My wife Margaret and I are embarking on a new adventure in our elder years. In a desire to be closer to our son who lives in Durham NC, we have purchased an 18 acre property and old ranch house (built in 1973) on the banks of the Haw River in NC. This is an effort to “have it all” in terms of a home with great natural beauty but with relatively easy access to family and various human resources. But we are ten miles out in the country and “off the grid” in terms of wired electronic services. But we have wifi delivered by a hotspot technology and satellite tv. The payoff in terms of enjoyment of nature is going to be huge.
The Haw River has long been used by humans before the advent of Europeans in the 1750’s. Indeed there are several fish weirs in our section of river that are remarkable remnants of the not so primitive technology used by native Americans for thousands of years. They likely were catching migratory shad and other fish, especially when the river level was low.
One of the most interesting aspects of the floodplain is the presence of some extraordinarily large trees. For example consider this huge elm tree which my daughter Mary is “hugging.” These “old growth” trees of several species such as tulip poplar, sycamore, beech, loblolly pine, FL sugar maple, sugarberry, willow oak, sweet gum, and white oak are not likely actually remnants of the original forest. It is more likely that they represent individuals that have grown in particularly good conditions within the past several hundred years. I hope to get more information on the ages of these trees in time, but they are one of the most intriguing and extraordinary aspects of this habitat type.
I am building a trail system to allow observations of nature on this property when water levels are low enough. This Strava derived map shows the extensive canopy coverage of the land and the layout of the trail. The understory is generally open except for sometimes dense growths of exotic species such as privet and native paw paw. The presence of privet is both bad and good- it is invasive but the fruits are avidly consumed by birds such as wintering hermit thrushes. The abundance of paw paw and the paucity of other native tree saplings is due to an over-supply of browsing deer.
Previous owners of the property left us a legacy of interesting exotic plants such as camellias, gardenias, azaleas, magnolias and roses. The simple rose shown here is interesting since it offers great beauty but little of interest to the naturalist. Most roses are pollinated by beetles and have no nectar to attract insects or hummingbirds. I have encountered few butterflies to date except for this Carolina satyr and the hackberry emperor, which feed as larvae on the abundant sugarberry trees. There are many other insects such as this intriguing yellow jacket hover fly- it hovers near you in a somewhat menacing manner but is only a fly pretending to be a wasp to reduce predation by birds.
We expect to observe abundant bird life, both resident species and those migrating within the river corridor. For example there have been scarlet tanagers such as this male already molted into its winter plumage feeding on dogwood fruits, and many wood thrushes passing through on their flights to S America.
We have encountered many amphibians as you might expect in a wetland rich habitat. Late winter and early spring should be noisy with their mating calls- here I show an upland chorus frog and a cricket frog, both very well camouflaged. Lizards are common in upland habitats, especially fence lizards and five lined skinks. Male fence lizards have a bright blue chin and belly to advertise their reproductive status. The blue tailed skinks use the color blue for a very different purpose- to attract predators to attack the tail, which can be broken off. There is also the possibility that these skinks are toxic if eaten but the information on this topic is contradictory.
We have not encountered many snakes yet but do have a tame black rat snake in our basement, here being wrangled by my son David !
Box turtles are sometimes seen crossing roads in our area and I expect to find them in our woods. I took this photo of a male box turtle in a nearby natural area- note the fierce red eye of this male ! Box turtles live a long time and are very territorial. The most common turtles are found in the river- see here a basking group on a log which likely consists of both river cooters and yellow bellied sliders.
Well you can see that my wife and I are embarked on a new adventure in natural history which should engage our minds and hearts for years to come. Experts say that in old age we should challenge our brains by new and stimulating activities- I think we have that covered.