A working farm as a nature reserve

cattle I77A8663© Maria de Bruyn resTo continue the saga of Braeburn Farm, I’d like to introduce you to some of the non-avian wildlife to be found there. As a vegetarian, I’ll admit I was originally a bit reluctant to go there, but I must acknowledge that the farm management does many things to give the cattle a good life.

Red Devon cattle I77A6581© Maria de Bruyn resThey keep their herd of Red Devons (Bos taurus) to about 300 animals and allow the calves to reach the age of at least 3 years. Some cows and bulls are allowed to grow much older (10-12 years or more) and they enjoy a peaceful life before they go to market, rotating through the farm’s varied habitats, which include meadows and fields, ponds, woods and creeks. No pesticides are used in the habitats and the vegetation is allowed to grow as naturally as possible. Farm manager Nick said that when it is time to shift the cows to a new pasture area, he just calls them. The older cows know that they will be enjoying fresh and different veggies so they follow him willingly, leading the rest of the herd along.

My visits in June and July showed how this farm is cultivating biodiversity among plants and wildlife. The fields were dotted with thistles, white clover (Trifolium repens), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and many other plants.

brown-eyed Susan I77A7112© Maria de Bruyn res        Moth mullein Verbascum blattaria I77A5812© Maria de Bruyn res

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)                           Moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria)

Bees and butterflies were abundant, showing that the farm’s methods are good for the pollinators.

clouded sulphur I77A6930© Maria de Bruyn res    Clouded skipper I77A7102© Maria de Bruyn

Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)                             Clouded skipper (Lerema accius)

Least skipper IMG_0155© Maria de Bruyn    Sachem skipper I77A7026© Maria de Bruyn res

Least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor)          Sachem skipper (Atalopedes campestris)            cabbage white I77A6735© Maria de Bruyn res         monarch I77A6970© Maria de Bruyn res

Cabbage white (Pieris rapae)                      Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus), margined leatherwing soldier beetles (Chauliognathus marginatus), bees and various species of syrphid flies (also known as hoverflies and often mistaken for bees) were exploring the thistles.

leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4412© Maria de Bruyn res   leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4400© Maria de Bruyn res

margined leatherwing soldier beetle IMG_4437© Maria de Bruyn resMargined leatherwing soldier beetle

Eastern carpenter bee 2 I77A6964© Maria de Bruyn res            syrphid fly Sphaerophoria I77A5781© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)            Syrphid fly (Sphaerophoria)

common oblique syrphid fly Allograpta obliqua IMG_4418© Maria de Bruyn res

Common oblique syrphid fly (Allograpta obliqua)

Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn bg    Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn res

Syrphid fly (Palpada vinetorum)

Elsewhere, the nymph of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) moved along large leaves.

Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4499© Maria de Bruyn    Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4481© Maria de Bruyn res

It pays to look down at your feet as you wander through the fields in the early morning. The grasses are covered in tiny webs that glisten with water droplets. Underneath are the tiny red dwarf sheetweb spiders (Florinda coccinea) that may show themselves if you stay very still.

dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0117© Maria de Bruyn res     dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0126© Maria de Bruyn res

dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0127© Maria de Bruyn   dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0121© Maria de Bruyn

In the vegetation below you can also see other insects, like the Spur-throated grasshopper (Melanoplus), or the Forage looper moth (Caenurgina erechtea).

spur-throated grasshopper Melanoplus IMG_0152© Maria de Bruyn res      Forage looper I77A5943© Maria de Bruyn res

Various dragonflies and damselflies balance on grasses and sometimes alight on the ground (the former hold their wings out when resting and the damselflies fold their wings along their bodies).

halloween pennant I77A6315© Maria de Bruyn res   halloween pennant Celithemis eponina I77A6337© Maria de Bruyn res

Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Double-striped American bluet Dancer damselfly I77A6155© Maria de Bruyn res

Double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens)

widow skimmer I77A6998© Maria de Bruyn bg

Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

common whitetail I77A6394© Maria de Bruyn res

Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)

At the creek crossings, you may see a common sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus, a lifer for me!), paper wasps (Polistes) or a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) having a drink or looking for a mate. The viceroy mimics the monarch but can be distinguished easily with the line crossing its wings horizontally when you see it rest.

Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6480© Maria de Bruyn res    Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6508© Maria de Bruyn res

paper wasp Polistes I77A6454© Maria de Bruyn bg       Viceroy I77A6432© Maria de Bruyn res

Walking through the fields, you may also occasionally spot a mammal although they are not as easy to see as the other wildlife. As I trudged around a pond, this white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) was startled from its hiding place – showing off the part of its anatomy for which the species is named and looking as if s/he was sporting a very large feather.

white-tailed deer I77A6198© Maria de Bruyn res           white-tailed deer I77A6199© Maria de Bruyn res

On one outing, Nick and I spotted a couple darling raccoon kits (Procyon lotor), who wasted no time scurrying for cover when they spotted us.

raccoon I77A7213© Maria de Bruyn res     raccoon I77A7225© Maria de Bruyn res

Red Devon cattle I77A6617© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm is a great place to spend quality time outdoors. You can contact the farm management to schedule a visit and they will instruct on which fields and areas are open for visitation. And if you should wander by mistake into a field with some of the cattle, you needn’t worry as the Red Devons are likely to walk away or just watch you as they are a placid breed. I hope that Braeburn Farm becomes a popular birding and wildlife observation area so that we can continue enjoying visits there.

Maintaining culture through plants

Burmese farmer IMG_5217© Maria de Bruyn resChapel Hill’s largest refugee community comprises three ethnic groups who fled the country of Myanmar (Burma); a number of them lived in refugee camps in Thailand before they came to the USA. Some 30 of these families have been receiving assistance since 2010 at the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, through which they are able to grow many of the plants on which they relied as farmers in their home country. The gardens they maintain not only help feed members of their families and community, but also enable them to maintain some of their original culture through dietary customs. The farm also helps the families earn an income through the crops they sell via farmers’ markets and a community supported agricultural (CSA) project wherein customers commit to buying a box of vegetables from them every week.

IMG_5230© Maria de BruynThis evening, the Community offered the general public a chance to tour their gardens and sample some of their traditional dishes, a delightful experience to be sure. When I arrived for the event, I first toured one of the plots with shared vegetable gardens. What first struck me was the large number of birds that were in the garden, including American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina), ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) and great-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) among others.

American goldfinch IMG_5117© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow IMG_5063© Maria de Bruyn res flycatcher IMG_5075© Maria de Bruyn res

ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_5088© Maria de BruynThe air was alive with bird calls and song and as dusk fell, you could see the birds flitting from ground to plant to plant. Butterflies, like this red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), were also flying about the garden, which had a mix of full-grown vegetables and blossoms promising more crops to come.

Paper wasps (Polistes) and other insects were also plentiful.

red-spotted purple IMG_5151© Maria de Bruyn res Paper wasp IMG_5182© Maria de Bruyn res

squash IMG_5095© Maria de Bruyn res vegetable blossom IMG_5065© Maria de Bruyn res

The event was co-sponsored by The Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Orange County Partnership for Young Children, and Triangle Land Conservancy, which provided the Community Farm with space in its Irvin Nature Preserve. Representatives of the organizations said a few words about their work and then we were led on a guided tour of a newer part of the Community Farm by Kelly Owensby, the Project Director, and one of the Karen teenagers participating in the project, Joe.

IMG_5194© Maria de Bruyn

We had some tasty beer, provided by a donor, and were given a bit of the Farm’s history as we walked along the path to the new section.  The 5-acre Farm is on land in the rural outskirts of Chapel Hill and, while it is a wonderful site on this 269-acre Preserve, it is not served by public transportation, a circumstance that has made it impossible for some refugee families to participate in the project. The 30 families that have managed to get there daily, in addition to their regular jobs, have made over $125,000 over the past three years with their produce sales.

pumpkin IMG_5070© Maria de Bruyn resKaren plant IMG_5139© Maria de Bruyn res

Joe told us about a Karen holiday that are celebrated by these ethnic families here in North Carolina. The wrist-tying ceremony recalls how the Karen people fled through Mongolia a long time ago; elders bind the wrists of young people by winding white thread around them three times wound three times with white string, which wards off misfortune and evil.

Papaya IMG_5176© Maria de BruynThe farmers grow some 40 plants native to Burma. These plants need to be re-planted from seeds each year since the North Carolina climate is too cold in winter for them to survive as perennials. The papayas don’t bear fruit but the Burmese refugees use their leaves in various dishes. Some of the native plants include gourds, turmeric, bitter melons, ginger, taro root, medicinal herbs and lemongrass. Plain green gourds could be seen hanging near spotted water gourds.

taro IMG_5201© Maria de Bruyn respepper IMG_5115© Maria de Bruyn res

gourd IMG_5211© Maria de Bruyn res water gourd IMG_5204© Maria de Bruyn res

Sesame IMG_5187© Maria de Bruyn resOne female farmer had begun growing sesame seed, a crop she had had in her native country and which she was very glad to be growing here. The bamboo trellises are commonly used to suspend gourds and provide shade for crops that need protection from constant sun such as ginger and turmeric.

 

 

The farmers are also growing plants native to North Carolina, such as okra.

okra IMG_5199© Maria de Bruyn res

IMG_5231© Maria de Bruyn

 

Burmese vegetables IMG_5219© Maria de Bruyn resBurmese meal IMG_5229© Maria de Bruyn res

The okra featured alongside water gourd and ridge gourd as part of our meal appetizer of vegetable tempura. We were also treated to a delicious soup incorporating okra along with lemon grass and shitake mushrooms, a delicious and slightly spicy pumpkin curry and a salad with some bitter elements that went well with the other dishes.

gourd IMG_5113© Maria de Bruyn res Karen plant IMG_5156© Maria de Bruyn res

I had told four people about this opportunity to sample Karen and other Burmese cuisine but none of them came; they missed a really delicious meal! I hope many more people attend the evening next year.

Plenty of persimmon pleasure!

Northern cardinal  IMG_7335© Maria de BruynMy side- and backyards are both blessed with a persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) but the one out back only produces small hard fruit for some reason. The large persimmon at the side of my house, however, is the exact opposite. Each year it is laden with fruit; much of it begins falling while the persimmons are still unripe or only half-ripe but plenty remains on the tree through the first frost. You need to have both male and female plants for the fruit to grow, but I don’t know where the male trees are – likely in a neighbor’s yard.

Persimmon tree IMG_6996© Maria de Bruyn resPersimmon tree IMG_6993© Maria de Bruyn res

I’d been warned that an unripe or only partly ripe persimmon would not be tasty and, when I tried one, that advice turned out to be very true. I later tried a really ripe persimmon as so many North Carolinians find it a wonderful fruit, especially in pudding, but I can’t say that it is much to my liking. You won’t find me using persimmons to make tea, wine, beer or bread.

white-tailed deer IMG_9971© Maria de Bruyn resIt is, however, VERY popular with the wildlife that is around my house. The first fallen persimmons are gobbled up by the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), who don’t seem to mind a bit of astringent fruit. Our neighborhood has opossums, raccoons, coyotes and gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) , but I haven’t seen their persimmon seed-filled scat – I think the deer get the fruit before they have a chance. (Too bad the stem was in front of the fox’s face; I don’t use Photoshop, but you can still see its beauty.)

Gray fox IMG_1124 MdB res

When the large orange berries begin falling on the ground in an ever riper state, the first diners include the bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), whose beautiful large nest must be in a neighbor’s tree.

bald-faced hornet IMG_3348©Maria de Bruynbald-faced hornet IMG_3486©Maria de Bruyn

Eastern yellowjacket IMG_2502©Maria de BruynEastern yellowjacket wasps (Vespula maculifrons), which can deliver a very nasty sting, show no interest in a human hovering over the persimmons to get a shot – they are totally engrossed in getting a piece of juicy fruit.

Southern yellowjackets (Vespula squamosa), also painful stingers, act likewise – their focus is entirely on the orange pulp.

 

 

Southern yellowjacket IMG_2473©Maria de BruynSouthern yellowjacket IMG_2507©Maria de Bruyn res

Paper wasp polistes metricus IMG_4359©Maria de BruynThe paper wasps (Polistes metricus) dig deep into the persimmon to extract some sweetness.

The red wasps (either Polistes carolina or rubiginosus; entomologists can only tell by examining the insect) also enjoy flitting from one fallen fruit to another in search of the sweetest bits. Sometimes they and the paper wasps challenge one another for territory.

Red wasp P carolina IMG_3495©Maria de Bruyn

Paper wasp polistes metricus IMG_3513©Maria de Bruyn res

Downy woodpecker IMG_7248© Maria de BruynThe next group of persimmon pickers are the birds. Some birds only visit the tree to rest or look for insects, like the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) and the white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

White-breasted nuthatch IMG_5997© Maria de Bruyn

 

 

A few birds just rest in the tree and others rest and occasionally peck at a berry, like the house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus).

 

House finch IMG_5956© Maria de Bruyn

Yellow-bellied sapsucker IMG_8379© Maria de Bruyn The yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) though is a woodpecker that is highly attracted by the fruit. A few of these attractive birds – both adults and juveniles – have been visiting the tree every day for weeks now to enjoy a sweet treat.

 

 

 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker IMG_8263© Maria de BruynYellow-bellied sapsucker IMG_8233© Maria de Bruyn

The American robin (Turdus migratorius) will not turn up its beak at a piece of persimmon either. Perhaps next year I should take a leaf from their books and collect a few fruits to try a pudding??

American robin IMG_9826©Maria de Bruyn resAmerican robin IMG_9813©Maria de Bruyn res