Below is an overview of our 189-acre ecological preserve on the Catawba College campus:
Delights of the Preserve
The clicking of chorus frogs. The call of the prothonotary warbler. The sight of a Falcate orangetip butterfly. Catawba College students witness a host of sights and sounds on the college’s 189-acre ecological preserve, where they conduct field research.
Before the first tender green leaf appears on the trees, thousands of chorus frogs assault the ears with their Geiger-counter clicks at every pond and puddle. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and brown creepers flit through the trees in the winter and early spring just as blue-headed vireos and blue-gray gnatcatchers return from the tropics.
"We have the greatest diversity in the spring," says Dr. Steve Coggin, chair of the Biology Department. "You can see both the winter birds and those that are passing through."
Dr. Joe Poston, assistant professor of biology, hopes to see a prothonotary warbler this year. "They are cavity nesters, which is unusual in warblers," he says. "They specialize in swamp habitat, and our swamp forest in the preserve is just getting old enough to support and attract them."
With the bright yellow on their head and breast and dark green on their wings and back, they are one of the more striking warblers, says Poston.
One of the benefits of observing birds on migration is that they are often easier to distinguish than they will be when they come back through in the fall, according to Poston. "After some species breed, they molt into a more cryptic plumage, so it’s a good time of the year to get out and see warblers and tanagers that may not breed in the preserve but will nonetheless use it on their way north."
Red-shouldered hawks nest in the preserve. "The neat thing about having them breeding in the preserve is that during the day a pair will often engage in courtship flights than can be noisy and very conspicuous," Poston says.
The late spring and early summer are also good times for butterfly watchers. A few species are found only as adults at that time of year. Visitors can find Falcate orangetips on a warm day in late March or April. Juvenal’s duskywings, which tend to fly a little later than the orangetips, emerge in the late spring and early summer. While they are less striking in color than the orangetips, they often appear in impressive numbers. "You can see dozens of them pretty easily in the late spring and early summer," Poston says.
Dr. Michael Baranski, professor of biology, encourages students to observe the vegetation as well. For those who are schooled in wetland communities, the preserve can be interesting indeed, but that takes a trained eye.
Even amateurs can identify swamp mallows, which have hibiscus or hollyhock-type flowers in the summer. "The most striking displays in terms of color are in the fall," Baranski says. Fall ironweed plants are a deep purple. Large expanses of Bidens, whose common name is Spanish needle, exhibit yellow flowers later in the year.
Coggin lists a number of wildflowers that people can observe in the early spring: hepatica, bloodroot, iris, windflowers and buttercups.
He also points out that the preserve is home to gray foxes, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and deer. "When I first came, there were no deer," he says. "Now we have probably 10 to 20."
One of the most striking sights in the spring is the emergence of the leaves. "In a matter of two weeks you can go from having almost full sun underneath the trees to having 90 percent of the light blocked out," Coggin says. "The leaf growth is very fast. The whole character of the wood changes. Of course, all those new leaves provide food for the animals and the insects provide food for the birds, so that’s why there is so much more activity in the spring. The availability of food is mostly driven by the leaves."
Landtrust, Catawba Preserve 300-acre Wildlife Refuge
December 15, 1999
The LandTrust for Central North Carolina purchased land in December of 1999 that allowed Catawba College to create a wildlife refuge. The property was the largest undeveloped tract of land in Rowan County under permanent conservation easement.
The LandTrust, which purchased 300 acres, gave the land to Catawba, and the college, in return, agreed to a conservation easement which protects the land's natural value.
Located seven miles north of Catawba on Highway 601, the land occupies the area at the confluence of Second Creek and the South Yadkin River. The Catawba College South Yadkin Wildlife Refuge provides a learning environment for Catawba students in the fields of wildlife management and land conservation.
"An initial grant of $500,000 from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund provided the first big step toward purchasing this important frontage on the South Yadkin River Corridor," says Jeff Michael, executive director of The LandTrust. The acreage was purchased for $850,000 from Joe Stirewalt, owner of Piedmont Hardwood Lumber Co.
"Our LandTrust board and staff, our Catawba faculty and students and our conservation partners have a larger vision of one day acquiring an array of conserved land that could ultimately become a much larger refuge system," says Dr. John Wear Jr., director of the Center for the Environment. "This, in effect, bring about water quality protection, land preservation and the creation of a functional wildlife refuge that can be used for educating our budding conservationists."
Michael notes that this creates a northern anchor in a region where many organizations have been working on water quality, land conservation and habitat protection. "We have all the confidence in the world that this will act as a catalyst for the preservation and management of other tracts in the area," he says.
"We are putting the pieces together for a much larger conservation quarter," Michael says. "We have had initial conversations with a number of landowners who are favorably disposed to land conservation. That makes us very hopeful that, over the next 5-10 years, even more land will be preserved."
"From a conservation perspective, this area is very significant," Michael says. "It's on a tremendous bend in the river. It provides for the protection of 1.5 miles of shoreline." It includes one of the natural areas identified in Catawba professor Dr. Mike Baranski's Natural Areas Inventory of Rowan County.
The 300-acre tract is part of the natural heritage of the region. "Because so much of the Yadkin River has been impounded with reservoirs, you don't get that glimpse of a natural flowing river in Rowan County quite like you do there on the South Yadkin," Michael says. "The bluffs, the wildlife, the waterfowl — it really feels like you're stepping back in time."
The land includes both uplands and wetlands. "We often think in terms of preserving wetlands or preserving uplands or forested areas, but the combination of all of them together on this land and their relation to the surrounding areas are significant," Wear says.
Where did the land go?
While the wildlife refuge is important today, its value will increase with time, according to Wear. "It's important to us now," he says, "but it's really going to be important 15 years from now when we all of a sudden look back and say, `What happened? Where did the land go?'"
The preservation and management of this property could ultimately affect Davie and Davidson counties. "This complements the Cooleemee Plantation, which was a private conservation easement just up the Yadkin River in Davie County," Michael says. "Add to that Boone's Cave State Park in Davidson County, and you begin to see the pieces fitting together."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has served as a consulting partner on the project. "This is truly a remarkable partnership," Michael says. "Through internship programs and teaching and the cross fertilization of ideas, it's a flourishing relationship."
Wear believes that the acquisition of this land as a wildlife refuge will have multiple benefits. It acts as a catalyst in a number of ways: the improvement of water quality, the preservation of wildlife habitat, the extension of the educational mission of the Center for the Environment and the beginning of activities that will preserve an even greater span of the South Yadkin Corridor. "This is a wonderful opportunity for the region," Wear says.