Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The One Constant: Change: Life at Mason Farm Biological Reserve

Our life is one grand season of change, nothing is ever the same. As soon as we find stability, it seems that the players are taken away, and new characters are ushered in before we know it. Inevitably, remembrance of things past overtakes us, becomes more important than what is happening today, and we are poisoned into stagnancy by our thoughts. In these changing seasons we should take lessons from the lesser, the plants and animals that go about their duties, adapting to change without complaint, flourishing in the new opportunities it provides. In cold coastal waters nutrients billow up from the sea floor, making the coldest, not the warmest waters, the ones teeming with life.

So yes, that was all billowy writing, but the point is this: We can take a lesson or two from the changing seasons around us. Some of us are blessed to be spending this segment of our life, this season, in the Spring in Chapel Hill, where everyday we see change without realizing it. Let's take a closer look.

The best classroom is within a stone's throw of Franklin Street. Mason Farm Biological Reserve, an expansive wilderness that lies behind Finley Golf Course(so that all you punk-ass city dwellers can get oriented).

As you can see, this is a map.

To enter the reserve you must ford a weir that crosses Morgan Creek, a challenge capably handled by most vehicles... However on days after heavy rain, it is sometimes necessary to ford by foot, a scintillating adventure. Here is the ford below:

One must go no further than the ford itself to witness the drastic changes of the seasons. Take a look:

Looking upstream on March 25th, 2006. In the winter, mixed-species flocks of chickadees, titmice, kinglets, creepers, and finches forage busily through the treetops.

The same view, just over a month later. May 4th, 2006. During the summer, the trees that line Morgan Creek are filled with Prothonotary Warblers, American Redstarts and Louisiana Waterthrushes while Belted Kingfishers patrol the banks.

Let's learn something today. Why do the boxelder, sycamore, and ash that line Morgan Creek drop their leaves every winter? Here in the temperate deciduous forests of North Carolina, the main reason is temperature. Growth only occurs during the warm summers and leaves drop during the fall so that the trees sit dormant during the cold winter. The loss of leaves helps conserve water that would otherwise be needed to maintain the leaves. And even though this system requires the tree to regrow new leaves in the Spring(a taxing chore), it is still more favorable than having to maintain functional leaves in the depths of winter.

Some of you may be thinking now, but what about the pine trees? What about the holly trees in my backyard that keep their leaves all winter? Why are they doing that? Are they retarded? No. Being evergreen in North Carolina is usually an adaptation to low nutrient levels in the soil. Deciduous trees must have high nutrient levels to regenerate their leaves every season, and in some soils there are insufficient nutrient levels to do this. In these situations, evergreen trees have an advantage over deciduous trees. In temperate climates, evergreens are real smart and can reinforce their own survival; evergreen leaf and needle litter has a higher carbon-nitrogen ratio than deciduous leaf litter, contributing to a higher soil acidity and lower soil nitrogen content. These conditions favor the growth of more evergreens and make it more difficult for deciduous plants to persist.

Wow. Isn't that a neat thing to know! Let's get on to some more pretty things. Not just trees change with the seasons. Many animals escape the winter, doing so in a variety of ways. Reptiles and amphibians choose to hibernate, and some mammals up north do so as well(even big old bears).

The most easily visible changes from season to season occur in the bird populations. There is a group of birds, most likely the most familiar ones to you, that spend the entire year here. Woodpeckers, bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, robins, goldfinches, blue jays, crows etc. But not all birds that breed in the summer here have the fortitude to stick it out for the winter. Instead they migrate south, some as far as southern South America, others just as far as the Caribbean. Simultaneously, many of the birds that breed in Canada and the northern U.S. migrate south as to take up winter residence in the Carolinas. Thus, as each season comes, a predominately new group of birds shows up, keeping things lively and new. For me, there is nothing more exciting than the first Spring walk at Mason Farm, anticipating the summer arrival of Prothonotary Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, and the many other summer beauties.

Scarlet Tanager

Prothonotary Warbler

But the beauty is not reserved for summer alone. Oh no! Even in the frigid mornings that we loath so much, when the windshield wipers are frozen stuck and layer upon layer of clothes cover our true figure, there is beauty a plenty in the woods and fields. The food may be harder to come by in the winter, but holly berries, myrtle berries, and winter seeds provide enough.

One of the most common, and beautiful, winter residents. The Cedar Waxwing loves berries.

Once much more common, the Purple Finch is another winter arrival. It has been outcompeted by the introduced House Finch, a bird native to the western US.

Wait, so where is this taking place? Mason Farm itself, a combination of forest and old fields, is a fascinating place to walk, and having a little history of it makes it all the more easy to appreciate. The reserve proper is 367 acres, but is contiguous with the much larger 41,000 acre New Hope Gamelands to the south. According to the North Carolina Botanical Garden, the reserve supports approximately 800 species of plants, 216 species of birds, 29 species of mammals, 28 species of fish, 28 species of reptiles, 23 species of amphibians, and 67 species of butterflies. In fact, more different species of animals have been recorded at the Reserve than in any other comparably-sized area in the entire Piedmont.

Within the reserve lies the Big Oak Woods tract, a 65-acre bottomland woodland that is well-known for its giant trees, with some of the larger white oaks exceeding 300 years in age. This section has been continuously forested since before European settlement.

In the open areas of the reserve are several old fields that have since been rehabilitated into prairie-like habitats, some being seasonally flooded wet meadows, others being drier upland habitats.

The land was first acquired by the University in 1894 upon request of one of the last living descendants of the Mason family, Mary Elizabeth Morgan Mason. The family first settled in the area during the 1740s. The biological reserve itself was officially established in 1984, and is used both as a natural area and a biological field station.

Here are some of my photos of the reserve:

The Dead Marshes! Don't follow the lights! Nope, no Gollum sighting yet, but you never know. As the water table rises in the winter, many areas that are dry in the summer became seasonal wetlands.

Pine uplands at Mason Farm, early Spring. Breeding birds in this habitat to name a few include Wood Thrushes, Ovenbirds, Hooded Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Scarlet and Summer Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Broad-winged Hawk.

An early Spring arrival, the Atamasco Lily bursts from bottomland soils as days first begin to warm.

Perhaps no group of animals need warm weather more than butterflies. They need nectar and warmth to function. And seriously, who doesn't? Here is one of the first Zebra Swallowtails of early Spring.

The vast cattail marsh. Here, birds such as Green Heron, Red-winged Blackbird, Red-headed Woodpecker and Common Yellowthroat breed, and in the winter the marsh is full of sparrows, and if you are lucky like I was once, an American Bittern.

A straightaway through some of the open field habitat at Mason Farm. Yellow-breasted Chats, Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks are just a few of the colorful birds that take advantage of it.

So if you wonder what this was all about, go back to the top and find out, because I can't really remember either. I think I just wanted to share a wonderful place with you guys, a place that most of you don't know about.

There is much to be learned in the wilderness. The very concept that allows an ecosystem to survive is change. Nothing is sedentary, every day is different than the next. For those of you that are experiencing transition and change and find it unpleasant, I ask you to rethink your opinion of it. You must accept that change is going to exist your entire life, there is no constant in life except change itself. Thus you must become an ironclad changer, loving the endless opportunities it provides. At the same time, have the wisdom to acknowledge the peoples/places/things that are worth sacrificing to hold on to. :-)

So, here lies the rub. I'll now be offering tours of Mason Farm for 300 dollars an hour. Why? Because I hate my jobs and I'm looking for change, and that's the change I decided on. I'm bucking my constancy. Obviously I'd be untrue to myself if I didn't. So, contact me at akneidel@gmail.com if you are interested. More details available upon contact.

If you aren't willing to pay me 300 dollars let me know, for there are substitute payment options.


  1. "In these changing seasons we should take lessons from the lesser, the plants and animals that go about their duties, adapting to change without complaint, flourishing in the new opportunities it provides."

    I like that. Something that I wish I could strive toward. Adapting to change without complaint.

    Also, beautiful photos.

  2. i had no idea cedar waxwings were so beautiful!

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