By: John I Connors
One Field Trip
In the fall of 2019, I led twelve High Schoolers from the Neighborhood Ecology Corps on a hike at Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve. This program serves youth from Southeast Raleigh based at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Wetland Center, but our field trip was to learn about the unique natural features found at this north Raleigh preserve. Within the first hundred yards we crossed paths with a Rough Earth Snake. At twelve inches it might easily be confused with a nightcrawler except for the eyes and flicking tongue. For many this was their first “hands-on” interaction with a snake.
Farther along we coaxed a Marbled Spider out of her curled leaf retreat by tossing a small grasshopper into her orb web. A blotchy yellow arachnid with orange legs- perfect Halloween colors. As the group became more comfortable observing one pointed at a small green dragonfly that was following us. It was a female Common Pondhawk, attracted to the insects stirred by our feet. I caught her in a net, carefully pinched her wings closed and demonstrated the workings of her jaws- she will bite a blade of grass when offered. Next, we surprised a five-foot long Black Racer which decided to dash to its hideaway across the trail, right through the middle of our group. We jumped as it “raced” between us and had a lot to talk and laugh about afterwards. A two-snake day field trip is memorable in any city park. But Horseshoe Farm is one place that consistently delivers.
There was a time in the early two-thousands that the fate of Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve was in question. Some wanted the pastures to be graded into ball fields. But a large irrepressible group headed by People for Parks and the Wake Audubon Society recognized the obvious. There just aren’t many places like this.
Horseshoe is named for the large granite dome buried beneath much of the park which forces the Neuse River to flow the long way around while continuing its journey east. From the air the river’s bend resembles the curvature of a horseshoe. Soils covering the dome are sandy rather than clay, and much of it is maintained as a wildlife meadow. Below the dome, in the floodplain forest, there are flats and ridges of deposited sand which form natural levees- something unique enough to be recognized by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. There are three seasonal floodplain pools here which collect rainwater in winter.
This unique combination of geologic elements influences the flora and fauna of the park. The meadow is alive with insects, especially grasshoppers, dragonflies, and butterflies. Extensive beds of Common Milkweed attract Monarch Butterflies and they are featured on an interpretive sign. Bird watchers are drawn to the numerous species using the meadows. In summer there are Indigo Buntings, Common Yellowthroats and the Yellow-breasted Chat- an elusive bird best recognized by its strange habit of singing throughout the night. There are five species of swallow foraging over the meadows in June, and in winter eleven species of sparrow have been tallied. Only the NCSU farm fields in southern Wake County boast a greater diversity. There are River Otters by the Neuse, Groundhogs by the meadow, and Coyotes hunting rodents throughout. The night skies are dark and star filled.
The floodplain pools are probably the most noteworthy feature, as they are the breeding site for an impressive array of reptiles and amphibians, insects and other creatures. Perhaps the most unusual is the Eastern Spadefoot Toad- a species that spends much of its life buried under the sand but bursts forth to breed during flooding rains. Its breeding voice is loud and carries across the park. Horseshoe is the only place in northern Wake County where we know they exist. This past spring the WakeNature Preserve Partnership helped organize a bioblitz at Horseshoe Farm and in addition to two state-listed plants, scientists found a strange and rare species of Terrestrial Leach. The floodplain pools are an especially fragile environment, and along with the floodplain itself, are subject to erosion and pollution from unwise development. I have taken my grandkids there many times searching for salamander larvae and tadpoles.
When the City Council made the decision to protect Horseshoe Farm more than fifteen years ago, they authorized the development of a Master Plan and funded Phase 1. This provided for a small parking lot, a picnic shelter, and a Clivus Multrum composting toilet. Future phases include a Nature Center, but until that is realized the preserve remains an unstaffed satellite of Durant Nature Preserve. Many people do not know what a special place it is. Unfortunately, this leaves the Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve vulnerable.
Most great nature-oriented parks seek ways to protect their natural resources while also defining and enhancing the visitor experience that depends on them. This means having staff to inventory resources, and then to develop programs and manage visitors coming to the park. These protections do not currently exist at the park today. Because we remain in an early Phase of park development, we do not yet know what the true visitor experience will be. Part of that will be determined by the resource richness when the next Phase begins. And that is dependent on actions taken to protect them today.
The resource base, particularly the plants and animals, depend on having a stable or at least predictable environment. Planning staff and elected officials can influence this through zoning decisions. Most great nature-oriented parks protect their resources and the visitor experience offered by providing a buffer of land around the park where low density development is encouraged. This is what currently exists at Horseshoe Farm.
Which brings us to this moment … High density development adjacent to this nature-dependent park risks diminishing the opportunity of the future park visitors to enjoy the highest quality experience they were promised when Horseshoe Farm was set aside as a nature preserve. Approving the proposal to add over three hundred apartments adjacent to Horseshoe Farm will contribute to the diminishment of the visitor experience. There will be increased noise, and light pollution, and congestion, and pet waste, and soil erosion, and flooding events. Numerous scientific studies have shown that wild animals avoid trails with heavy dog traffic, and apartment dwellers will understandably use the Horseshoe for their daily dog walk. And there will be fewer birds, and it will be harder to hear those that remain, and the flora and fauna of the entire floodplain can be expected to diminish. Even the visitor experience of floating on the Neuse River in a canoe will be diminished as the route will feel more urban and less remote.
There are thousands of places across the City of Raleigh where a large apartment complex can be built without having a deleterious affect on a nature park. But there is only one Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve. Its fate is now in our hands.
For further details on Horseshoe Farm Park and Wake Audubon’s opposition to Rezoning Case Z-40-21: https://www.wakeaudubon.org/initiatives/advocacy/horseshoe-farm-park/, Facebook and Instagram.
By Kate Newberry
Algebra homework, music lessons, youth group, and choosing the perfect Halloween costume. Fall seems to pass even faster than the leaves fall to the ground. After a slow and relaxing summer and before the harried holiday season, autumn is a great time to pause the chaos and enjoy the beauty of nature.
Encourage your kids to put down the technology, head outside, and enjoy the autumn calm. Especially in a time when the average child’s mental health is suffering, connecting with nature is more important than ever. Here are a few ways to get your kids excited about heading out.
One way to help young ones connect with nature is by allowing them to learn and experience their environment first-hand. With several outdoor centers and countless trails, Raleigh’s nature preserves offer the space to learn about nature. Pull up a list of native plants on your phone and go on a scavenger hunt. A cell phone picture can’t compare to an actual cardinal flower or purple coneflower.
The first dedicated reserve in Raleigh, Annie Louise Wilkerson, MD Nature Preserve, spans 157-acres along the southern shores of Falls Lake. If you’d like to take Fido along for the adventure, pick up his leash and head over to Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve.
Hitting the trails for a bike ride or a casual hike is an easy way to combine nature and physical activity. This duo is a great way to help kids relax and beat the stress of a new school year.
With three miles of trails and 140-acres of vegetation, Hemlock Bluffs is a great park for a family ride. William B. Umstead State Park offers 22 miles of trails, as well as horseback riding and mountain biking trails. These are great options for older children. To keep everyone happy on the trail, pack a few snacks and make sure you have plenty of water.
Camping is one of the best ways to connect with nature and carve out quality family time. From watching the stars appear to waking to the sounds of nature, there’s no better way to commune with the outdoors. While just the prospect of a family camping trip might be exhausting, there’s a simpler solution: keep it local.
Backyard camping is just as much fun for kids and comes with the added benefit of your own bathroom. Build a bonfire and share favorite memories, jokes, and stories while roasting marshmallows. Listen for owls, watch for bats, and talk about how mosquitos are a necessary nuisance. Leaving the technology indoors will give your kids a chance to enjoy the serenity of a North Carolina evening.
Kids love animals, and animals love autumn. Spend a little time learning about native animals and go on a hunt to spot them. Whether you try your luck with bird watching or turn over rocks to see the worms, kids of all ages love spotting wildlife. (Isn’t it a universal reflex to say “cows!” when passing a field?)
Little ones will enjoy the opportunity to explore and get dirty. Consider buying a bug house or pair of kids’ binoculars, packing some trail mix, and documenting your finds through photos. Focusing on wildlife will allow you to talk about colors and textures with little ones, or diet and habitat with older children. And, if you don’t know much about Raleigh’s critters, take a minute and learn about your finds together.
Raleigh offers myriad community events throughout the fall, many of which take place outside. Pausing for a moment of cloud watching is all it takes to appreciate your surroundings. If you have older kids, or ones especially interested in the arts, catch a matinee at Theatre In The Park. After the show, take a stroll and discuss the performance.
Connecting with nature doesn’t have to be a lot of work. Pick up some sandwiches to eat at your neighborhood park and talk about the sights and sounds around you. Take a few books or even a board game outside and settle in beneath a tree. Getting kids outside might even be as simple as signing up for soccer or another outdoor sport. Just enjoying the fresh air and warm sun is enough to help your child feel connected to nature.
In an age of digital learning and endless Zoom calls, it’s even more important to limit screen time. Helping your kids connect with the outdoors now will set them up for a positive relationship with nature in the future.
Kate Newberry writes about camping and hiking for several publications. She and her family have hiked everything from the Big Dalton Canyon in California to Pikes Peak in Colorado and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. (although her kids claim the Smokey Mountains are just “small hills.”)
Authored by John Connors
Chimney Swifts were the object of study during the 1930s to 1950s, when volunteers and scientists teamed together and banded 550,000 swifts at nest and roost chimneys. Much of the effort was centered in Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia. We learned that only one pair will nest in a chimney, and that the pair will often return to nest in same chimney year after year. They raise 4-5 young who remain in the chimney for 4 weeks after hatching.
In August the birds abandon the nest chimneys to gather in flocks which roost at night in large industrial-sized chimneys as they prepare for migration. The roosts grow as northern birds join them, so by September many roosts in the south can host as many as 7500 swifts. These roosts allowed for the large banding efforts that took place – the swifts would be caught in netted cages placed atop the chimney mouths as the swifts emerged from their roost. Ultimately we learned that Chimney Swifts winter in the upper Amazon region of Peru.
Authored Pam Diamond, Lights Out Raleigh Volunteer
Some of my fondest memories of growing up in the Southeast are long summers filled with swimming, horseback riding, watermelon seed spitting contests and catching fireflies — or lightning bugs as we called them — at night. Don’t worry, we caught and released them after experiencing the mystery and thrill of watching them light up in our hands.
Jumping forward another couple decades I got to experience the magic of synchronous fireflies in the mountains. Though you can plan a visit to catch the annual experience, I stumbled upon them by accident while primitive camping. My friend and I set up our tent in a clearing away from the forest’s edge. Thankfully — and she still thanks me 25 years later — she accompanied me in the middle of the night when I was too nervous to go out alone to relieve myself. It was then in the dark of the night that we saw what looked like thousands of Christmas lights in the trees. It was a sight to see!
And I do so hope that our generation and the generations to follow will continue to be able to experience the phenomenon. Unfortunately, artificial lights, or light pollution, are taking a toll on the fireflies. According to a study done in 2019, fireflies are attracted to bright LED lights, but the lighting reduces courtship behaviors and also reduces mating success. Fireflies rely on ambient light cues to know when to start courtship flashing, but it becomes a problem when the environment is always lighted. Courtship behaviors go down and breeding success is also likely to go down. That means fewer fireflies for us to marvel over.
Fireflies aren’t the only creatures affected by light pollution. Our migratory birds are, too. Every year, billions of birds migrate north in the spring and back south in the fall. I only recently learned that most of them make this remarkable and perilous journey at night, many using the stars in the night sky to set their course. Isn’t that AMAZING?! However, as they pass over big cities on their way, they can become disoriented by bright artificial lights and skyglow, which can cause them to collide with buildings or windows.
What really is light pollution? Most of us are familiar with pollutants in our air and water, and the garbage polluting our land, but light can also be a pollutant. Simply put, it’s an excessive or inappropriate use of artificial light that can harm human health, animal health, and ecosystems. Most of it comes from outdoor lighting, advertisements, and streetlights. Another major source is indoor light from large buildings like office towers.
Obviously, I’m a concerned citizen. I’m also a volunteer with Lights Out of Wake Audubon working with the City of Raleigh and hopefully soon the Town of Cary in Audubon’s national effort to reduce the problem of light pollution. It’s commendable that more and more cities are wanting to act and make a difference that helps our environment and protects our wildlife. How about we start in our backyards?
I know many homeowners have lights in their front and back yards. I suspect that most think the lights are a safety feature against crime. However, according to the International Dark Sky Association (darksky.org), “There is no clear scientific evidence that increased outdoor lighting deters crimes. It may make us feel safer but has not been shown to make us safer. The truth is bad outdoor lighting can decrease safety by making victims and property easier to see.”
The fact is, most property crime occurs in the light of the day. I know from my experience years ago writing for a Florida newspaper that brazen daytime home burglaries were reported more frequently than nighttime incidents. And some crimes like vandalism and graffiti actually thrive on night lighting.
This doesn’t mean you have to abandon all lighting in your yard and on the exterior of your home. “A dark sky does not necessarily mean a dark ground. Smart lighting that directs light where it is needed creates a balance between safety and starlight,” says the International Dark Sky Association.
Here are some steps that we can readily take to contribute to Lights Out and reduce light pollution in our neighborhoods, which ultimately helps migrating birds, fireflies, and helps us to see the starry night sky. (Oh, did I mention that I’m a stargazer, too?!)
Light pollution is a waste of energy and money and affects each of us. Thankfully, concern about light pollution is rising among homeowners, environmental groups, scientists, and civic leaders. Join me in doing our parts to combat this problem, starting in our own backyards!
Authored by Mary Abrams
In celebration of National Volunteer Week, we say “THANK YOU” to all of our volunteers! Of course, we are always grateful for everyone’s contributions, but it’s important to set aside time to crow about the folks who make Wake Audubon great.
This year, we kicked off our celebration early by announcing the first recipients of two special awards that Wake Audubon created to recognize extraordinary volunteers. These awards honor the legacy of two long-time leaders in our chapter, John Connors and Paulette Van de Zande. You can learn more about them and their contributions here (link to awards page).
Marti Kane is the inaugural recipient of the John Connors Conservation and Environmental Education Award. Marti is one of the most energetic, dedicated, and selfless volunteers we know. She has dedicated her life to conservation and education and readily shares her knowledge and love for birds with the community.
In 2020 alone, Marti took over caring for the Bluebird Trail at Wil-Mar Golf Course where she installed predator guards and repaired, replaced, or relocated many existing Bluebird boxes. Overall, she monitored 55 nest boxes between Wil-Mar, Mordecai Historic Park, Durant Nature Preserve, and Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve. Marti also volunteers with the American Wildlife Refuge cleaning cages and rescuing and transporting raptors. She enjoys educating others on how they too can help birds and is a popular speaker with the Wake Audubon Education and Outreach Committee reaching communities across the county. Marti recently retired from a career in environmental education and conservation culminating as the Director of the Annie Wilkerson Nature Preserve Park in Raleigh, but she’s still working as hard as ever!
Keith Jensen is the first recipient of the Paulette Van de Zande Volunteer Award. We selected Keith because he creates fellowship within the chapter and surrounding community through his hard work and love of birds.
A Research Technician at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, Keith works with many organizations and connects people with birds through several outreach programs. He has served on the UNC Wilmington Painted Bunting Observer Team studying the decline of these colorful birds along our coast and banding birds with his brother. He has mentored WAS Young Naturalists and provided outdoor learning experiences for backyard bird lovers and underserved youth through the Smithsonian Neighborhood Nestwatch program. If you’ve been to a banding demonstration at Prairie Ridge, Keith was the early bird who prepared everything in advance and then shared that special experience with everyone there. Similarly, when we host in-person meetings, he covers all of the logistics including inviting our guests into the Nature Research Center. He is quite an artist too, and his carved Brown-headed Nuthatches and Chimney Swift display have raised community awareness across the Triangle of these declining species.
Please join us in thanking Marti and Keith for all that they do when you see them!
Photo credits: Marti Kane’s photo is by Anne Runyon. Keith Jensen’s photo provided by Keith Jensen.
Authored by Erik Thomas and Liling Warren. All photos by Liling.
On March 27, board members Erik Thomas and Liling Warren traveled to Robeson County to conduct some bird counts. The bird counts were for two projects, monitoring of the Lumber River Important Bird Area (IBA) and the NC Bird Atlas. The Lumber River IBA has pre-designated stops along local roads at which counters list all birds seen or heard within a ten-minute period, with notes on how far away each bird was and when during the ten-minute period the bird made itself known. All of these stops lie in the lower part of the watershed of the Lumber River. The NC Bird Atlas, conversely, has all of North Carolina divided into rectangular blocks of land whose edges are several miles long. The aim of the NC Bird Atlas is to document breeding and wintering birds found in each block. One sixth of all the blocks are designated as “priority blocks,” those in which a more concerted effort is to be made in order to complete a thorough inventory of birds that dwell there. Observations of breeding behaviors are especially important. The ten-minute time limit does not apply to NC Bird Atlas counts. However, counting for the NC Bird Atlas will take place from March, 2021, through February, 2026, whereas the Lumber River IBA is a continuous project with no set termination.
The two counters spent the morning counting at Lumber River IBA sites. Because these spots all lie in bottomland areas, the birds that occur there are those that occur near water, along rivers or in swamps. We found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest, frescoed with lichens as is typical of that species. White-eyed Vireos were already back from the tropics and singing. We did exceptionally well with warblers, coming across eight species: Black-and-white, Prothonotary, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Pine, Yellow-throated, Yellow-rumped, and Prairie. It was surprising to see Prothonotary Warblers so early in the spring, but apparently they now reach the southern part of the state, where Robeson County is situated, in late March.
In the afternoon, we shifted to counting on upland sites for the NC Bird Atlas. Chipping Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds were plentiful. We also encountered a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes and a Horned Lark. The most exciting find of the day, however, was a Swallow-tailed Kite that was heading northward as we stood in the Marietta Cemetery. Swallow-tailed Kites are magnificent birds—and virtually impossible to mistake. You can enjoy some of Liling Warren’s fine camera work of the kite and other birds here. For the entire day, we completed 21 counts, 10 of which were at Lumber River IBA sites. We entered all 21 in the NC Bird Atlas, and of those, 12 were in priority blocks.
Many families are flocking to Raleigh from around the world making the City of Oaks the second fastest growing city in the United States. In order to account for its growing popularity, more infrastructure is needed to house and provide for future Raleighites. One such project that was recently approved is Downtown South, located by the intersection of I-40 and South Saunders. This area surrounds the Walnut Creek floodplain raising environmental challenges including flooding, habitat destruction, and pollution. The developers have proposed many innovative circular designs to decrease flooding and preserve natural spaces but there is still room to improve.
Downtown South is a large development project that was given the go-ahead by Raleigh’s City Council last month. The project will include a soccer stadium for the NC Courage pro soccer team and space for retail, apartments, hotels, and offices. The area will be a very walkable and bike-friendly area, with “pocket parks” to preserve some natural space and provide residents green space for mental health. While these features make it a very appealing place for people to move and work, there are lingering ecological and social issues that need to be addressed.
Out of three large sections of the project, two fall within floodplains. Floodplains are flat areas surrounding a river that are subject to frequent flooding making them a risky place for development. The floodplains also house over 5,000 species of animals that could face death with unmitigated encroachment upon their territory.
Local environmental leaders have voiced their concern for this project while also praising some of the approaches taken by the developer, Kane Realty. Partners for Environmental Justice and the Wake Audubon Society expressed concern over stormwater management and the impact on the animal population. Two out of the three sections of the development are within a floodplain, and there have always been issues with flooding of residential areas in southern Raleigh. So, what has Kane Realty done to address these concerns?
Partners for Environmental Justice publicly stated its approval of the stormwater and flood prevention measures that Kane Realty has proposed. The measures considered by Kane include rainwater harvesting, green roofs, planters, and permeable sidewalks. All of these methods provide circular solutions to water runoff by providing ways that water can serve the community and ecosystem without transporting pollutants from the road to the river. This regenerates nature and designs systems that eliminate pollution.
The overall impact of Downtown South is a mixed bag. South Raleigh is a historically poor area, and the developers have not granted nearly as much affordable housing as the community has requested. This means that poor people who have been able to afford living in the area in the past will be forced out because of rising housing prices. On the circularity side, flood mitigation, park creation, and innovative stormwater management practices are balanced by lingering environmental concerns which cannot be ignored. Check out our article on natural overpasses for additional ideas on how nature and urban environments can harmonize.
Unless otherwise noted, this is the source for the article’s information.
Authored by Frances Black
In our eco-conscious age, low-impact gardening is an idea whose time has come. The concept behind it is simple: You plant a landscape that enhances, rather than stresses, the local environment. No tool is more important to the low-impact approach than native plants.
Naturally occurring plants provide familiar food and shelter for local birds and wildlife. But their value extends far beyond that. Native plants, which co-evolved with local fauna, support insects, which even seed-eating birds need to nourish their young. Insects, in turn, serve other purposes besides providing an avian lunch. They pollinate other plants and can digest plant and animal waste. But the bugs that mean so much to the birds cannot survive on non-native exotic plants that inhabit some gardens.
Natural pollinators and other garden friends aren’t limited to the creepy-crawlies. They include some of the most beautiful garden visitors. In addition to birds, the right native plantings will lure a wide array of butterflies to your wildlife-friendly yard
An exotic or invasive plant, no matter how lovely, poses a threat to native plant populations because you can’t control their propagation. Across the region — and the country — vigorous exotic plants have crowded out natural habitats already under stress from development and other human activities. This makes it even harder for birds and other wildlife to survive. The mimosa, tree of heaven, Russian and autumn olive trees are examples of invasives that crowd out the local plants. When you plant natives such as American holly and swamp milkweed, you take a small step in reversing this process. Your native plants help beget others in the larger ecosystem.
Native plants, by definition, evolved to thrive in the local climate, weathering heat, cold, drought, and floods. This means they need less water than their exotic brethren, saving time, money, and, most of all, water itself. Native plants also are naturally resistant to local diseases, reducing the need for artificial pesticides and herbicides. That’s better for the environment and for you, creating a healthier outdoor human sanctuary right in your own backyard.
North Carolina is home to thousands of native species. Some, such as the dwarf crested iris and eastern blue star, offer beautiful showy flowers. Others, including black cherry and elderberry trees, give us colorful fruits and seeds, and some provide seasonal colors. At the same time, these beautiful plants are also rugged, requiring little maintenance once established. Ardent gardeners, who love to get their hands in the soil and to trim and putter, don’t have to sacrifice the joy of this beloved hobby. In a garden, there’s always something. Time saved in one place can always be used elsewhere.
Planting with natives is a classic win-win. It’s good for the ecosystem, the economy, and wildlife. It also enhances your property with ease, while expressing your love and respect for the natural world around you.
Frances Black is an environmental journalist whose home is filled with native plants and flowers. When she’s not tending to her indoor plants, you’ll find her in her vegetable garden, whose bounty she doesn’t mind sharing with the local wildlife.
Authored by Brian O’Shea
The 84th Raleigh CBC was conducted on December 19, 2020. The day started off chilly, with temperatures in the mid-20s in some spots, but warmed up nicely under clear skies. It was a great day to be out birding.
Although it was unfortunate that we could not place new participants with existing groups as we normally would, we still had great turnout for the count. All of the usual territories were covered, and a number of new participants turned in lists from parks, greenways, and backyards throughout the count circle. We had 72 participants (four more than last year!) in 32 parties, covering 153 party-miles (89 of them on foot) during 137 party-hours. That’s about 50% more party-hours and 15% more party-miles than we managed during 2019’s rainy morning count. That increase in coverage, plus better weather, improved our results dramatically.
And now what you’ve been waiting for . . .this year’s totals are (drumroll) . . . . 103 species and 16,365 individuals! That is seven more species than we got last year. Highlights of this year’s count were Red Crossbill at Shelley Lake and Vesper Sparrow on Midpines Road. Also notable were 16 Northern Pintail on Lake Benson. Overall, our waterfowl count was a bit lower than usual, owing to high water and generally mild weather to our north through early December, but many of our landbird counts were substantially higher than last year. The five most common species on this year’s count were White-throated Sparrow (1187), American Robin (1124), Canada Goose (943), Double-crested Cormorant (921), and Ring-billed Gull (759). We had a whopping 13 Gray Catbirds – possibly a count record – and four Black-and-white Warblers, tying our count from 2019. As many of you know, this has been a “superflight” year for Red-breasted Nuthatch and many finches, and we had great counts of both Purple Finch and Pine Siskin, both of which are easy to miss entirely during non-flight years. That king of winter finches, the Evening Grosbeak, eluded us on count day this year – but one was seen the following day at Shelley Lake, and so will make our “count week” list for the first time since 1998.
Five parties provided the only reports of 13 species: Lake Benson (Wild Turkey, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, Wilson’s Snipe, Bonaparte’s Gull, Herring Gull, American Coot); Midpines Road (Red-headed Woodpecker, Horned Lark, Vesper Sparrow); Theys Farm (American Wigeon); Shelley Lake (Red Crossbill); and Prairie Ridge (White-crowned Sparrow). With the possible exception of Lesser Scaup (seen only during count week), we did not miss any of the regularly occurring species on this year’s count. Great job everyone!
I have appended the final list below.
A big thanks to everyone who participated on this year’s count! The 85th Raleigh CBC will be held on Saturday, December 18, 2021. Registration details will be available on Wake Audubon site, or you can contact me directly if you’d like to participate. Hope you all have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2021! All the best, Brian
Species list – 84th Raleigh CBC, 19 December 2020
|American Black Duck||18|
|Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)||420|
|Great Blue Heron||63|
|Great Horned Owl||8|
103 species (plus 3 count week (CW))
Author: Jim George
Imagine a huge, interconnected National Park that provides vital habitat for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife. A park that includes your own yard. A park that helps mitigate the climate crisis. A park that may take a step toward saving us from an ecological collapse that some see as the start of a sixth mass extinction. Is this some sort of fantasy? Not according to Doug Tallamy in his latest book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. He imagines “Homegrown National Parks” in our country and other nations that will go a long way to restoring so much that has been lost as humans have built sprawling cities and suburbs and devoted so much of the land to grazing and industrial-scale agriculture. It’s become a land stripped of native habitat; taken over by invasive species of plants, insects, and other animals while we lose our own native species; polluted without regard to protecting life; and poisoned by overuse of pesticides.
The beauty of Tallamy’s Homegrown National Park is that it involves your own landscape and the landscapes of businesses, towns, and the cities in which you live. Certainly, our current national parks, national wildlife refuges, state parks and many other local parks and preserved pockets of land remain a vital part of this picture. But they are fragmented and often under attack. A Homegrown National Park would provide the critical connectivity of native habitat that birds and other wildlife need to survive. As Tallamy writes: “What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities? Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.” According to Tallamy, twenty million acres would be larger than “the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali, and the Great Smokies Mountains National Parks” combined.
We need to get beyond the notion that somehow we are separate from the natural world, that we don’t need to have it all around us, that it is fine to confine it to parks, refuges and preserves. For we are not somehow separated from nature but completely intertwined with all life around us in a deeply connected way that provides the oxygen we breathe, the clean water we drink, and the food that we eat. And the natural world is in decline with extinctions of species from insects to larger animals occurring at an alarming rate. Life as we know it is under threat unless we take action.
Native bees are in severe decline.
And one way you can take action is to participate in creating a Homegrown National Park. The solution is simple because it starts with what you have control over, your yard. Let’s delve into some details of how you can help be a part of a Homegrown National Park. Along the way, I will note how these efforts dovetail with the work of the New Hope Audubon Society (NHAS) and its Bird-Friendly Habitat Committee, which Barbara Driscoll and I co-chair. I also will provide links to relevant NHAS blog articles and other resources so you can take a deeper dive into any of these subjects. Here are Tallamy’s ten ways that you can participate along with my notes and thoughts about each of his ten points.
“SHRINK THE LAWN”
Lawns are not native and require water, fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides and need frequent mowing to have that perfect look promoted by the ads from the companies selling lawn products. Lawn care harms the environment, and lawns don’t support our native insects that are a vital link in the web of life since they pollinate our plants and provide the food that birds and other wildlife need to survive. We’ve allowed lawns to become the definition of beauty for a property as a holdover from centuries past where only the rich could afford to have non-productive acreage in a mowed lawn. You should try to reduce lawn area and turn that land into something productive for wildlife by planting native plants. Grass can have its uses since it holds up well to foot traffic and can be used for paths through your garden. Borrowing from another author, Tallamy suggests you should think of your lawn less as wall-to-wall carpeting and more as area rugs.
“PLANT KEYSTONE GENERA”
Field of goldenrod and frost aster.
Birds need to feed their young on a high protein diet of insects or other animal prey. For example, Carolina Chickadees may need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to fledge one nest of chicks and then many more as they continue to feed the fledglings. Tallamy has developed the case for the use of native plants to support both pollinators and other insects in his previous two books. Now in his third, and perhaps most important book, he’s developed the concept of keystone genera of native plants to describe the native plants that support the most moth and butterfly caterpillars, the most nutritious food for baby birds. Tallamy writes, “Landscapes that do not contain one or more species from keystone genera will have failed food webs, even if the diversity of other plants is very high.”
Thus, you definitely should try to have some keystone plants on your property along with your other native plants. We’ve developed a Keystone Plants spreadsheet that takes all the larval host plants from the New Hope Audubon list of recommended native plants and then rank orders them from the most caterpillars supported to the least. The “keystone” plants in each category are the ones at the top of each section. You can review the keystone spreadsheet and then look up detailed information from our recommended native plant lists. As examples of great plants to have, oaks (Quercus genus) host 488 caterpillars, the most of any trees, and goldenrods (Solidago genus) host 102 species, the most of any flowering perennial. Note: goldenrods have gotten a bad rap for causing allergies, but they don’t! Instead, it is wind-pollinated ragweed, which blooms at the same time, with its inconspicuous, tiny green flowers that is the real culprit.
“REMOVE INVASIVE SPECIES”
Invasive plant species crowd out the native plant species that support our native insects and for the most part, support very few insects themselves. Many invasive plants are escapees from yards where we’ve planted them simply for their decorative value. Several NHAS blog articles address the very serious issue presented by invasive plants in much more detail and give information on their removal, so I’ll refer the reader to these articles including: “The Alien Plant Invasion,” “Invasive Plants are NOT for the Birds,” and “Now Is the Time to Remove Invasive Plants.”
“BE GENEROUS WITH YOUR PLANTINGS”
An important part of landscape design with native plants is to have all the layers present because each in turn supports its own population of specialist insects and pollinators. Birds also specialize in which layers of the landscape they nest and feed. It starts with the canopy trees, then down to the understory trees, the shrubs, the perennial flowers, the grasses, and the vines. This is so important that having all layers present in your yard is required to be certified in our Bird Friendly Habitat Certification program. Try to simulate native plant communities in the Piedmont that originally consisted of a mix of woods and prairies. I have less than 1/3 acre in an older neighborhood in Chapel Hill and still am able to have a wooded area in the backyard with 12 species of native trees, important forest edge environments as the woods transitions to open areas, and some sunnier areas in front where garden beds can be planted more like Piedmont prairies. Adding a native plant garden to even the smallest of lots can make a difference, since your lot will interconnect with your neighbors and with other neighborhoods as they become part of the Homegrown National Park.
Plant not just one tree but several together to form a more forest-like environment and have the trees lock their roots together to prevent toppling in a storm. Test out new perennials with a few plants of a species, maybe 3 to 5 in a location, and if they do well, increase their numbers until you have a drift or significant clump of that species. This makes it easier for pollinators to find and browse their flowers with less energy expended and models the beauty of a natural landscape. Plant natives that bloom sequentially from March to October. Bees and other pollinators depend on a food source throughout the growing season so you will need to plant a variety of flowering plants, including trees, that bloom at different times of the year. My blog article titled “To Every Plant There is a Season” addresses this in detail.
“PLANT FOR SPECIALIST POLLINATORS”
The caterpillars of butterflies and moths have developed methods to overcome the defenses that plants have evolved to keep from being eaten, but many only can use a narrow range of plant species to feed. Monarch butterflies are a well-known example since they only lay their eggs on milkweeds. Black swallowtails have to lay eggs on a member of the carrot family, and golden alexander is the only species in that family on our recommended list of native plants for this area (note: they also love parsley). For more information about pollinator gardens and what plants support what pollinators, check out NHAS’s blog articles, “Your Yard Is Your Pollinator Garden” and “Creating a Pollinator Friendly Yard” and the NC Botanical Garden’s brochure, “Creating Your Pollinator Garden”.
“NETWORK WITH NEIGHBORS”
Tallamy cites one example of a person influencing a neighbor whose yard was the epitome of unnatural and just didn’t get why that could be a problem. The key was monarch butterflies. After the neighbor was told about their plight, he planted some milkweed, and sure enough the monarchs came. He was very excited to see and to be helping monarchs, so then he planted more milkweed. He was hooked.
Most of us probably have neighborhood email listservs or have neighbors that use apps like NextDoor, and these can be great places to start a conversation about restoring native habitat for bird, pollinators, and other wildlife through the use of native plants and removal of invasives. You even can refer neighbors to this “Home Grown National Park” blog article as a starting point. Another good way to network with neighbors is to share native plants. I explore this idea further in my recent blog article, “Keeping Up the Tradition of Passalong Plants”.
“BUILD A CONSERVATION HARDSCAPE”
In addition to plants, Tallamy recommends making your yard more friendly to wildlife by taking the following steps:
Two things Tallamy does not mention, but we consider very important in NHAS, are to prevent bird collisions with windows and to keep your cats indoors or provide safe spaces outdoors. See the NHAS blog articles, “Preventing that Dreaded Thump” and “Living with Cats and Birds” for details.
“CREATE CATERPILLAR PUPATION SITES UNDER YOUR TREES”
Many insects are dependent on leaf litter for at least part of their life cycle. Whenever possible, let the leaves stay where they fall. It’s especially important not to have grass under trees since most of the caterpillars that feed in the trees then drop to the ground to form pupae in the leaf litter or soil under the tree as they overwinter. Fireflies also pupate in the leaf litter, emerging only to breed in the summer and delight us with their evening show. Tallamy states, “if you have more leaves each fall than your beds can accommodate, that’s a good sign that your beds are not large enough”. Also important is to leave some fallen branches, often referred to as “nurse logs,” to provide habitat for other species. These topics are explored in detail in two NHAS blog articles: “Leave the Leaves” and “Littering with Leaves.”
“DO NOT SPRAY OR FERTILIZE”
In general, you should try to minimize or eliminate pesticide use in your yard. It’s a requirement of our Bird Friendly Habitat certification program that you do so. Native plants have evolved to coexist with the native insects and will not be damaged by their feeding. Even though oak trees support 488 species of native caterpillars, most of us will not see any sign of their feeding on the oak leaves. Mosquito spraying uses broad spectrum insecticides that can kill or weaken anything flying at the time of application. The best way to deal with mosquitoes is to eliminate their breeding sources in yours and neighbors’ yards. The issue of spraying for mosquitoes and alternatives to spraying are explored in detail in the blog article, “The Invasion of the Asian Tigers”
Along with avoiding use of pesticides yourself, you should also try to avoid buying plants treated with neonicotinoid insecticides or “neonics” for short. These systemic insecticides are taken up through the roots of the plants after a soil drench and remain in the tissue and pollen of treated plants up to several years. They have been shown to harm the insects browsing on their leaves and the bees and other pollinators exposed to the pollen. We are working with a number of local garden centers to stop selling plants treated with neonics or to at least identify any treated plants to the customer. When shopping for plants, you will need to ask if the plant has been treated with neonics before buying. Ideally, the plant should have been treated with only topical insecticides and not have been treated with any systemic insecticides that can be absorbed into the plant tissue. For more detail on neonics read the blog article: “Neonics, Bee-Killing Insecticides that also Harm Birds.”
Tallamy’s recommendation to avoid fertilizing is less obvious, but native plants have adapted to growth without added chemical fertilizer, and simply mulching with leaves, nature’s fertilizer, can usually suffice. High-nitrogen, inorganic fertilizers run off into our streams and rivers from our yards and create deadly algal blooms in our lakes. Jordan Lake is considered highly polluted now partially due to storm-water runoff. If you must fertilize, only use organic fertilizers until you build up your soil, if needed, and your plantings are self-sustaining. Use a mulching mower to add grass clippings back to the soil instead of bagging them for pick-up. That also saves you a lot of unnecessary work! Grass clippings quickly decay and do not contribute to problems with thatch.
“EDUCATE YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD CIVIC ASSOCIATION”
If your house is in an area that is controlled by a Homeowners Association (HOA), their rules can be a significant barrier to having complete control over what you plant in your yard. Many HOA boards of directors have bought into the concept of yards needing to have a significant portion of frequently mown lawn to meet their standards of beauty. Try to get on the board of the HOA and convince other board members that having non-native lawn grass is a standard foisted upon us by the lawn care industry and that native plantings are critical for the environment and can have greater beauty. If the HOA does not have a landscaping subcommittee, volunteer to form one. On the flip side, HOA’s can be very helpful in creating lists of what can be planted and what should not. They should ban the planting of invasives and strongly favor the planting of native species. Again, your involvement will be critical.
Also consider also working with your town, city, and county governments on their landscaping ordinances and plant lists and encouraging them to stress the use of native plants, remove invasive plants from their lists, create plans for invasive plant control, and more. Working with local businesses on their landscaping is also an important step in creating a connected ecosystem in our towns and cities.
Some final words. Don’t be deterred or overwhelmed by the thought that this is just too much to undertake. You can start by just planting a few native plants this fall since this time of the year is a great time to do so. Over the winter months, plan to start removing a few invasive plants since most invasive plants are evergreen and easier to identify then. Just take one step at a time and together we can build a fantastic Homegrown National Park.
“If we can destroy habitat with blinding speed, we also have the intelligence, knowledge, and ability to restore it. It remains to be seen whether we have the wisdom to do so.” – Doug Tallamy, Natures Best Hope.
“It’s simple: By gardening with native plants, no matter where you live or how small or large your space is, you can help sustain wildlife.” – Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants
Note: This article builds on the concepts presented in my earlier blog article, “Saving the Birds, One Yard at a Time.” That article was based on a talk by Doug Tallamy at the NC Botanical Garden given well before “Natures Best Hope” was published. It had a focus on preventing an insect apocalypse but led to several similar recommendations. This article takes a different focus and adds all of the new concepts presented in the latest book and all of the resources NHAS has developed since then.
Photos: All photos not labeled as such are by the author.