A Bit of Australia in the Appalachians

Advent is upon us—the great expectancy of Christmas (the birth of Christ).

During a recent Christmas arts and crafts “studio tour” around Keedysville, Maryland—which is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains—I had a little bit of an adventure.

I knew I was in for a treat when I stepped onto the porch of the farmhouse, which was situated on a hill overlooking the valley below and the South Mountain ridge of the Appalachians beyond. With the owner’s permission, I took some pictures of the farm.

From inside the house, which that day was laden with sewn crafts and enticing edibles—such as award-winning “South Mountain Jam”—I spotted something large out along the fencerow, obscured by some trees and shrubs. From a distance (a very long distance), its head resembled a turkey; but its overall form was large and gangly. It might have been a llama, (which the farmer also owned); except as my nephew pointed out, lamas have four legs. (Note to self: Must pay more attention to pictures when nephew reads Llama, Llama Gram and Grandpa.)

It was an emu! …In America. …And not in a zoo.

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The emu is native to Australia and is Australia’s national bird. It’s the second largest bird in the world—the largest being the ostrich. Emus grow to be 5 to 7 feet tall (with the female taller and broader in the rump than the male). Emus eat plants, insects and small vertebrates.

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I spied two emus that day–perhaps a male and a female? The one made a rum-rum, drumming noise–a reverberating sound I later learned is characteristic of the female.

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A female can lay several clutches of eggs in a breeding season. Interestingly, the male incubates the egg, which is dark green. …The egg, not the male.

Fall, Leaves

Fall is transforming the piedmont foothills of North Carolina into a tapestry of orange and red and gold. Last weekend, I took a few photos of the foliage around the Charlotte, North Carolina, area while celebrating the close of my nephew’s cart racing season.

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The trees around the track were as colorful as the racing flags. — Mooresville, NC

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There were copses of color here and there on the shoreline of Lake Norman. — Denver, NC

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This was a lovely sight along NC Highway 16 in Maiden, NC. (The park-like setting is on/beside the property of Christian Tours.) A blue heron glided down and rested briefly on the bank shortly after I took this picture. I managed one disappointingly grainy photo before he disappeared.

Murray’s Mill in Catawba County boasted color, too. (I’ve written about this National Register Historic Site before.)

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Spotted leaves and a millstone behind Murray’s Mill. — Catawba, NC

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Rustic spots like this one along Balls Creek at Murray’s Mill are popular places for family photos. — Catawba, NC

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Repurposing at its best: A skid-turned-swing along the bank at Murrays Mill. — Catawba, NC

Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.

— Emily Brontë, “Fall, leaves, fall,” lines 3-4

Summer’s Lease

It’s September already, and to quote Shakespeare, “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” I don’t know about you (or should I say, “I knoweth not what thou thinkest”), but I’m looking forward to autumn—”when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang”.[1]

Although I didn’t venture too many places this summer, I did have a few new experiences and even discovered a different perspective on the familiar.

North Carolina Botanical Garden
Tucked into a corner of this free public garden, which is operated by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a large and diverse collection of colorful carnivorous plants. It’s worth a look:

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Three hybrid pitcher plants at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. — Chapel Hill

Not far from these native bog plants is the Poison Garden. I don’t know how I missed this area all the other times I visited! I was enthralled—from sinister garden gate to the beguiling mountain laurel.

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The gate leading to the Poison Plant garden provides an artful warning of what lies ahead. — NC Botanical Garden (Chapel Hill, NC)

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Every part of the striking mountain laurel is poisonous–from leaf and bloom to the drops of honey it produces. If eaten, it causes nausea, stomach pain, difficulty breathing, loss of coordination, paralysis, and sometimes death. Ironically, mountain laurel can also be used in ointment to treat skin disorders. — NC Botanical Garden (Chapel Hill, NC)

Kart Track
I spent a bit of time at a sprint karting track. Rest assured, I was not behind the wheel. Rather, there were seven and eight-year-olds behind the wheel, my nephew included. That may sound a bit astonishing, to say the least. On the one hand, they were just kids—children who flung their arms around one another in greeting and who navigated the garage area on scooters between practice sessions, qualifying, and racing. On the other hand, they were focused little racers once their kart wheels rolled onto the asphalt. My nephew enjoys racing over any other sport—but maybe not as much as he loves Legos.

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Looking past the “boogity, boogity, boogity” and checkered flag, one can appreciate the uniqueness of a racetrack –it’s there at every track if one is curious to look. For instance, Victory Lane’s three-tiered stand at the aforementioned track is material (block curbs) salvaged from a former venue in Italy, the historic Kartdromo Parma track.

Duke Gardens
This place never gets old, but I discovered it in a whole new way a few months ago—in the evening, just before sunset. As the day winds to a close, a quiet falls over the Gardens and the colors of the sky reach down and paint areas such as the Garden Pond, Perennial Allee, and Blomquist Pavilion in tempered light and shades of gold that heighten their beauty.

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The Moss Garden at Duke Gardens looks particularly charming in the fading sunlight. — Durham, NC

Duke Gardens is open until dusk, and many people take advantage of this for evening strolls, romantic rendezvous, picnics on the lawn, or solitary contemplation. I’ve also seen more numerous and varied kinds of wildlife at this time of day.

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A sunflower makes its final bow in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. — Duke Gardens; Durham, NC

Perhaps you’ve been to these or similar places as well, or might like to put them on your list of things to do. The lease on summer may be coming to an end, but autumn in North Carolina and many other places is amenable to outdoor pastimes. Enjoy your autumn.


[1] Shakespeare’s Sonnets 18 & 73

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.