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Umstead Inspirations Blog

With over 1.6 million visitors last year, Umstead State Park is certainly well used and well loved by the surrounding community. This park is not only a safe haven for a variety of species of wildlife and plants, but it also supports the health of the surrounding community by providing a respite from the daily grind and an opportunity for communing with nature and exercising the body. Want to know more about what’s happening in the park?

Our blog, Umstead Inspirations, is designed to entertain, educate, enhance appreciation and encourage involvement in upcoming events and volunteer opportunities. We’ll tell you what to look for on a seasonal basis including blooming wildflowers, activities of animals, and weather effects. This is your park, and we welcome your ideas regarding the blog.  Please share the posts to encourage others to visit and enjoy. See you on the trails!

Blog Administrator: Umstead State Park Ranger Billy Drakeford

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  • 05/15/2020 3:14 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Everybody likes a success story and the Red Fox certainly is, with the largest geographical range of any carnivore.  I see gray foxes much more here, so it is always special when I see a red fox.  The last one I saw at was near Oak Rock Trail and its reddish orange coat, black ears and its white tipped tail was beyond gorgeous.  I stood there for a good five minutes having a stare down with him like Clint Eastwood at the end of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, wondering how such a brightly garbed animal can be so successful.  It would be like a ninja wearing a pumpkin suit and remaining stealthy and unseen.

    The red fox, though clearly belonging in the canine(dog) family, has many feline(cat) characteristics.  Red foxes have long cat like vibrissae(whiskers), similar long thin knife-like canine(the longer front pair)teeth, and do not shake prey to death like other members of the dog family.  Like the cats, they exert continuous pressure with their canine teeth until the prey’s central nervous system is overwhelmed.  They also have feline like claws which can partially retract and similar cat like balance.  The eye of the fox has a catlike vertical slit as well.

    Red foxes look heavier than they are, weighing between 6 and 12 pounds in the south and about 40 inches long.  They have 42 teeth, keen vision, exquisite hearing and sense of smell.  One legend about its hearing is that they can hear a wristwatch tick from 100 yards.  They are first class sprinters and have been recorded at 45 miles per hour, which is fast enough for adult foxes to outrun or out maneuver coyotes, dogs, or wolves.   

    Umstead red foxes here breed in late fall and early winter, with their gestation/term of pregnancy being 52 to 53 days.  Between the bathroom and the Big Lake parking lot, red foxes have used a den hole there for years but skipping the last two years.  Ranger Nick had a great picture of some pups here gnawing on a deer leg outside the den hole, not 5 feet off a social trail.  The fact that he did not share this with me until months later is still a bone of contention between us.  I attributed this grotesque selfishness to his youth and hope he will gain more of the sharing spirit later in life. 

    Many authorities have noticed red foxes are denning closer and closer to humans when coyotes are present.  Coyotes, of course, will kill any fox they can catch being about 1/3 bigger and viewing foxes as competition.  Coyotes, however, are on the losing end of the stick with wolves in the same way.  The smaller canine must adapt, move or die.  It is the canine way. 

    One historical story is that early highbrow colonists imported red foxes to hunt in the colonies due to hunts of grey foxes that ended rather quickly with the grey foxes climbing trees.  This led to the myth that there were no red foxes in America, which was not true.  Red foxes that were up north, started to move south with the forest opening, which matches their preference of woods and open areas.  Recent tests of red foxes show no European genetic markers.   

    If you are interested in learning more about foxes, J. David Henry has an excellent book called How to Spot a Fox.  Enjoy the next video of a red fox scream and pay attention to how fast it turns at about second nine.  I have heard this sound at night here at Umstead.  The fox here looks like it just wanted to play.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBpZTo1dlPM

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy


  • 04/15/2020 11:43 AM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    I am not saying I should have been referred to a child psychologist for troubled children, but looking back, my propensity to massacre scores of innocent creatures could have been worthy of a visit.  I truly liked eastern tent caterpillars and shivered in delight at how they felt walking up my arms. This, however, did not stop me and my friends from climbing trees with our bb guns, setting up sniper positions and trying to blow away every caterpillar that came out of the nest. 

    I stopped sharing these childhood stories with my wife, as they seemed to trouble her.  Her stories of her European childhood seem to be straight out of the Sound of Music, which frankly troubles me.

    The good news is that during my insect safaris, I did learn quite a bit about these tent caterpillars as a boy.  I learned that they hatched from a waterproof, hard-black case that encircled the twigs. The photo shows a case cut in half with the yellow eggs in the center.       

    Once they hatch, the caterpillars immediately set out to build the familiar web that you see every spring.  This web continually expands to house the growing caterpillars and away from the feces dump in the middle.  There is some evidence that inside the nest can be 2 to 3 degrees higher than outside temperatures, which is important in early spring.

    Their hatching always coincided with the leaves coming out, which makes sense because it is then when the leaves are the most nutritious.  This is important because caterpillars must grow as fast as possible to avoid bird predation, parasitoid wasps, and other bug predators. 

    After dissecting one nest, I noticed the tree branches had lines of silk that caterpillars left on the way out and back.  Later, I read that caterpillars returning from more nutritious feeding areas somehow broadcast this fact in their returning silk lines, as more caterpillars would follow these lines over the others.  That is nature cool.

    After molting five times, the caterpillars disperse in solitary journeys to find a safe place under boards, beneath bark, or some other protected nook to start the next step in their journey, the pupa stage.  This is the stage where they are in a cocoon and one of nature’s most magical transformation occurs; that of a caterpillar becoming a moth or butterfly.    

    These little moths are not long for the world; their only task is to mate and lay eggs for the next season.  Perhaps having such a short adult life is for the best, as Aldo Leopold once said “Adult hood is merely a dilution of the essentials, worn down by the trivialities of living. (Paraphrased)

    On a side note, my son seems to have the same proclivity to go on insect safaris as well.  Once he burns it out of his system as I did, the boy might become the nature nerd his father became.  I can only hope.  Enjoy this video of a shedding tent caterpillar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_A83dRYqbw 

     

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy


  • 03/16/2020 2:34 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Flowering dogwoods have always been an integral part of my life, and their beauty in the spring and throughout the year is unsurpassed.  North Carolinians, Virginians and Missourians proudly call it their state tree.  I can’t imagine a spring without them, and I watch for their beautiful white bracts with eager anticipation.  It would not be out of bounds to clap when you see them.  It is that good.  George Washington himself, planted a circle of dogwoods with a redbud in the middle at Mount Vernon.  This act was visionary and proof of his worthiness to be our first president in my opinion.

    While climbing dogwoods as a boy, I learned that they were tough and hard to break.  They were some in the woods I climbed and bent over till they dropped me on the ground.  One, me and my friend Rudy  would climb together and make it bend with our combined weight till one of us dropped off near the ground, thereby sending the other back up with the tree.  I later found that dogwood was used in the textile industry due to this strength and high resistance to splitting. 

    Dogwood has had some obsolete uses in the past.  When the southern ports were blockaded during the Civil War, medicine was hard to come by, so the southern soldiers used a lot of natural remedies.  Dogwood bark was the south’s answer to malaria when they couldn’t get quinine.  Before this, some native American tribes used the roots to make a scarlet dye.

    Dogwood is also known to be an important wildlife food plants, feeding many birds, and mammals like rabbits, gray squirrels, chipmunks and deer.  I have watched groups of birds gorging on dogwood fruit in the fall and it always seems a raucous affair.  The bitter fruit is considered unpalatable for humans. 

    Here is a story from Ernest Thompson Seton in his classic book, Woodland Tales called “The Devil and the Dogwood.”  It was Adam’s favorite tree they say, in the Garden of Eden.  It grew so high and gave so much pleasure that the Devil wanted to kill it.  He made up his mind that he would blight and scatter every shining leaf of its snowy bloom. 

    So, one dark night he climbed a Honey Locust tree near the gate, and swung by his tail over the wall, intending to tear off its lovely blossoms.  But he got a shock when he found that every blossom was in the shape of a cross, which put them beyond his power to blight.  He was furious at not being able to destroy its beauty, so he did the worst he could.  Keeping away from the cross, he bit a piece out of the edge of every snowy flower leaf, and then jumped back to the Honey Locust tree. 

    The Locust was so ashamed when she found that she had helped the Devil to do such a mean bit of mischief, so she grew a bristling necklace of strong thorns to wear;  they were so long and sharp that no one since, not even the Devil himself has ever been able to climb that Honey Locust tree.

    But it was too late to save the Dogwood bloom.  The bites were out, and they never healed up again, as you can see to this day. 

    On a natural history note on this story; the notch that devil bit out in the story is a remnant of the bracts former function as bud scales that protected the flower in the winter.

    Know more to see more,

     

    Ranger Billy


  • 02/13/2020 9:57 AM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Bluejays are in the Corvidae family, which includes Ravens, Crows, and Magpies. This family includes our largest passerines (perching birds/songbirds) and is without a doubt, taken as a whole, the brains of the U.S. bird world. The term “Bird Brain” is meant as an insult but studies of the Corvid family should turn this insult into a compliment. If you want to read how smart the Corvids are, read the “The Genius of Birds,” by Jennifer Ackerman.

    My relationship with jays have changed since I was a boy. They were the annoying guardian of the forest then, scaring away my b.b./.22 gun prey with their raucous “Sneaakk, Sneaakk.” I learned at an early age that the whole forestlistens to bird alarms and responds accordingly.  It took me quite a bit longer to learn that I could take advantage of these alarms myself.  But that is a tale for another time.

    I have been in the woods when I heard a rowdy group of jays coming near, screaming, making hawk sounds, seemingly just to disrupt the woods and have fun.  It reminded me of a loud bunch of teenagers at the beach, loud and obnoxious, reveling in their fun and annoyance of others. They take this behavior to a new level when they are mobbing hawks or owls. They gather around the offending bird and scream together and dive at them until the big birds move off or the blue jays tire of it.  I have, however, seen some owls and hawks who were Zen masters of ignoring this hubbub around them.

    Perhaps like me, you have seen a Jay prey upon a sparrow, warbler or vireo. Watching them use their heavy bill to kill a hatchling never failed to disturb me as a boy, but as I grew older, I adopted the classic James Bond biological theme song of “Live and Let die.”  Jays are mainly vegetarians, primarily eating nuts, fruits, and seeds, and the forest is thankful that they are. They are cachers, burying acorns and other nuts for winter use, and the fact that many go unclaimed results in new oaks and beeches each year.  It is thought that Bluejays took a major role in quickly reestablishing trees up north when the last glaciers retreated.

    Jays are beautiful in that way where you are thunderstruck, standing with your mouth open.  Maybe it is just me.  I pick up a lot of things in the woods, some that horrified my mother when she found them in the freezer when I was young, and I still find joy in every bluejay feather I find.  For fun, check out this bluejay video, from a self-named bird nerd who has some great bird videos.  If you don’t think jays are beautiful by the end of the video, then maybe it’s time for a long sabbatical and time of introspection into who you are and why you are like you are.

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy


  • 01/14/2020 4:53 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    I remember trail running at small county park in Plano, Texas, some years back, and I cut off a side trail and came face-to-face with a coyote coming from the opposite direction. We froze six feet from each other, and he showed no signs of animosity. His yellow eyes possessed equal parts of awareness, curiosity, and intelligence. I don’t know how long this moment lasted ‘til he loped off to the right, but I still remember his eyes so vividly.

    I ask kids which animal was known as the trickster/creator/fool/magician by many native American tribes. No answer. When I next compare this animal to ninjas with their skills to live or move through an area unseen, disappear quickly, have a multitude of tricks up their sleeves, yet currently have more reported sightings in Wake County than other N.C. counties, the kids get interested but still have no answers. It proves the old maxim: out of sight out of mind.

    Coyotes are indeed among us, in all 100 North Carolina counties, and they have proven themselves unstoppable, unlike the mountain lion and some bears and wolves, which were driven/hunted/trapped out of the East. The smaller, stealthier and more adaptable coyote has withstood all attempts to drive its population down. In the Carolinas, you can hunt coyotes all year with a hunting license and this hasn’t put a dent in their population. Even if you could reduce the local coyote population by 90%, studies have shown that they can replace the population numbers in 5 years.

    Rangers here in Umstead see coyotes frequently, but we still tell each other each time we see one. One has a route that comes about 150 yards from my residence; often enough to make me nervous with my four-year-old playing in the yard by herself. Coyotes rarely attack people, but attacks are happening here and there throughout the state, both rabid and non-rabid coyotes. The problem is likely to increase in the future; just read about packs roaming neighborhoods in Charlotte. The following link is about little girl from Illinois that would have been attacked had she not turned around at the last millisecond. 

    Coyotes are in the season of love right now, and the Alpha couples are still courting or have already mated by now here in the South. Gestation is generally around 63 days, and litter size (4-7) adjusts for population density and food abundance. At my boyhood home in South Carolina, I became good at locating grey fox dens, but to date, the coyotes have skunked me. I continually look in tight brushy areas for a hole entrance being around one foot wide, and I remain hopeful.

    Pups can be seen as early as three weeks outside their den, and their parents — and sometimes young from the previous year — feed and care for them. They disperse in autumn or winter with a typical dispersal range from 25 to 100 miles. This is the most dangerous time of their lives, and mortality is frequently high. If they make it to adulthood, they survive by being so adaptable in their ways and diet. According to Mark Elbroch (fantastic author on tracking and animals), a study in Missouri identified 47 animal and 27 plant foods that coyotes eat. That is a diverse diet indeed.

    I’ll end this article with a quote you might have heard: “In case of a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches will be the only survivors.” People who know coyotes will probably add them to this list. Enjoy a good audio of coyote sounds that might help you discover that coyotes live close to you.

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

  • 12/17/2019 10:11 AM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    I went to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving in South Carolina, and when I put my dog in the backyard, I turned over a metal pail to use as a water bowl.  My fingers were a good 8 inches away from the Black Widow, but it still caused a visceral reaction due to a horrific story I have carried since childhood of my Uncle Archie being bitten in the gonads while in the outhouse.  I think about it every time I go by the outhouse at Youth Tent Camp.

    Taken by itself, the black widow female is a beautiful spider.  The black part is so dark in fact that it seems like a menacing, though slightly gleaming, little black hole.  I guess what I am trying to say is that there is a dark night of the soul, and then there is the black widow female dark night of the soul.  And then when you are getting pulled into that blackness, the vivid red hourglass appears to repulse and push you away. 

    On a fun note, Gary Larson of Far Side Comics fame,  penned the Spider Personals where you see ad after hilarious ad of Black Widow female personals trying to get a mate.  Black Widows are not the only spiders, or insects for that matter, to eat their mate after sealing the deal.  Though this does not happen all the time, it occurs frequently.  I have often wondered how many human males would still proceed knowing they may be devoured afterwards. 

    Nowadays, the black widow can be found under rocks, boards, stonewalls, water and electric meters, garages, crawl spaces and other dark and damp areas.  They can inhabit closets and live under appliances, furniture and even seldom worn shoes.  The best way to not get bitten is to stay alert and wear gloves if you are frolicking about in such places.  If you see one and want it to die, then spray insecticide on it and the problem will be solved.  You can even spot treat an area if you worry about an infestation.  However, please know that black widows in general are the poster children of minding their own business.

    If by chance you are bitten, then you may be in for a rough couple of days.  Pain may last for eight to twelve hours and the other symptoms may continue for days.  The best plan is to get to a medical facility, especially for younger kids and pregnant women.  There is antivenin available now for this bite, and doctors will determine if you need it.  There are possible side effects from the antivenin.

    One arachnologist, W.J. Baerg, in an inspired attempt to further scientific knowledge, coerced a black widow bite him in 1922.  His account was documented by Paul Hillyard, the “spider guy” at London Natural History Museum and it reads, “The pain at first was faint but very soon began to increase into a sharp piercing sensation.  In less than one hour the pain had reached the shoulder and within two hours the chest was affected; the diaphragm seemed partially paralyzed, breathing and speech became spasmodic.  After 5 hours, the pain extended to the legs and after 9 hours I was taken to a hospital.  A severe nausea and excruciating pain not only kept me awake but kept me moving throughout the night.  I left the hospital after three days but found that recovery was not complete; a feeling of wretchedness remained for a couple of days.”

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

  • 11/13/2019 4:42 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Growing up, my Uncle Joe had some unsavory pet nicknames for me: Hammerhead, Bill de Bob, His Girl Bill and Pepe Le Pew.  If you don’t know Pepe, he was the always unwelcome, overly amorous cartoon skunk who did not take no for an answer from his targeted paramours.  Not a cartoon for todays times to be sure.  Here at Umstead, I have seen two road-killed striped skunks just outside the park but have yet to see a skunk or skunk tracks in the park.  I hope they are still here.

    I have had some run ins with skunks in the past and for the most part, they have behaved admirably well.  One skunk sashayed into my campsite at Hueco Tanks State Park near El Paso and boldly walked to where two buddies and I were eating at the picnic table.  We sat stone still, and he came close enough to our legs to feel his fur.  It was like a King passing near peasants, like we weren’t there.

    Contrary to popular belief, skunks do not spray first and ask questions later.  They go through a process of hissing, growling, arching their backs and lifting their tail over their back to display agitation over a perceived threat.  They may even stamp their feet and if the threat remains, they arch their bodies unto a U-shape, from which they are ready, willing and able to fire.

    I was sprayed while camping one night with my wife, our dog Katie, and our nine-month-old son in Pisgah National forest.  The skunk attempted to nose his way into our tent which awakened Katie, a notorious scrapper and small animal killer, who destroyed the tent door to get out and deal with the interloper.  She pursued the skunk, a slow animal with a top speed about 10 m.p.h, which stopped about 10 ft. from the tent, turned and fired; effectively stopping my dog on a dime.  The spray hit me in the door of the tent with a small dose, but enough.  The wife, not even knowing what was happening, was out of the back flap with the boy like some movie ninja, saving both from getting hit.  I knew in my heart already but stood confirmed by her uncaring actions about my wellbeing that I was now, a distant second string in her heart.

    Katie was rubbing her eyes with her paws, salivating profusely, and I was crying and felt nauseous.  The skunk was forgotten by us both, no doubt ambling away, unconcerned.  We got out of the “area of stink” and went down to the creek together to try and get the stink off.  A task easier said than done.  My clothes would be thrown away, but Katie’s fur would stink for a solid three months.  Tomato juice, soap, dishwashing liquid, vanilla extract were all equally ineffective.  The most effective remedy was a combination of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dawn liquid soap mixed together. 

    Skunks are a member of the Mustelidae(Weasel) family, all of which have twin anal scent glands about the size of a grape.  None of the other members of the weasel family have the skunk strike capabilities.  When not trying to steal human food, striped skunks eat insects, worms, berries, carrion, small rodents and many other delicacies.  Not many animals will attack a skunk more than once, which proves the saying “It is good to be the king.”   If you doubt this claim, these videos of a mountain lion and bear encounter with a skunk may help.

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

  • 10/18/2019 2:10 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Some native american tribes felt that birds were put on this earth to lift the spirits of man.  I tend to agree.  If you can hear the carolina wren’s exuberant song, see a cardinal, tanager, wood duck or blue jay and not feel better, then you are in a deep funk indeed.  On a similar note, when I was stationed in Korea, I was in a valley by myself, lying on my back asking God to send me some sign, a chickadee landed on the branch above me and dropped a twig on my chest.  Proof positive right?

    Just last week, I was watching a pileated woodpecker on the Oak Rock Trail do its thing working a dead tree for insects and then it flew down to the creek and disappeared below the bank.  It stayed just long enough for me to creep over and get close enough so that it could blast out right in front of my face.  It flew right to a huge old oak tree, went in a hole and did not come out.  I have never seen that during the day and let me tell you my spirits were lifted.

    Birds have been around since around the middle of the Jurassic period approximately 150 million years ago.  This time until now have allowed birds to evolve a great variety of forms and behaviors, which makes watching them so fun.   There are about 8,700ish species of known bird species, and 1800ish species in America.  This variety is due to a process called adaptive radiation.  This basically means that the form and behavior of birds become modified as they adopt different ways of life.  Fossil evidence shows that birds evolved from reptilian ancestors but now a sparrow can live on seeds, something no reptile has ever been able to do. 

    Of the birds found in Umstead, grebes, herons, and waterfowl are the most primitive.  Hawks, owls, and woodpeckers are intermediates, and the passerines, which contain all the songbirds, crows, jays, and blackbirds are the most highly evolved. 

    If you want to see some of the earliest finds of Archaeopteryx,(Long thought to be the earliest bird and proof of reptile ancestry) go here. It is rather involved but interesting.  After about 11 minutes you can see the fossils. 

    To help lift your spirits, here is Bird Name quiz for you.  What is the bird name that matches the following descriptions?  Answers are below.

    1. Little League Outfielder
    2. Grave Digger
    3. Coward from the Great Plains
    4. Regal Angler
    5. Sad Letter
    6. Church official
    7. Conversation
    8. Fun in the field
    9. Fast
    10. Crazy
    11. Heavenly humor
    12. Murder a game animal
    13. Angry William

    Answers:

    1. Pewee
    2. Shoveler
    3. Prairie chicken
    4. King Fisher
    5. Blue Jay
    6. Cardinal
    7. Chat
    8. Meadowlark
    9. Swift
    10. Cuckoo/ Loon
    11. Godwit
    12. Killdeer
    13. Crossbill

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

  • 09/19/2019 2:31 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)
    About 2,000 black bears live in the northern Lower Peninsula. Another 10,000 live in the U.P.

    When it comes to black bears, there are two types of people.  People who want to see black bears in the woods and people who hope to God they never see a Black Bear in the woods.  Just recently, I was rooting for the black bear sighted in Cary to make it to the park, but alas, it looks like he didn’t make it.  The last bear we had in the park was in 2009 but like the Cary bear he was probably just passing through.   

    Living previously at Mt. Mitchell State Park, my family and I got used to black bears (Ursus americanus).  Bears looking into our living room window, bear scat in the yard, screams of the campers behind our house with a bear on their campsite and our inability to let our infant girl stay outside all year when she was napping; as is the Czech way.  Many times, in the winter, I would snow track the bears that were doing a little walkabout back to their den.  I never found out what they were doing up and about when they still should be in torpor (they are not true hibernators), but it was exciting tracking. 

    My most memorable bear encounter was when I was hiking off trail in the mountains of South Carolina.   As I gained the top of a ridge, a summer storm cut loose, and the thunder rolled up and down the valley.  I sat through the storm with my back on a rock enjoying the drips from the leaves after the rain had stopped.  I heard some sound to my right about 25 ft away and a mother bear with two cubs came out of a mountain laurel thicket.  She didn’t see me or smell me yet, so I clicked with my mouth the sound you use when you are calling your dog.  She froze, gave me an intense stare as if deciding to kill, cripple or just maim me, and went “Whhhooof”.   The cubs reacted immediately and climbed a tree to the left.  The mom kept staring, and I, probably like most people just before they are mauled, was sure my good intentions would affect a non-violent outcome.  She swayed her head left and right three times and just started slowly down the mountain, calling “Whhhhhooof,” once more and the cubs descended effortlessly and quickly caught up.  It was, for many reasons, my lucky day.

    Black bears are the most common bear in the United States as well as the smallest.  Craven county holds the record N.C. black bear weighing 880 lbs.  A more average black bear is between 150 and 400 lbs.  Black bears are generally not aggressive and will flee from humans in most cases. 

    Unfortunately, a lot of people have anthropomorphized the bear due to cute movie portrayals, television shows, and feelings that they are indeed teddy bears.  The thrill of being close to what seems like a “tame” bear leads people to feed them, adopt them, and feel falsely safe with them.  This has caused many lapses in common sense in how you treat a wild animal leading to yearly injuries and rare fatalities.  Here is a look at a scary video where the man survived but seemed to lose his ability to speak the Queen’s English.     

    The question you are probably asking now is “Just how cool is the black bear?”  I mean, any animal that might help us explore Mars has got to be Snoopy with sun glasses on cool.   Just for fun, check out this article

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

  • 08/15/2019 12:00 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

    Growing up, I knew quite a few pines in the woods near my house on a first name basis.  I knew them in drought stress, deluge and covered with ice, climbed them in the day and night, shot foes from them in B.B. gun wars, played squirrel, jumping from pine to pine, and even ate edible parts of the pine in efforts to be an Indian.  Many was the day where my friend Rudy and I camped beneath Loblolly pines with an occasional breeze making that gentle whishing sound through the needles that is so peaceful and distinctive.  Moonlit nights were extra special, and I know from experience what the author of the song “Georgia on my mind,” meant when he penned:  

    I said Georgia

    Georgia

    A song of you

    Comes as sweet and clear

    As moonlight through the pines

    Pine needles also helped me through a long cold December night in Kentucky when my army unit had been separated from its rucksacks, which meant we had no gear to pass the night.  Through a teenage experiment, Rudy and I built a debris hut entirely of pine needles that was designed to be a shelter and sleeping bag type of thing (think of a structure topped with needles and filled with needles).  It was warm enough but scratchy, pokey and made for a very long night.  But back to Kentucky, I piled up a massive pile of pine needles and then wormed into the middle and got a blessed 4 or 5 hours of sleep and earned the title of Hooch Master (Hooch is military slang for a shelter among other things) by my squad. 

    Pines are conifers, cone bearing evergreen trees which first appeared around 225 million years ago - just about the time small mammals were starting to gather steam but still in the Dinosaurs large shadows.  The pines flourished quickly due to the epic evolutionary achievement of the seed.  The seed contained an embryonic plant with a reservoir of food to give it a boost when compared with spore-bearing plants which had to land in exactly the right place or die.  Conifers are gymnosperms, meaning naked seeds that lack a protective covering like an acorn or an apple.  On a fun note, gymnasium means a place of naked training (think ancient Greeks). 

    At Umstead we only have three species of pine here: Loblolly, Short-leafed, and Virginia Pine with Loblolly making up the lion’s share.  After the farm properties that made up Umstead were purchased by the federal government in 1934, the old fields were no doubt quickly dominated by Loblolly Pines. These pines were eventually overtaken by slower growing, more shade tolerant hardwoods such as the oaks, hickories, and sweetgums that make up a lot of Umstead today.  The only way Loblollys can resist this transition is if fires come through every few years because they are more fire tolerant than the hardwoods.  That thick scaly bark keeps the cambium layer (the green growing part of the tree) from cooking in low to medium fires that would kill younger hardwoods.  Beeches, with their very thin bark are on the opposite end, being extremely fire intolerant. 

    So, go out and enjoy the pines or hike the Loblolly trail named in honor of this beautiful pine.  Living in the south can make us take the pine for granted, such is its numbers, but if you take the time to really get to know them, soon you will be singing that “Georgia on my Mind” verse with feeling. 

    Know more to see more,

    Ranger Billy

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The Umstead Coalition

We are dedicated to preserving the natural integrity of William B. Umstead State Park and the Richland Creek Corridor.