Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Saturn Has a Moon That Looks Like the Death Star from Star Wars!

Really! But more about that later.  Right now, during this week, Saturn is at it closest point to Earth and is at its brightest.  Jupiter and Venus are also putting on a show in the early evening sky, but to see Saturn through a telescope, these are the perfect conditions. Lucky for all of us, we'll be out at Valley Springs Park in Durham on Friday night with our giant telescopes and knowledgeable staff. 

 If I asked you to draw a planet, odds are that you'd draw Saturn, mostly because it's the most distinctive of the planets in our solar system. Think about it, if I asked you to draw Pluto, you'd most likely...oh, wait....
Saturn
Saturn is second in size only to Jupiter, is a truly massive feature of our night sky. Despite its incredible size Saturn is made mostly of gas and is so light it would float in a bathtub, if only we could find one big enough! The iconic rings of Saturn are pretty remarkable too. They are made up of ice crystals with a very small amount of rocky material and are often shaped by orbiting moons.
         
Mimas
See, it does look like the Death Star!



Find yourself mesmerized by Earth's solitary, lonely moon?  Imagine having 62 to look at! Saturn has 62 known moons, 53 of which are officially named, and over a hundred moonlets and counting. Some of the more unique moons include Enceladus with its surface geysers; Iapetus, which is completely black on one half and white on the other; Rhea, which has an oxygen atmosphere; and Titan, an aptly-named giant that is larger than Mercury.  Our staff favorite, Mimas, looks just like the death star from Star Wars. 

Join us this Friday, May 22 from 10:00pm – 11:00pm at Valley Springs Park to get up close and personal with Saturn. We will be joined by staff from NCCU (and their very powerful telescopes) to take a look at Saturn, its rings and if we’re lucky maybe even a few moons. Friday is looking like a great night for star gazing; we hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Poison Ivy and Baby Animals--What to Watch for This Time of Year

Now that we're all (hopefully) out and about in Durham's natural areas, it's time to have a conversation about poison ivy and baby animals in the wild.  First, the most exciting subject, poison ivy.  Most people know the mnemonic "Leaves of three, let it be" that guides us away from the plant, but the problem is, there are lots of plants that have a cluster of three leaves.  So how does one tell the difference to avoid days of blistering misery?

If we look at the picture below, you'll see three different 3-leaf clusters.  Confusing, right? The key to poison ivy is that on the plant/vine, there are only three leaf clusters, and those leaves have serrated (jagged) edges with a fine point.  So in the picture below, poison ivy is in the bottom right corner.  If you look further down the stems of the other two plants, there are pairs of leaves that accompany the 3-leaf groupings.


Which is the poison ivy?
Interestingly, poison ivy will also start at the base of a tree and become a large, fuzzy vine that runs up the tree toward sunlight. These will have large, mature leaves and white-to-purple berry clusters like the one below.  Pretty, but definitely something we want to avoid.

Poison Ivy vine with mature leaves and berries
 Another topic of wonder, and concern, in the Spring is the abundance of baby wildlife.  This picture below was taken in a tree near Morreene Rd. in Durham.  A significant concern is that well-intentioned folks see baby birds, deer or other animals without a mother present, make an assumption that the babies have been abandoned or the mother has been killed and take the baby into their care. What we all need to know is that mothers give their children room to grow, explore and learn in order to become capable on their own.  You may see a baby deer on it's young legs in your back yard with no adult in sight, but odds are that the mother is watching carefully from a short distance away, camouflaged by her surroundings.  So if you see babies in the wild, leave them be, please!
Baby robins waiting for mom to bring breakfast


Friday, April 24, 2015

After Earth Day--Now What?

Earth Day, the annual day we honor that which sustains our lives, came and went on Wednesday, April 22.  You may have gone to DPR's Earth Day festival at Holton Career and Resource Center, or went to any of the numerous events around the Triangle.  Now that Earth Day has passed for another year, what small, regular steps can we all take to take care of this fragile ecosystem that sustains us?
  • Turn off the water when you're brushing your teeth.  Gallons of water go down the sink when in the minute that you're brushing. 
  • Don't throw food trash out your window.  That apple core may seem a nuisance in your vehicle, but those birds of prey--hawks, owls, falcons--are waiting for the rodents who wait on the roadside for our tossed apples, burgers, fries and gum.  They swoop down to get the rodents and BAM! meet the grill of a car.
Hawk on Power Line
  • Install a bat house on your property.  About 80% of the brown bat population  (almost 99% in Pennsylvania!) has been annihilated by White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that kills hibernating bats.  The disease is spread two ways: by humans carrying the fungus from one cave to another, or a bat from a contaminated cave roosting in a new cave. Bats eat about 3,000 mosquitoes per day and help pollinate the planet--in other words, the world would be pretty darned miserable without them.  Help give them a safe place to roost, and keep your yard free of mosquitoes! 
    A bat house provides a safe roosting place for bats.
  • Water your lawn when it needs it rather than on a schedule.  In the humid southeast, our lawns need far less water than we think they do.  Better yet, install native plants, mosses and grasses which thrive in local conditions.  I'm letting a native grass take over my front yard and I have a lush, green lawn without herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers.  A very interesting article from NASA about lawns and watering can be found here.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

DPR Sky Watch Astronomy Program Postponed Due to Weather

The Sky Watch astronomy program scheduled for this evening is postponed to Sunday, April 12 from 8:30 pm to 10:30 pm due to a truly rotten forecast for star gazing--cloudy skies and a high potential for severe storms during the hours of--you guessed it--8 pm to 10 pm.  It may or may not rain, but as you might imagine, moving large telescopes quickly isn't the easiest proposition, so we can't take a chance of getting caught in the rain. If you'd like more detailed information,  Durham Clear Sky Chart has an excellent page that shows the transparency and cloud cover of the sky at the various hours of the day. Sounds a little wonky, but it's really very cool.  So, until Sunday evening at 8:30 pm, here's a great image of our solar system to tide you over:





Monday, April 6, 2015

A Big Week of Programs for Outdoor Recreation--Astronomy and City Lakes Season Opening Party

Well, the warm weather is here finally!  So exciting to have warm days, leaves and blossoms on the trees and a wave of very cool outdoor recreation programs for Durham.  First up this week is our Star Watch program at Old North Durham Park Friday night, April 10. As a part of the North Carolina Science Festival, this sky gazing program is focusing on our solar system this year.  In particular, we'll be looking at Jupiter and Venus Friday evening through North Carolina Central University's 10- and 12-inch telescopes and we'll have a solar system walk with crazy facts about our solar system. It's pretty amazing just how much we can see in the middle of Durham. When we were first scouting locations for the program, we were pleasantly at just how much we were able to view.   Below are some images of last year's event--unfortunately, no night-time shots because, well, it was really dark and a flash would have interfered with night vision.  If you're curious and would like more information about the night skies, In-the-sky.org is a fun site to find what celestial events are happening on any given day.
Staff Testing a Telescope and Astronomy Binoculars


Star Watch viewing station
Diane and David Markoff of NCCU Mathematics and Physics









Our second big event is our City Lakes Season Opening Party at Lake Michie this Saturday, April 11 from noon--3pm.  Come try out canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUP's) and paddle bikes as well as fish from the banks for free on this day. We'll also have food and prizes from Dick's Sporting Goods.  If you haven't been to Lake Michie or Little River lake you're missing some of Durham's most peaceful and beautiful natural resources.  More information about the City Lakes can be found here.







Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Seen a Wild Turkey in Durham?

It's turkey mating season and the turkeys are out and about in Durham and elsewhere in North Carolina.  They blend pretty well with the early spring brownish landscape, but you may have seen them along the roadside or flying across a field. Two days ago, driving down 15-501 towards Chapel Hill, a large wild turkey flew just in front of my car, no more than twelve feet off the ground.  That's the second time that's happened to me, although the first time was a much closer encounter in Yadkin County. That one almost came through my passenger side window, which, since the top speed of a flying turkey is 55 mph, would have been a very, very bad day for my car.


Wild turkey flying
A lesser known program called the Wildlife Restoration program through the NC Wildlife Commission has worked hard for the last ten years to restore the wild turkey population in the state. We humans are hard on wildlife, clearing land, building roads and otherwise destroying habitat.  Our tax dollars have been returned to naturalists and hunters alike through this program.  The photos below show the gains the wild turkey population has made in the last ten years in previously unpopulated areas:








The North Carolina Wildlife Resources has a page on their website, here, where you can report sightings, which is very helpful to track the progress of programs that the Wildlife Commission does. I have three to report now just after this past weekend!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Paddling the Tar-Pamlico Water Trail

Recently, our staff was invited to paddle the Tar-Pamlico River Water Trail by Heather Deck, riverkeeper for the Pamilico-Tar River Foundation, and Daniel McClure, an intern with the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation.  What a cool experience that was.  I've paddled many places but I truly saw more wildlife on this ten-mile paddle than I have on most rivers in the area.  The day initially looked sketchy weather-wise with forecast highs in the upper 40's and rain, but the rain cleared out and though we didn't really see the sun, we were comfortable in our boats when the temperatures rose into the upper 50's.  
We put in in Rocky Mount in a nice, wide stretch of the river. The water level was up enough that the current kept us clipping along at a good pace without having to work too terribly hard, which made for decent photo opportunities.  Even in the overcast, chilly weather, the wildlife were hopping: wood ducks, mallards, a pileated woodpecker,kingfishers, barred owls, hawks, turtles and beavers all made appearances. Well, saw might be overstating the beaver sighting on my part, at least--one created a ruckus as we passed by, sliding down the bank and then briefly stalking us under water, which we could see from the air bubble trail it left behind.  I think Daniel and Ryan were quicker on the draw and saw the beaver clambering down the bank.

A beaver slide along the banks


Heather and Daniel were fantastic hosts, knowledgeable about the local wildlife and fauna and easy paddle partners. It takes a great deal of work and salesmanship to fund efforts like this one, and a good rapport with volunteers willing to give of their free time to help build structures. The platforms are pretty sweet camping locations--screened in sleeping areas with a nice deck and picnic table. Take-outs are easy, too.  Starting at the head of the Tar River and ending in Beaufort, the Tar-Pamlico Water Trail will eventually have platforms 8-15 miles apart once it's completed so that paddlers on this end of the state will have multiple routes and campsites to choose from.  Platforms must be reserved and there is a minimal fee; more information about that is here.  
All in all, a great day on the water--is there such a thing as a bad day on the water?  We're grateful to our hosts for sharing this with us, and DPR Outdoor Recreation is definitely planning a fall trip down the river, so keep an eye out for the fall programming schedule!



Giant fungi on a downed tree
Having a picnic at the Vollmer Farm platform with Daniel and Heather.







Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Season of Muddy Boots and Waterfalls

In my house, muddy boots are a way of life and this rainy, snowy, cold winter hasn't offered relief from the mud. As I write this, four pairs of dirty, well-used boots sit in the foyer, waiting for the next foray into the wet, muddy trails of Durham.  I have to admit, though, that I like the mud, the extra work it takes to get to remote locations and the way that being muddy after a day outdoors makes me feel like I've earned the experience.
Ryan and I took a little bushwhacking hike through the woods two days ago at the Spruce Pine Lodge in Bahama, adjacent to Lake Michie, and found that the melting snow had created a real, rushing, foaming waterfall in the normally placid creek that runs down to Lake Michie.  This place, with its rocky outcroppings, rhododendron and laurels reminds me of my favorite spots in western North Carolina where I would sit and read a book or just soak up the sound of water maneuvering its way through the maze of rocks. Well worth the trek through the muck in a pair of knee-high Bogs--my hiking boots would be no match for that sodden soil--to see the melting snow change this from a meandering flow to a raging river.

Waterfall on the Waterfall trail at the Spruce Pine Lodge

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Can't Believe We're Talking Durham City Lakes Opening, but Here We Go!


I woke up today with the realization that, holy cow, March is here! Well, in three days, but nevertheless, banging at the door. It's been a hard winter for the City lakes--first a total freeze of Lake Michie (pictured below) and then a collapsed ceiling at the Little River boathouse due to frozen pipes.  A cold, cold winter for southern lakes.
A good look at the ice thickness on Lake Michie

Buoy frozen in the ice on Lake Michie
With that said, the good new is that Spring has to come soon and when that happens, we'll be ready for you at the lakes.  In addition to kayak, canoe and jon boat rentals, we added some new toys to our arsenal, water bikes. They're similar to paddle boats but way more fun.   We open Friday, March 13 at 6:30am and are open Friday-Monday through mid-November.  Click here for more detailed information.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Winter Paddling--North Carolina Swamp Style

My family is from Florida originally, mom's side from Ft. Lauderdale and dad's from Avon Park.  One of  my favorite places to go when I was a child was Highland's Hammock State Park in Sebring, Florida. A catwalk wove its way through the triple-canopy jungle of the park, hovering over black water swamp filled with fish, frogs,exotic birds,thousand year-old trees, 'gators and the occasional cottonmouth in addition to singing insects.  My grandfather, tough German that he was, would occasionally reach into the water, grab a lily pad and swing it toward a cottonmouth curled on the knee of a cypress, hoping to make it strike. Come to think of it, perhaps that's the root of my since-conquered fear of snakes?

Anyway, that love of the swamp ecosystem is embedded in my DNA now, and it's carried into our programming and my pastimes.  Last week my staff and I explored a park new to us, Merchant's Millpond State Park in Gatesville, NC. Though it's a little chillier in late winter to spring and in the late fall, the paddling is much more enjoyable because there are far fewer bugs and snakes to deal with.  There are still plenty of things to look at, like the old-growth cypresses, the still-numerous birds that prowl for fish, and the crystal-clear skies at night.  If this interests you, we'll be headed to the Roanoke River Basin for three days, March. 27-29.  Join us for camping in beautiful black water swamp of North Carolina--it may be the most fascinating trip you take this year.
A few pictures from our adventure to Merchant's Millpond:
Sunrise from our campsite at Merchant's Millpond State Park