Sandy Creek: A City of Durham Park

With a forecast of 97 degrees on tap, I did what any sensible person would do—I headed for the great outdoors.

The thermometer was already (or only) registering 82 when I turned off of Pickett Road and onto Sandy Creek Drive. My destination: an abandoned wastewater treatment plant. (Perfectly sensible, right?) Rewind—or fast forward, to be exact. My destination: Sandy Creek Park.

A sign warned that there was “No Outlet” and I followed the road to the end. I found myself in a parking area facing the open expanse of a largely wooded and wild 103-acre park. I immediately liked what I saw.

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Sandy Creek Park in Durham, NC (Saturday, 6/13/15)

Sandy Creek Park was once a wastewater treatment facility, built by Duke University in the early 1900s to serve West Campus and the Hospital. Around 1928, the facility was turned over to the City of Durham. The City operated the plant until its closure in the 1970s. In the 1990s, many of the buildings were razed and a park rose out of the rubble.

Since then, several organizations have partnered with Durham Parks & Recreation to make Sandy Creek Park what it is today. Organizations such as New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee, Friends of Sandy Creek, Keep Durham Beautiful, and Alta Planning and Design of Durham. (Not to mention the park’s landscape designer, Kenneth Coulter.)

What is Sandy Creek Park like today? I’m glad you asked.

In a nutshell, Sandy Creek Park is a thriving wetlands and pine uplands habitat complete with a two-mile walking trail system, butterfly garden, picnic area, restrooms, a creek (for which the park is named), and two small lakes.

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The Sandy Creek Park trail system is a combination of natural and paved surfaces. Pictured here is a part of the Sandy Creek Greenway trail. –Durham, NC

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Here’s the start of the 0.4 mile unpaved nature trail around one of the wetland ponds. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

The park is recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as a certified wildlife habitat because it offers the four basics: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. It’s also a registered ebirding site, which means that one can report bird sitings or see the sitings of others at eBird.org.

I didn’t venture too far down the trails this first visit. Nevertheless, there were plenty of flowers and critters to capture by camera. Placards along the way apprise visitors of the various wildlife and plant life around them. I won’t duplicate those efforts here, but suffice it to say that the signs were informative and would add to the overall experience for those with heightened curiosities. Instead, I’ll highlight a few of my favorite things.

Friends of Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden
What a cute little garden this is—complete with all the right perennials to attract pollinators. I was partial to the coneflowers. (Translated: Be prepared to see a few coneflower pictures.)

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Coneflowers in the Butterfly Garden attract butterflies. (One fluttered away just as I snapped this picture.) A butterfly house adds both function and charm to the habitat. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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The Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden is a workplace for bees as well. –Durham, NC

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A butterfly (Duskywing?) on a coneflower in the Butterfly Garden at Sandy Creek Park. –Durham, NC

(Not-So) Out With the Old, In With the New
For some, it might seem kind of icky to tromp around a place where wastewater was processed. Personally, I found remnants of the treatment plant—two water tanks and a Pump House—important reminders of the past that added to the park’s charm.

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Vestiges of the bygone water treatment facility (“Vacuator” tank far left; Pump House on right) stand alongside new park features such as this inviting arbor swing. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Native Flora
Throughout the park, native wildflowers spring up deliberately as well as naturally. With scenery along the trails dominated by green leaves and shrubs, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter reds and yellows popping up here and there.

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Bee Balm plants, attractors of butterflies and bees, grow tall in front of the old treatment plant’s “Digester.” (Bee Balm is also in the nearby Butterfly Garden.)  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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Just past the creek, along the Sandy Creek Trail, I spotted these Black-Eyed Susans. Sure, Black-Eyed Susans are a commonplace wildflower, but did you know that there are several different varieties? For example, these Susans—with their big cylindrical eyes and dipping petals—are different than the ones in my own garden. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham NC

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Red Honeysuckle Alert! Nector-rich vines such as this one growing on the arbor swing beckon to the hummingbirds. Trumpet Creepers, which I also spotted along Sandy Creek, attract such local birds as the Ruby-throated hummingbird.  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Sandy Creek Wildlife
As I made my way toward the Sandy Creek Bridge, I came upon an older lady out for her morning walk.

“See that gray-looking tree over there?” She pointed beyond the wetlands toward the upland pines a good quarter of a mile away.

I nodded expectantly.

“It’s a big herons’ nest.” She stated this with the matter-of-fact confidence of a park veteran.

My untrained eyes saw nothing.

Having done her duty to nature and her fellow man, she left me to my neck craning. Fearing that I was missing out on something spectacular, I did the only thing I could think of: I zoomed in as far as my camera would go and snapped away. Once home, here’s what I saw:

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Great Blue Herons nesting in the pines at Sandy Creek Park. I count EIGHT! — Durham, NC

Next time, I’ll know where to look! …And you will too, should you visit the park. Also, it might be useful to carry along a pair of binoculars.

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A black Swallowtail in the brush by one of the lakes. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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At least three types of turtles make their homes on the waters of Sandy Creek Park. In one of the small lakes, I spotted four Yellow-bellied Sliders. (There were several other turtle logs, too!) — Durham, NC

Despite living in Durham for ten years, I didn’t know this park existed until recently when web searches for local birds repeatedly referred me to Sandy Creek. The number of birds sited at the park is astounding! And now that I’m out of my shell—play on previous picture intended—I hope to return and photograph some of them.


The City of Durham has more than 60 public parks. I’ve visited and written about three of them. The other two include Leigh Farm Park and Orchard Park.

Duke Pond: Pretty on Purpose

Duke_Pond_Entrance_SignDuke Pond, one of Duke University’s most recent sustainable projects, isn’t just a pond with a purpose, it’s pretty as a picture, too.

The 5.5-acre pond, which is hemmed in by Towerview Drive, Erwin Road, and Circuit Drive on the west campus of Duke University in Durham, NC, will reclaim campus rainwater and runoff in order to save an estimated 100 million gallons of potable water a year. Duke’s Chilled Water Plant, adjacent to the reclamation area, will use this water to cool the buildings on campus.

Yesterday evening, I paid the first of what I hope will be many more visits to the pond. The space was better than I had anticipated—and I had anticipated great things!

The pond sits on 15 acres, with nearly a mile of walking trails around it. A stairway (with railing) along Circuit Drive serves as the main entrance to the pond. There are smaller entry points (paths) off Towerview Drive and the Circuit Drive parking lot as well.

The walking trails form a figure eight of sorts and are made of either a wood-chip surface or packed gravel. Portions of the trail are slightly hilly, but the course is designed so that one could walk a fairly flat loop around a section of the pond, if desired.

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Already, Duke Pond is proving to be a great place to jog, walk, or simply sit and enjoy the general splendor. The hilliest part of the larger trail “system” can be seen at about 3 o’clock in this picture, along the wood-chip path. Visible in the foreground of this photo is the mostly flat, pressed gravel walking loop around part of the pond. (There is a slight incline on the left side of this loop.) Along this route, a foot bridge over the water enables a close-up view of several types of aquatic plants. — Durham, NC

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On Duke Pond, aquatic plants, such as these water lily pads, are thriving…and promising to bloom very soon. — Durham, NC

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These Pickerelweeds provide just the right amount of pop along the the edge of the Duke Pond. —- Durham, NC

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There’s a subtle quality about the wildflowers around the Pond. Upon closer inspection, they are simply beautiful displays of creation. Pictured here: Plains Coreopsis, also known as Golden Tickseed — Duke Pond; Durham, NC

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A pollinator is busy at work on a Stokes aster, which have been planted in clumps along the path. Duke Pond; Durham, NC. — Durham, NC

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In total, some 41,000 native plants have been installed around Duke Pond, creating a wetlands community that graduates into upland piedmont plantings along the periphery. Pictured here is what I think to be a Sweetbay/Swamp Magnolia. — Durham, NC

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At least two Canada Geese have found their way to Duke Pond. During my visit, they were quite active, squawking and flying across the water’s surface several times. — Durham, NC

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There are essentially four places where the Pond can be viewed fairly close-up, with one of them being this rustically pleasing “dock.” It was just before this point that I heard the rum-rum of a bullfrog! On the pond, I spotted a duck. — Durham, NC

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Geese, ducks, and bullfrogs aren’t the only wild things occupying Duke Pond. High up in the pines, I spied a very vocal hawk. (Can you see it in this photo?)

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Upon closer inspection—I put my 20X zoom to work!—it appeared to be a red-tailed hawk. — Duke Pond, Durham, NC

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It’s easy to forget Duke Pond is a reclamation site, but there are subtle evidences here and there—such as the stone structure in the far right corner of this photo. When I passed by it, I heard the sound of rushing water. — Durham, NC

I couldn’t be more pleased with how Duke Pond has turned out. I hope it provides the environmental benefits it was designed to achieve, and I look forward to seeing how the natural landscape grows and changes.Duke_Pond_Wildflower


Duke Pond is open from 8 A.M. until dusk. I encourage you to experience it in person, if possible!

Consider the Birds

It’s been a few months since I’ve written about my backyard birds, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been observing and taking photos of them! In fact, my backyard habitat is thriving…and changing.

In addition to the Squirrel Buster Feeder and watering hole I mentioned in a previous post, I installed an open feeder that clamped to my deck. Within minutes of filling it, things were hopping.

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A pine siskin at my clamp-on feeder in late February. -- Durham , NC

Pine siskins at my clamp-on feeder in late February. — Durham , NC

But here’s the downside: The squirrels loved it, too. Despite my efforts to outfox them, they devoured the spicy “no squirrels” birdseed; and the Flaming Squirrel Seed Sauce I mixed into my regular seed didn’t deter them either.

Were that the only problem, my woes might seem trivial at best. The clincher was when I took the feeder off the railing to clean it for the second time. What I found living between the mesh bottom and my deck railing was appalling. After a swift and thorough cleanup, the deceptively dear feeder was decommissioned.

Since then, the squirrels have been downright despondent.

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Shortly after bidding the feeder adieu, the pine siskins flew away to destinations unknown. Based on migration patterns, they may not return for several years. (This past winter was the first time they visited my backyard.)

Their close cousins, the yellow finches, were wintertime mainstays but are now even more abundant. Cardinals are also aplenty, along with Carolina chickadees and nuthatches of both the brown-headed and white-breasted varieties.

A couple of new birds have made their way to my backyard as well. Many of them have sent me leafing through a bird book or consulting online bird identification sites. Each time, I’m reminded of how little I know and how much I have to learn—not to mention how unobservant I’ve been until recently. Often the mystery bird is described as very commonplace or easily identifiable.

One such bird is the brown-headed cowbird. These birds are considered “brood parasites” because the female will lay her egg in another bird’s nest, often pushing one of the existing eggs out in the process. The female often lays one egg per day, up to 40 eggs per season. Sometimes the “host” bird will reject the egg. Of the 220 specifies of birds who have played host to a cowbird egg, over 140 species have gone on to feed and raise the young cowbirds.[1]

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A male brown-headed cowbird in early April. –Durham, NC

I’ve seen a lot of woodpeckers in the last few weeks. It’s not unusual to spot two, three, or four woodpeckers hanging off the feeder or standing on the deck railing waiting their turn. (Maybe I ought to invest in another feeder. Another hanging feeder, that is.)

Woodpeckers are pretty easy to identify, but sometimes it gets tricky telling the different species apart—especially the downy woodpecker and the hairy woodpecker.

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The downy woodpecker (pictured here) is smaller in size than the hairy woodpecker and has a shorter beak. Another identifying trait of the downy woodpecker is the gray or black specks on its white tail feathers. Males, like this one, have a red patch on their heads. — Durham, NC

I came home from work one evening to find the mother of all woodpeckers affixed to my feeder. A red-headed woodpecker! I’d never seen one in real life before, and I could hardly believe my eyes. It flew away before I could get a picture. In flight, the contrasting red, white and black colors were breathtaking. Within minutes it was back, this time at my neighbor’s feeder. And this time, I was ready.

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Unlike other woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers catch insects in the air and often hide nuts and seeds in existing crevices of trees for eating later. — Durham, NC (5/19/15)

I’ve seen a red-headed woodpecker on three other occasions, including this evening. This is encouraging! Once widespread across North America, red-headed woodpeckers are now only found in patches. They are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

What birds are you seeing in your neck of the woods?


[1] http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/brown-headed-cowbird

How Does Your Garden Grow?

garden_051615I enjoy the beauty and tranquility of public gardens, but I also like to dig in my own dirt. It’s a great stress reliever, enables one to stay active, and provides an outlet to use or improve upon creativity.

Last fall, I planted new bulbs in my garden to replace some older ones that had gradually petered out over the last nine years. I had a plan and I worked it—an equal balance of colors and types of flowers.

I waited expectantly. When spring came, chaos broke loose. The orange lilies I had planted on either side of my golden euonymus shrubs popped up near the flowerbed’s border in front of the shrubs. Not only that, the lilies quickly outgrew everything behind them in height.

Over the rainy winter, all my carefully scattered anemones must have washed to the right side of the bed, because they grew up in one massive (but pretty!) clump. The daffodils came up but never got heads; and of the four types of tulip bulbs that I planted, only two emerged and bloomed.

The entire landscape I had worked to develop looked anything but creative; and for a brief moment, I felt a wave of stress threatening to wash over me. Then I recalled one of my mother’s green thumb tricks: transplanting. She’d move flowers from the rock bed to the perennial garden to the stone planter out front until she found the perfect place for a particular plant to thrive.

Armed with a new plan, I set to work. I moved the orange lilies to the back yard, where they are now loaded with buds. I spread the anemones evenly across the front bed’s border–and they lived! I enjoyed those two lone tulips for their unique beauty, and I put a few annuals in for good measure.

Things are shaping up. The garden in filling out. Early bloomers have served their purpose and bowed out to the next wave of foliage. Have a look:

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This “ice cream” double tulip had it’s day in the sun. Because my space was limited, I planted three of these bulbs in a big pot on my front porch. Green leaves grew up from all three bulbs, but only one bloomed. (Here, I’m experimenting with night photography.)

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Anemones (or windflowers) are some of my favorites. For me, they keep blooming until the squelching heat of summer hits and persists–which won’t be long!

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Usually my anemones are red and purple, but this new batch of bulbs produced these pretty white ones as well.

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After the ice cream tulip (singular, sigh) faded, I planted some cascading vines, wave petunias and this pretty African daisy in the large planter on the porch. That’s probably a lot for this container to hold, but I like thick greenery and profuse color!

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Out back, I tried something that might be a bit unconventional. I put these tall perennials, called Speedwells, in a deck box that hangs from the railing and serves as a privacy screen. I wasn’t sure if they would like it there, but it’s three weeks and counting and all’s well. (Blue: “First Glory” Speedwell ; White: “First Lady” Speedwell)

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At a recent Triangle Gardeners Volunteer Recognition event hosted by Duke Gardens and attended by volunteers from four area gardens, I received as a parting gift this “Slim Jim” phlox pilosa, courtesy of Juniper Level Botanic Garden. It nicely compliments a white “Minnie Pearl” phlox that comes up faithfully and blooms from late April until early June in my front garden.

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During a recent visit to the North Carolina Botanical Garden, I purchased Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia obovata var. obovata) at the garden’s gift shop. This perennial, the 2009 NC Wildflower of the Year, is drought resistant and tough despite its delicate, lacy blooms.

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On Mother’s Day weekend, my seven-year-old nephew gave all the girls in the family two flowers apiece in celebration of Mother’s Day. (He didn’t mind in the least that I’m not a mother.) It was very touching, and I planted this pretty vinca with tender care in my front flower bed.

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The “heart” of a shasta daisy–the second flower that my nephew gave me. Very charming.

That’s a glimpse of my garden. But that’s not all! Soon to bloom are my “Maryland, My Maryland” black-eyed susan and my ever-reliable “Jeff Gordon” yellow lilies, the latter of which were given to me when the 24/48 shop at Hendrick Motorsports was re-landscaped about eleven years ago. There’s nothing like a flower with some history!

Then, of course, there are my blue stars that shine in June through September. And the pretty pink perennial my younger sister gave me when thinning her own garden a few years back. …Dividing and sharing perennials is another joy of gardening, something I watched my mother and our neighbor Francis do from time to time while I was growing up.

Well, you get the idea. (I could go on and on!) Do you have “green space” in which to tend a garden? If so, how does your garden grow?