The forests of Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill and nearby Duke University are enveloped by forests of oak, hickory, beech, maple and pine on the Piedmont plateau. The Piedmont is a band of low, rolling hills between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachians. Weather-boarded houses are buried in the tall trees; from the deck of one, high above a creek the view is obscured by the fresh green foliage of late May. Fluting bird calls carry far in the still air. In the unseasonal heat and humidity, the atmosphere is tropical.

The forest structure is mature with a dense leaf litter, light understorey (underbrush) and straight-trunked trees with high canopies; but few of the trees are veteran or ancient. This is a secondary forest grown on land that little more than a century ago was intensively farmed for cotton and tobacco.

Much of the pre-colonial Piedmont was cleared for grazing and hunting and was dominated in many areas by fire-managed prairie grasslands, open woodlands and patches of forest. This pattern of land management probably evolved over millennia as native tribes occupied the land after the last glaciation some 12,000 years ago.

Woodpeckers come to bird feeders; the most prevalent are small, downy woodpeckers and larger, red-bellied woodpeckers. Both have fledged young that are fed fat grubs by the adult birds. Nuthatches work the trees but keep a safe distance.

In the deep shade along the creek there is a brief view of a common grackle; red-shouldered hawks and barred owls fly beneath the canopy to favoured perches near bird feeders where they hunt chipmunks and other rodents.

Hummingbirds come to sugar feeders and an array of passerines; cardinals goldfinches, flycatchers and house finches, to the seeds and nuts. A Carolina wren forages around the house with little concern for the comings and going of the occupants; the male often singing loudly from the top of the feeder.

Butterflies in late May include swallowtails and buckeyes; silver-spotted skippers maintain territories on the bramble bushes at the edge of woodlands and chase off anything that flies through.

The woodland to the north of Chapel Hill is known as Duke Forest and owned and managed by the university.

The New Hope Creek is shrouded in woodland; it is shallow and full of small fish. A northern water snake basks on the riverside boulders. Beavers dam the river and create deep pools.

Swallowtails and other forest butterflies take salts from mammal scats on rocks by the creek. Pied woodpeckers nest high in the deep woodland and their calls ring out; one that drums on a distant, dead branch sounds like an old Harley-Davidson.

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