Tag Archives: trilliums

Explore upper New Hope Creek around Johnston Mill Nature Preserve

The Triangle Land Conservancy’s Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, established in June 1999, protects 296 acres along upper New Hope Creek. Much of the Triangle is in the New Hope basin, including major tributary Northeast Creek, and most of the Jordan Lake reservoir, a source of water for several municipalities, sits in the valley of the New Hope River. The lower end of New Hope Creek meanders across wide bottomlands in the Triassic Basin, while at Johnston Mill the Creek, still surprisingly wide, is clear and rocky like the Eno and there are stony remains of gristmills. I didn’t see any fish when I visited in mid-February, though I also didn’t make a special effort to find them, but this should be a good place to watch fish building their nests and spawning in the spring and early summer. In February a spring bloom of algae grew on cobbles in shallow sections with the increasing warmth and daylength. Much of the surrounding forest is not especially old, though there are some large and old trees, but it still shelters many rare to threatened species and is very biodiverse; for example more than 125 bird species have been seen and there many species of early-blooming and often very uncommon woodland wildflowers. The mix of fields and old to young forest, ranging from dry hilltops down to riparian edges, heightens biodiversity and the Preserve roughly links segements of Duke Forest for species that need large areas of contiguous forest. Being just north of Chapel Hill and near Durham, this seems to be one of the TLC’s busier preserves, especially near the Mount Sinai Road entrance. I found someone’s painted #Rockhunt cobble hidden between two trees far out on the Old Field Bluff Trail.

The reddish soil has numerous rocks, metamorphic or maybe igneous, unlike the generally sedimentary and relatively soft bedrock laid down in the Triassic Basin. Jagged outcroppings, a few supporting Polypodium ferns, and exposures in creek beds reveal vertically upturned bedrock.

The TLC says Johnston Mill has beech up to 150 years old, and there are large oaks. White and Northern red oaks, along with red maples, are common on the hilltops while lower down there are large, uncarved beech and May-blooming tuliptrees, above summer-blooming sourwoods. Elsewhere sycamores, hackberries, sweetgums, shagbark and other hickories, sugar maples, ash, and three species of pine grow above ironwood, hophornbeam, red cedars, black cherries, and occasional hollies. Black walnuts are most frequent in the younger woods in the northwest of the Preserve, along a high-tension powerline, where the forest intergrades with rural farmland and a few houses. Large lianas dangle from the canopy, including grapes and trumpetcreepers, attracting hummingbirds. These massive vines probably grew together with the original woody old field pioneers, such as the tuliptrees and sweetgums. Early-blooming spicebush and painted buckeyes grow near the streams, especially in the northwest section of the Preserve. There might be fringetrees, which bloom later in April. Elms, almost ready to bloom when I last visited, and a few boxelders and birch border the creeks. Throughout the Preserve what must be crownbeard, a tall yellow composite flower that blooms in late summer, is abundant and there are the stems of last summer’s mullein, mint, millkvine, dogfennel, nightshade, and broomsedge. The NC Natural Heritage Program’s inventory of significant natural areas in Orange County says “this is one of the most pleasing forest areas of its size in the county” and “The diversity of spring-blooming herbs is also extremely high and of great aesthetic value,” and includes early-blooming Hepatica, trout lilies, rue anemones, spring beauties, toothworts, jack-in-the-pulpit, and very rare Catesby’s trilliums (I don’t think I have ever seen any trillium species growing wild). Evergreen Christmas ferns, mosses, clubmoss, wild ginger, and May-blooming pipsissewa stood out in the leafless winter forest.

Shortly after walking in from the Turkey Farm Road entrance I saw a golden-crowned kinglet fluttering, gleaning the bare twigtips, a rare sight for me, though maybe not the first time after all, and it was just where Liz Pullman’s write-up for the Carolina Bird Club says to look for them ( www.carolinabirdclub.org/birdingnc/johnston_mill.html ). A belted kingfisher loudly patrolled along New Hope Creek. I saw, heard, or found evidence of 4 to 5 woodpecker species, white-breasted nuthatches, thrushes, hawks, barred owls, turkey vultures, brown thrashers, white-throated sparrows, what I think were savannah sparrows, possibly a phoebe, and several other species. Many warblers, both summer and scarlet tanagers, flycatchers, vireos, and other birds not often seen in yards can be seen in the bottomlands, especially during migration. Turkeys, bobwhites, hawks, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, and similar blue grosbeaks can be seen in the open areas. According to the NC Natural Heritage Program Inventory 21-23 species nested near Old Field Creek annually during the 80’s, including the more montane broad-winged hawks and worm-eating warblers.

Catawba rhododendrons, galax, trailing arbutus, saprophyte sweet pinesap, and foamflowers (another wildflower I have only seen cultivated) grow a short distance downstream in Duke Forest, at least partially accessible from Mount Sinai Road. There more typically western and montane plants, nesting cedar waxwings, red salamanders, and large red sumo mites meet more eastern dwarf waterdogs, yellow-bellied sliders, and snail bullheads.

Eastern chipmunks live in Duke Forest if not here, and the leafy nests of gray squirrels were very visible in late winter. A dog off-leash flushed out three or more hidden deer, and a small herd stood by Turkey Farm Road in the twilight as I left; the deer warning signs in the area are very appropriate. There were signs of beavers; river otters live in parts of New Hope Creek, possibly including Johnston Mill.

It was sunny and cold, but what were probably upland chorus frogs sang briefly near the Turkey Farm Road bluff in early afternoon. It didn’t feel that cold, but the temperature might have been in the 30’s and the wind picked up later. Marbled and spotted salamanders, Northern cricket frogs, and others breed in the bottomland while four-toed salamanders and gray petaltails, rare and primitive dragonflies, breed in hillside seeps. I saw a pickerel frog, similar to a leopard frog but earth-colored, with rectangular spots, and poisonous to other frogs, in rural Orange County when I was very young and never again anywhere else, though they can supposedly be found statewide, and they have been seen hereabouts. I am also impressed that queen snakes, a species more common in western NC and specializing in crayfish, especially recently molted, ‘soft-shelled’ ones, can be found downstream in Duke Forest.

Despite the lingering cold I found some arthropods, a small brown ant and small gray spider, as well as a large mantis eggmass, possibly from a Chinese or praying mantis, and many hackberry leaf galls. Getting to Johnston Mill small yellow daffodils, brilliant blue bluebirds, and a thrush were out as spring approached.

This is a re-edited excerpt from my article in the March – April issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available at local libraries, gardens, and stores and also posted online at www.trianglegardener.com.
For a trail map, etc. see: www.triangleland.org/explore/nature-preserves/johnston-mill-nature-preserve