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Restoring the Lower Booker Creek Trail to a Bird-Friendly Habitat

Author: Barbara Driscoll

For years I have walked the Lower Booker Creek trail in Chapel Hill as part of my daily routine.  As I walked, I dreamed of having the resources to remove all the invasive privet that came to block all the undergrowth along the trail.  One day, I noticed that someone had cleared a large section of privet, and then more was cleared the next month.  Signs were posted that this was a neighborhood volunteer activity.  I decided to contact the person in charge of volunteers, Jeanette Bench, and found a partner in crime.  Never underestimate the power of the few.

Jeanette, along with Michael Everhart as part of the Chapel Hill Parks and Rec Committee, began working with the town on the adopt-a-trail program in 2018. Chapel Hill has numerous trails that are in floodplains or border creeks, and many of these riparian areas are infested with invasive plants such as Privet, Japanese Stilt Grass, Elaeagnus and Japanese honeysuckle. Each month from September to May volunteers have been showing up once a month to cut and remove mounds of Privet, Elaeagnus, Japanese Honeysuckle and other invasive plants.  Parks and Rec removes the piles of plants after the workdays and also supplies the tools for the volunteers.

Now that a large amount of invasive plant material was removed, it was the perfect opportunity to plant native shrubs and trees in the open spaces along the creek.  I decided to apply for a Plants for Birds Burke Grant from National Audubon.  The Coleman and Susan Burke Center for Native Plants has generously been providing funding for native plants projects for several years.   Actively removing invasive species and replanting with natives has a myriad of benefits over time: creating diverse and nutritious habitat for birds, pollinators and other wildlife; augmenting stormwater retention and groundwater recharge; facilitating nutrient and pollutant sequestration resulting in improved water quality downstream; and improving trail visibility, safety, access, and connections.  In addition to funding native plants, we wanted to use the grant to provide signage to create public awareness and broader understanding about the problem of invasive plants, as well as greater understanding about the benefits of incorporating bird-friendly native plants into people’s yards.  This trail is heavily used by residents (averaging 10,000 visits monthly based on Chapel Hill’s foot traffic measurement).

Students planting trees.

New Hope Audubon was the fortunate recipient of a Burke Grant in 2019.  Once we received the grant funds, we began planning when and what to plant.  I wanted to incorporate two perennial beds to highlight native pollinator and bird-friendly plants where people could see the plants as they walked the trail. I also wanted plants that would seed and multiply, spreading to adjacent areas.   In September, 20 volunteers from the Church of Later Day Saints helped us put over 200 perennials in the ground.  Unfortunately, this was right during the middle of a flash drought which lasted for several months.  Parks and Recs helped by watering several times a week from a water truck and several volunteers also trucked over 30 gallon jugs of water in between.  Pretty much all the plants survived the drought.  We decided that November was the best time to plant all the trees and shrubs to fill in along the creek and flood plain areas.   We selected 16 species of native trees and shrubs that had berries or lots of flowers for pollinators and birds and which were suitable for a floodplain.  On planting day, over 50 volunteers showed up to help with the planting, including students from Chapel Hill High, East Chapel Hill High, The Chinese School, and Y-guides.  We also had a number of neighbors, which included six father/daughter teams, who helped in planting.  Everyone pitched in to help plant. This made it go very quickly, which was fortunate as rain started pouring down an hour after we began.  It was a real team effort, and around 150 plants went into the ground and most of the trees/shrubs were caged to prevent deer from browsing on them.

Father daughter team planting together.

There is still a lot of work to be done–removing more invasive plants and maintaining the areas where invasive plants were removed.  I’m proud of what has been accomplished so far: We have increased volunteer participation from around 20 volunteers per event to 50-60 volunteers per event.  We have cleared close to 5 acres of flood plain of large privet trees, Elaeagnus and other invasive plants; although much work and maintenance remains.  We were able to plant 392 plants this year, adding to the 20-30 small trees planted last year.  Over the next few months we will plant an additional 72 native plants of which half are trees or shrubs.

One of the most rewarding parts of this project has been the thank you notes that Jeanette receives from the students who have helped.  These are just a few of the notes received:

“I was one of the volunteers which attended the full time of the Booker Creek restoration. I would like to thank you for giving this chance for us students and the community alike to get a hands on experience with the process. I believe that this does not only help the environment near Booker Creek but also gives a chance for people to find out more about why the environment is the way it is and how they could help. This event sparked a strong interest in the environment in many of my friends who also attended the event. For that I would like to thank you.”

  “I am writing to thank you for the opportunity to help out this weekend at Booker Creek.  The opportunity to beautify the creek with fun and interesting people while helping the environment by clearing out invasive species was truly the most enjoyable school related experience this year.  I look forward to working with you in the future.”

Students removing invasives.

Now when I’m working on the trail, either removing invasive plants or planting native plants, people stop to thank me for working on the trail.  It is great to be part of this project, but even better to know that we are improving the habitat for birds, pollinators and wildlife.

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