Hot on the heels of our epic Sunday afternoon road trip, Jay suggests a Memorial Day hike at Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area along the Eno River in Hillsborough, NC. The weather is perfect, with brilliant blue skies and hardly a breeze rustling the stars and stripes as we set out from Historic Downtown Sanford.
After four hours of AP English with Robert Frost and William Faulkner in the morning, Jay is more than ready to saddle up the Camry and head for Pittsboro via the most scenic backroads possible. We've barely left the four-lane when Jay's shutter starts clicking...
All manner of curiosities abound along a country road; mere weeds at first glance become bizarre and fascinating beings upon closer inspection. Touch one of this weed's magic wands and spring-loaded seeds are flung to the four winds...
For those who care to notice, rank wild onions become tiny bouquets of lilac-tinted (albeit onion-scented) lilies to rival the loveliest of their more prominent
Showy spikes of unicorn root or colic root, Aletris farinosa, flank the narrow winding road; tough to capture on camera, but what a beautiful sight to behold...
Moving on, we round the bend, and screech to a halt. A white tailed doe and young fawn, just venturing out into our lane. The mother flees for the cover of the trees, the fawn...not so much. As Jay scrambles to lower the window and snap a fleeting frame, the fawn approaches, bleating.
Car running, middle of the road, fawn tries to join us inside. Curious? Way too. We try our best to gently frighten the animal away from the road, but to no avail. It makes a valiant effort to befriend these two strange creatures, attempting to rub against our legs and nuzzle our hands. We make an equally valiant effort to avoid contact and shoo the youngster to safety.
Eventually, clapping hands, shouting and feigned kicks succeed in encouraging it to rejoin its mother beyond the ditch among the trees, just as a large gravel truck rounds the curve and rapidly bears down on our location.
Farewell, little critter. Here's wishing you and mom safe travels...
Still marveling at our encounter with the fawn, we park in the small gravel lot at Occoneechee Mountain and exit the vehicle to find a rather large white mulberry tree, loaded with beautiful (and delicious) berries. This is quickly becoming a most memorable Memorial Day. The white mulberry is a naturalized transplant from China, brought here as early as the mid-17th century to provide fodder for silkworms in a doomed effort to establish a North American silk industry. The industry ultimately failed, but the mulberries remain...yum!!!
A glorious sunlit afternoon gives witness to the reptiles' never-ending love affair with the life-giving warmth of the golden orb. This male eastern fence lizard, or tree lizard as we like to call them, seems intent on exposing every possible iota of surface area to the rays.
Texture, color, size, shape and posture all make for an exceptionally effective disguise for the motionless tree lizard clinging to bark of an oak.
Things get a little squirrelly when these two youngsters emerge to investigate Jay's noisy approach. Much smaller (and more common) than the eastern fox squirrel we spotted on Sunday, these eastern gray squirrels are quite photogenic.
Their curiosity seems to trump any inkling of fear on this peaceful afternoon, and Jay's nature photo portfolio continues to grow.
The forest is a land of shadows on a sunny day...
Fern and stone conspire to create a story of their own...
A robber fly and its shadow wait patiently for their lunch to join them in a small spot of warm sunshine.
Like an animated tin toy, this six-spotted (green) tiger beetle prowls the leaf litter with little apparent regard for camouflage...
Look, Ma. No hands! This male five-lined skink appears to be hovering above the surface of the bark with just the slightest assistance from the claws on its back foot. North Carolina is actually home to the five-lined and very similar southeastern five-lined skink, but we'd have to examine the scales under his tail to make a positive ID, so we're just going to go with five-lined and leave it at that!
This iridescent beauty is a male ebony jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata, one of NC's native damselflies. The female was perched in a sunny spot of her own just a few feet away, sporting nifty white dots at the very upper tip of her wings. Wonder if the skink is watching...
This park occupies the site of an inactive pyrophyllite mine, and the observant hiker (like Jay) might notice an occasional crystal formation in the rocks along the trail.
An even more observant hiker (like Jay), might notice this blossom at the base of the abundant wild ginger growing in the forest understory.
A very small and new-looking harvestman or "granddaddy long-legs" searches the sunny surface of this wild ginger leaf for edible tidbits. Lacking web or venom and not a spider, this spider-like scavenger may look "creepy," but is quite harmless to humans.
Ferns abound in the understory as well, so dense in some areas that it is impossible to enter without trampling it underfoot.
We stick to the trail to avoid any more unintentional trampling, and complete our descent from the ridge to the riparian zone along the Eno.
As we approach the river, we are greeted by a thicket of mountain laurel. At or just past the peak of blooming, the blossoms are showy and spectacularly beautiful in the late afternoon sun.
Through the eye of Jay's lens, they're pretty cool in the shade as well...
The dense flora of the understory becomes nearly impassable in the sunlit openings and rich soil along the river bottom; here a young sassafras with its unmistakable three-fingered leaves stands alongside what appears to be a young sweet gum and perhaps a beech with unusual variegated leaves.
In the filtered sunlight and dappled shade further from the riverbank, a pair of five-lined skinks apparently huddle for warmth (or something like that).
Colonies of glossy-green galax bloom in the shadow of the rocky cliffs which rise precipitously from the river along this stretch of the trail.
Just beyond the cliff, we enter the waste area at the foot of the old quarry site. The sun reflects a rainbow of colors from the exposed heart of the mountain, and in the shadows, a mourning dove.
Striking a contemplative pose, the dove considers our approach. It ponders our presence. It observes our actions. It walks about and eyes us, unafraid.
After several minutes of interaction, and dozens of remarkable photos, just as we become convinced that it is incapable of flight, it departs, coolly and gracefully, on its own terms.
The man-made cliff looms, and gigantic boulders perch, precariously.
Rather less coolly than the dove, we contemplate the boulders above. We observe the boulders behind and below us. We consider how this came to be.
And we depart the area, in rather more of a hurry than our avian greeter.
Leaving the potentially lethal boulders behind, we work our way up a steep utility easement before re-entering the forest for the final leg of our hike. In the sunny margins of the cleared right-of-way, we spy a couple of cool native wildflowers. First is Bowman's root or false ipecac, a member of the rose family whose blossoms have rather slender white petals all askew.
Not far away, whorled yellow loosestrife, in peak bloom. Tradition says that the American colonists fed this native plant to their oxen to pacify them and ensure that they would work together in harmony, hence the term "loose strife".
Jay's cool perspective. Remarkable top down view of a natural tower of whorled leaves and yellow flowers...
Bottom up view of a decidedly un-natural tower of metal and porcelain, strangely beautiful against the late afternoon sky.
We trade the forest for a meadow near a pond where dozens of dragonflies demonstrate their aerobatic acumen, and Jay spies this fine specimen cooling its heels, perhaps plotting its next routine.
Another wild onion preparing to burst into bloom basks in the glow of the setting sun,
while the entire meadow glows with the golden gleam of low hop clover, originally introduced to the U.S. as animal fodder, but now well-established nationwide.
As we head for the home after a most memorable day together, we admire the humble house erected here for our avian friends, then bid them adieu for now, along with all the natural wonders we've enjoyed here at Mt. Occoneechee.
A few miles south of Hillsborough, we spot our second bottlebush of the long weekend. Not sure of the species, but this one is a good bit larger than the Glendonia of Sunday's excursion, and bears none of the spectacular red bottles of its southern cousin.
Thanks for sharing this part of our journey with us, and stay tuned for more adventures as the school year draws to a close and the warm days of summer arrive to stay.