts additional residential building just west of the site, along Grandale.  It should also be noted that while houses are relatively far, Northeast Creek is very close to parts of the site and is the reason there is a buffer of forest between the site and the north neighborhoods. 

Besides whatever noise would come from the construction and operation of whatever is built, a large area would hear and maybe feel the blasting and earthmoving necessary to cut through the ridge at the corner of 55 and Hopson and other hills for a new road. The DOT would probably want a road similar to Hopson, which has four divided lanes cutting through a ridge on the east side of 55.  Earlier this month the BBC talked about the climate change impact of new building construction, and here is a plan to build a major new road when there are already roads connecting 55 to Grandale. Ignoring the impact on wildlife, would a new road significantly reduce traffic on existing roads and would that be the end of major road building along Northeast Creek at the very south margin of Durham County? A railroad, which is probably less carbon-intensive than trucking, is on the other side of 55 from the majority of the site.  Local governments claim to be trying to reduce Durham’s contributions to climate change. 

There is very little information about what would actually be built and where and the opportunity for regular public input ends once the City Council approves a rezoning.   

55-Hopson and MLK rezoning hearings at the planning commission tonight

Tonight (October 12th) at 5:30 the Planning Commission will hear two rezoning requests in the Northeast Creek basin, a large Industrial Light project proposed along the edge of the County around the intersection of Highway 55 and Hopson Road and apartments at the northeast corner of Fayetteville Road and Martin Luther King Jr Parkway.  I have been paying the most attention to the 55-Hopson proposal, but I did not realize its full significance until a few days ago, so this post is at the last minute.  Tonight is not the final hearing.  There are or have been some other rezoning requests along the Creek this year.  This will be an online meeting through Zoom; registration is at:

zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Az71ESRRSPumnJMjRXPEMg

More information about participating:

durhamnc.gov/4062/Participate-in-a-Virtual-Public-Hearing

The application, referenced below, is available in the agenda posted at: 

durhamnc.gov/AgendaCenter/Planning-Commission-15

See also Durham’s new supplemental Social PinPoint system:

durham.mysocialpinpoint.com/land-use/map#/sidebar/tab/about

I wrote about this and some other proposals earlier in the year at:

www.northeastcreek.org/wordpress/where-the-red-fire-pink-blows-and-other-campions-in-the-triangle/

After the Planning Commission there would be a hearing before the City Council.  Below are some comments.  

Hopson-55 rezoning 

The staff report incorrectly said this site is in the Neuse River basin, but I think this is being corrected to the Haw and ultimately Cape Fear basin.  Legal definitions must be being used at the bottom of page 4, because there are obviously plants, animals, communities, and ecosystems on the site, since it is a location on the living Earth (though after mass grading the site would like more like a tract on a lifeless celestial body).  It is very easy to not find any rare or protected species or historical relevance.   The report lists many items that might be good to have in the planning process, but then they are rendered useless by saying that they do not apply in the absence of a development plan.

There are references to extending Hopson Road west of 55 on page 32, etc.  The rezoning request only covers part of the area discussed at the community meeting, but obviously the applicant must intend to build in the entire area, looking at page 34, etc.   The clearcutting over the last 10 years from 55 to Grandale leads me to suspect that all of this land is being sold, so does the applicant have plans or know something the public doesn’t know?  It’s possible the logging was done so they could then say on page 53 that the communities discussed in the NC Natural Heritage Program reports no longer exist, and without committed elements there are no guarantees about where building would be done on the site.  The area north of the powerline was also clearcut, but they say it will not be built upon.  When was there a hearing on building a new connecting road from 55 to Grandale?  I also heard a rumor late last week that the DOT wants to enlarge Grandale.  I have since been informed that the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Comprehensive Transportation Plan calls for a “major thoroughfare” from the Hopson and 55 intersection to Grandale, but nothing is listed in the State Transportation Improvement Program from now to 2033.  The NC NHP repeatedly surveyed the public lands along Northeast Creek immediately bordering the proposed rezoning site and recommends that new utility easements not be built (Jordan Lake Inventory 1999) and that “Preservation of upland buffers along the edges of the bottomlands should be given a high priority” (Durham County Inventory 1995).  It seems like building a major new road would have a worse impact on the environment than new utillity easements and there is already a lot of roadkill on Grandale Road around the bridge over Northeast Creek as it is, especially in late spring/early summer.  When was or will the public given an opportunity to comment on road plans?  How much blasting would have to be done to extend Hopson, given that it currently ends at a steep slope, on one of the highest hills in the area?  Will the DOT then want to extend a road across one of the wildest parts of Northeast Creek and the Tobacco Trail to 751?  There is already a connecting route from 55 to Grandale, made harder to use when the intersection was moved north, and the area around the old claypit can be accessed from the existing road.

As I said before, the application includes very little information about what is actually planned.  At the community meeting (see page 41) they said the plan was for office-type biomedical buildings, but Industrial Light allows many applications, including recycling centers, warehouses, freight facilities, junkyards, wholesale, etc.  It is possible a junkyard would actually be more environmentally benign than office buildings, parking lots, and lawn.  Freight or recycling would probably increase roadkill and litter and have other impacts.  What would be done to limit harmful chemical releases?  Would the buildings be built where they would have maximum impact on the adjacent gamelands, and Parkwood and Audubon Park would also be impacted since they aren’t that far away? 

What about the impact on hunting?  If hunting is limited by building, there could be over-population of deer in Parkwood.  Wildlife such as turkeys, wood ducks, prothonotary warblers, beavers (a subject of concern east of Parkwood this year), and possibly otters live adjacent to this site, while further away I saw a breeding female chuck-will’s-widow or whippoorwill, and I thought such birds had been driving out of the Triangle, like bobwhites.  

Would IL zoning allow greenhouses, under research?  I live miles from TW Alexander Drive, but I am already impacted by the light pollution from large greenhouses there, along with the new blue-white streetlights installed this year.  It is less obvious, but I can probably see light pollution from the Southpoint Mall area as well.  Light pollution is very obvious when there are low clouds, such as last weekend, but it reflects off dust, etc, and muddies the sky even on clear nights, so the Milky Way, which should be easy to see is barely if at all visible.  Closer to the site buildings and parking lots would no doubt be lit all night and there would probably be light trespass from poorly shielded lights into the gameland.  If a large greenhouse were built close to Parkwood it would probably be very bright on nearby streets when it is cloudy, and during the winter, even though there is a forested buffer, as happens at the Stonesthrow Apartments, by Burdens Creek.

What about the scientific significance of the claypit?  I can’t remember the details now, but I think paleontologists at local universities have excavated significant fossils there.  I have found plant fossils elsewhere where the sedimentary bedrock has been exposed a few miles away.  The application says there are not any steep slopes or wetlands, but is this true of the entire area they want to build on, from 55 to near Grandale Road?  The aerial photos show water in the old claypit and there are marshes in places under the powerlines, while it seems likely that there would be steep slopes around the claypit and 55.   

There is a small cemetery southeast of the claypit by the road and it is likely that there are archaeological remains where ancient people could overlook the floodplain and watch for game.  There is an old road of some near 55, but I don’t know of any ruins there.    

Even though there is preserved land, development nearby could still cause local extinctions, for example if species are bothered by light, noise, or water pollution; needed the upland habitat on private land as well as the public bottomlands; if they need a larger area of forest than just what is preserved; or if they are harmed by non-native species such as cats, dogs, Norway rats, or English ivy that could come with increased human activity.  

Some but not all of the woods in this area were clearcut over the past 10 years, but young trees have since grown back and species such as deer and red-tailed hawks have probably benefitted, and bobwhites might also like such habitat. Unlike what the application says, when I would go by over 10 years ago it seemed like the claypit was surrounded by forest, though it was relatively young, and some remains.

Apparently tree planting is a significant way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as the City of Durham supposedly desires, but Durham probably has fewer trees now than it did in 1995, at least in this section (though the amount of forest is probably greater than when agriculture was more prominent in Durham).  Building a new road, instead of using what already exists, and relying on cars, would also contribute to climate change.

I’m not necessarily against building something and I actually find new construction interesting, but very little information is being offered, what would this project mean for nearby “vacant” land, and suddenly there is talk of a new connecting road and expanding Grandale. I am generally against making Grandale a major road and there is already too much roadkill and dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists along Grandale and on Scott King Road, where an elementary school is planned. The speed limit is high, and people speed, coming on to the curved and narrow bridge over the Creek, at one time a one-lane wooden bridge on a long gravel road.  Increased traffic might potentially drive off the huge numbers of  turkey and black vultures that sometimes roost, though it might increase their food supply. The only benefit is that the risk of people being harassed by over-zealous neighborhood watch types and even deputies while doing legal activities might be reduced, as well as illegal dumping, though littering might increase. It might be good to have better parking by the bridge. On the other hand, given that people like or liked to joyride ATVs in the area, including on the site in question, and it borders parkland, maybe it would become Durham’s next Ellis Research Center (on the south side of Ellis Road east of 147), which has private metal signs saying “No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking” along a public road, which reflects badly on Durham and is a threat to the public.

518 Martin Luther King Jr Parkway

I am not very familiar with this site except passing by, but it is in the headwaters of Northeast Creek’s north branch and it would be good if woods were preserved, especially along the roads, the Tobacco Trail, and any streams; native plants used in landscaping; light pollution limited, etc. The woods might not be very old, but a rare pink ladyslipper orchid grew in young pinewoods where Woodcroft Parkway was extended across Fayetteville and some species prefer young or otherwise piney woods. There is already a lot of traffic at the intersection to consider and the ATT has crossings in the area. If there are steep slopes, people might throw their trash over the edge if it is made convenient and without consequences for them. It is good that the applicants say they will preserve some existing trees and include a park, though these probably aren’t binding commitments and it would be good to keep the trees along the roads. The maps show a hill on the site and it might have a good view if cleared, as did the ridge at 54 and Barbee Road, which is the watershed separating the Northeast Creek and Crooked Creek basins.  This area has also become much more densely built-up in recent years, but much of it is in the Third Fork and Crooked creek basins. 

The elms are flowering

This is an article I wrote for the February issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out. We are planning trash cleanups on March 28th and a hike, and will be participating in the costume parade downtown on March 21st and other events for Durham Creek Week 2015. Check this website for announcements and all events will also be posted at:

Creek Week Events

Parkwood’s elms are blooming

Red maples dotting the still bare landscape with blots of crimson are one of the first signs that spring is here, but elms are among the first trees to flower. These prominent trees might be less appreciated because an elm in flower is stormy grey or lime green. Winged elms are the most common species, especially in central Parkwood, but there are slippery elms along the streams and probably American elms, and there are scattered Eurasian ornamentals. The most prominent and beautiful elm I know of in the area is the classically fountain-shaped tree on Highway 54, across from . Because its limbs are all high above the ground, it is hard to identify the species.

Elms, especially American elms, are beloved for the fountain or vaselike shape of mature trees, and there is a graceful symmetry to elms generally. Their leaves and branches alternate, creating an airy lattice effect. The straight veins in their oval leaves, double toothed like a pruning saw, are straight and parallel, but elms also have a very unsymmetric feature – the leaf bases are lopsided, especially in American and slippery elms. Elms have thin, elegant branches, strengthened by very tough wood, and the bark of some species can be twisted into rope. They produce wind pollinated bisexual flowers in early spring, developing into small seeds with a circular flange that drift with the wind several weeks later. The elms generally like moist soil, but winged elms seem to grow in drier soil as well.

The massive, spreading elm in front of Carrboro’s Town Hall could be an American elm (it is big enough for a plaque, yet nothing identifies the species), and I think there are labelled American elms in the Coker Arboretum at UNC. American or white elms are around, but are less common after the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that came to the US around 1930, and is spread by introduced and native beetles that bore in elms. Many elms have been killed, especially American elms, but this seems to be a little less catastrophic than the introduction of chestnut blight and emerald ash borer beetles, and the disease can be managed. American elms are large trees with furrowed bark, brownish leaf buds, and their leaves and stems aren’t very hairy, or less so than slippery elms. Their seeds have some hairiness, while the seeds of slippery elms lack hairs. Both American and slippery elms have large, sandpaperlike leaves, but American elms have greenish flowers, unlike slippery elms. Because their wood is so strong and resistant to splitting, and grips screws tightly, American elms have been used to make things like sports equipment, boats, flooring, crates, and kitchen cutting blocks. Many were planted for landscaping in the northeast, though they grow throughout the eastern USA. In A Natural History of Trees, botanist and nature writer Donald Culross Peattie wrote “If you want to be recalled for something that you do, you will be well advised to do it under an [American] Elm – a great Elm, for such a tree outlives the generations of men; the burning issues of today are the ashes of tomorrow, but a noble Elm is a verity that does not change with time. And although Elms too are mortal, great ones are remembered as long after they are gone as are great men.”

Slippery elms are similar to American elms, but smaller and less vaselike. They have been called red elms, having hairy, reddish leaf buds and reddish flowers, as well as hairy twigs. Their inner bark is slippery and becomes mucouslike when chewed. This inner bark was used to make tea and flour and was used for a variety of internal and external problems and still has an FDA approved medical use. American elm bark was used medicinally by Native American groups.

Winged elms are named for the cork flanges that line their twigs to varying degrees. Sweetgums usually aren’t as winged as elms and their leaves are very different. Winged elms leaves are smaller, smoother, and more symmetrical than those of other elms, and large trees have light brown bark. I think these are the first elms to flower, with brownish flowers that turn into silvery, hairy seeds. As with most trees, winged elms grow a lot when they first leaf out in spring, delicately etched leaves surging forth from the twig tips at a fast clip. The tiny, silky looking new leaves hang as if limp, but are actually strangely stiff. Snow, ice, and maybe hurricanes smashed many of the spindly young loblollies behind the Fire Station around 2002, leaving winged elms, ash, and a few surviving pines as the dominant tall trees, to be replaced themselves by oaks, hickories, and beech in coming decades.

Many animals chew on elm branches, leaves, and seeds, including opossums, rabbits, and bobwhites. The caterpillars that fed on elms are like a who’s who of moths and butterflies, including many of the moths you might see at your porchlights this spring. Double-toothed prominent moth caterpillars feed only on elms. They bite into a leaf and then rest there, so their jagged backs appear like the missing leaf edge. It is surprising that this camouflage works, since elm leaves are emerald green, but the caterpillars are pale seafoam blue and green.

Fish to watch

This is from the June issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out. It might be past time for some of the behaviors described, but all summer the daily lives of fish are easy to observe, or easier than in winter.

Our next meeting is scheduled for July 13th at 3pm at the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department. [The meeting has been moved up Seaton Road to the Parkwood Village Pool.]

NECSW was represented at a community consultation in June about a proposed apartment development at the intersection of 54 and Revere Road, but no neighbors attended.

Fish to Watch

June is a good time for fishwatching in the many waterways in Parkwood, as many species enter shallow water to spawn, often in bright breeding colors and exhibiting complex behaviors.

In Parkwood Lake there are swirling black masses of cute baby catfish, guarded by their parents, camouflaged in the murky water. The babies, or fry, are tadpolelike, with big heads and fins, but short tails. They are a species of bullhead catfish, probably black bullheads. In summer a pair swims in circles to excavate a round nest among plants or under a log. The parents guard their many eggs for the few days until they hatch and then stay with them until they grow to about two inches. Later in the summer light-colored fry can be seen darting alone over the bottom to deeper water when a person approaches the shoreline. When caught, bullheads hold their front pectoral and dorsal fins rigid, exposing sharp spines. Small madtom catfish inject painful venom through these spines. Bullheads grow to around a foot and a half long, but the Lake’s channel catfish can grow to around four feet. Channel catfish are grey, slender, and have sharply forked tails. Both channel catfish and black bullheads were probably introduced to this part of North Carolina from the Mississippi River basin.

The nests of sunfish species honeycomb the shoreline of the north Euclid Pond. There are many species, often lumped together as panfish or bream, but these fish are probably bluegills and/or pumpkinseeds. Their colors are hard to see in the water, but bluegills are blueish with stripes and males have red throats now while pumpkinseeds are reticulated with orange and blue. Most sunfish have a black opercular lobe behind the eye, and this is plain black in bluegills, but bordered with orange and white in pumpkinseeds. Males use the motion from their fins to create nests, where they court females. Smaller males try to get in to fertilize the eggs by mimicking females or sneaking in when the owner is distracted. Males guard the eggs and fry until they leave the nest. Sometimes sunfish will even nip at feet placed close by, if they don’t know a human is attached! Surprisingly large sunfish can live in Piedmont brooks and in summer sunfish travel far upstream from the Lake. Largemouth bass are a species of sunfish, and they create correspondingly large, isolated nests.

The minnow family, the biggest family of fish, seems more abundant in clear rocky streams than in suburban lakes, but there are some species in Parkwood. Common carp are gold-colored minnows with short barbels on the corners of their vacuum-like, down pointing mouths. There are carp three feet long in the Lake. To breed, groups of one or a few females and several males enter weedy areas and carry on with splashing and jumping. Carp were introduced from the Old World as a food fish. Japanese koi are colorful, long-lived, and sometimes expensive domesticated carp. Carp tolerate poor water quality and are eaten by predators like otters in Northeast Creek, but they degrade habitat for native fish by uprooting aquatic vegetation and muddying the water. In late summer large carp can be seen gulping at the surface of deep pools in the Creek, such as below the American Tobacco Trail bridge. There are or were large goldfish in Parkwood Lake. Wild goldfish are drab and can grow over a foot long. They are non-native and can hybridize with carp. Small shiners, of which there are many native species, can be found in Northeast Creek and possibly in Parkwood Lake.

The Lake’s ever-present, nondescript grayish “minnows” are actually mosquitofish, Gambusia affinis, basically a wild guppy, and have black spots and a neon violet sheen up close. The large females have a large black spot and give birth to live young. If you look closely, their mouths are turned up, to pick off insects such as mosquito larvae, breathing at the surface. The Lotus Pond doesn’t have much flow in the summer, so some guppies are afflicted with a white fungus on their fins.

In nearby weedy beaver ponds, if not in Parkwood Lake, there are toothy bowfin, also called dogfish, living fossils that can breathe air and make bass scatter. Males guard schools of young until they grow to about four inches. It would be cool to see a prehistoric-looking longnose gar, but I have only heard of them being seen at Westpoint on the Eno and maybe in north Raleigh. Chain pickerel with ducklike snouts also lurk in weedy beaver ponds and wetlands. Pickerel are lunging predators, cylindrical, with fins set far back, so they can dart out at prey. On the other hand, sunfish have a pan-shape that lets them catch small prey up and down the water column. Shoals of filter-feeding shad sometimes ruffle the surface of Parkwood Lake. In Northeast Creek there are many small species, such as darters and mudminnows.

Strange winter waterfowl

We are meeting Sunday, February 16th at 4pm to plan for Creek Week, and our regular meeting will be February 23rd, at 4pm in the same place.

Below is another article I originally wrote for the Parkwood Inside/Out.

Strange winter waterfowl

Many unusual water birds winter in North Carolina. My favorite place to look for them is Crabtree Lake in [Cary], which is large enough to attract many birds, but also small enough to find them and easily accessible. It can be hard to see migrants, because they are wary and often stay far from shore but they usually swim from danger rather than flying. Parkwood Lake is also a convenient place to look, and even small ponds attract migrants, in addition to the Canada geese and mallard ducks that live here all year. It is not very easy to see the waterfowl staying at the Jordan and Falls reservoirs.

Geese and mallards aren’t supposed to breed here, but captive birds that didn’t learn to migrate were released, creating resident populations. Migratory geese swell the local population in winter, and in the mid-90’s there were many migrants with neck tags in Parkwood, making it easy to get to know geese as individuals.

The first unusual migrants I saw were small black ducks in a tight flock in the water at Clermont one cloudy winter day years ago. They were black scoters; the males being jet black with bright orange bills and the females paler with dark bills. We are used to puddle or dabbling ducks like mallards paddling around, eating plant matter from the surface or as deep as their necks will reach, but many migrants, such as scoters are diving ducks, and swim underwater. Scoters dive for foods such as mussels and barnacles.

Other diving ducks I have seen outside of Parkwood. At a nearby beaver pond about the size of the Lotus Pond I saw what I thought was a long-tailed duck, but it took off fast when it saw me, and long-tails are one of the fastest flying ducks. Long-tailed ducks, or oldsquaws in older guides, are white with black wings and black and gray patches. Like penguins, they swim with their wings, and venture to great depths, after molluscs, crustaceans, and fish. Last winter I frequently saw buffleheads at a wastewater treatment lagoon at Falls Lake. Buffleheads are the smallest duck in the US, and have big heads and striking black and white plumage. They were with wood ducks, and both species nest in tree holes, unlike mallards. Wood ducks are here year-round, and winter is a good time to search for these very wary and colorful ducks, but they prefer creeks and swamps. Buffleheads resemble hooded mergansers, one of three mergansers that winter and sometimes breed in NC. These unducklike ducks have rakish crests and pointed bills they use to catch fish underwater. I’ve seen them at Crabtree, but they are uncommon and wary. A week ago I noticed that there were four ducks, as well as a large flock of geese, at the large stormwater retention pond across Renaissance Parkway from Southpoint Mall. I didn’t have binoculars, but one of the ducks had a white patch, so there could be a pair of hooded mergansers there right now.

The most abundant winter visitor in the Triangle is the double-crested cormorant, which is not a duck. A few usually visit Parkwood Lake. Cormorants are dark and sit low in the water, with their orange bills up. They eat fish and, to make diving easier, their feathers are not very waterproof, so they periodically get out and hold their wings open to dry. There are flocks at the large reservoirs and they can be seen flying just above the water in ragged lines.

Handfuls of pied-billed grebes can be seen on most lakes. They are small ducklike birds with nondescript grayish fuzzy feathers and a dark bar on their bills. They also breed in NC and readily dive for prey such as crayfish.

American coots are pretty common. Coots are rails, chickenlike waterbirds, and are black and gray with stark white bills. They nod their heads as they swim in tight groups, and when they come on to the land at Clermont to eat vegetation and seeds. Coots sometimes breed in NC and are a prey of bald eagles, which have been seen at the Lake.

Vast flocks of pure white tundra swans and snow geese winter on the coast. One icy morning I saw a V of white birds in the cold blue sky far above Fayetteville Road, and they might have been swans or geese.

Now is the time to look, because the migrants will probably be all but gone by mid to late February.

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.