A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled in the past 50 years describing the Mason Farm Biological Reserve, a 367-acre wild parcel at the southeast edge of Chapel Hill adjoining Finely Golf Course.
I’m not a naturalist or a nature writer or photographer, just a plain ole woods lover. So I defer to the evocative observations that John Terres, author of “From Laurel Hill to Siler’s Bog” (Alfred Knopf 1966) made over his six years of daily (and nightly) forays into the place, or more recently to the images that photographers of Project Noah have uploaded to the reserve’s website. Nor could I bring the passion, persistence and perspicacity that N.C. Botanical Garden Conservation Director Johnny Randall has brought in the 18 years since he started that program.
Every serious or semi-serious bird watcher in the Triangle and probably all over North Carolina knows this reserve is the premier spot for birding in the Piedmont. Interested in what the bottomland hardwood forest might have resembled in pre-Colonial times? Want to view of the 300-year-old trees still in the Big Oak Swamp? Go.
Those desiring to “take back” North Carolina from invasive exotic plants come for seed and plugs for the major Piedmont prairie species being cultivated there. Last year the reserve grew 7,600 milkweed plants under a contract to support monarch butterfly recovery efforts by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The reserve is also home to North Carolina’s the largest shagbark hickory trees.
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To the untrained eye, like mine, the spot is not immediately spectacular, but a subtle enchantment begins upon entering through the discrete path just behind Finley Golf Course off to the right of their parking lot, marked only by a large dark rock incised with the words Mason Farm Biological Reserve.
About half mile down a gravel lane paralleling Morgan Creek you cross a concrete dam on the right and wet your tires or feet to enter the tiny parking lot. At the trailhead, a warped, listing plywood sign holds an information box where hikers and birders enter their names and observations. Even on a recent gorgeous Sunday afternoon however the lot held just four cars. Though the place has hosted numerous biology research projects and is the mother ship for Piedmont plant ecology study, it is still remarkably little used.
The Botanical Garden web page about the reserve states:
“The Mason Farm Biological Reserve protects natural areas, supports academic research and public education, and is a place for contemplation and appreciation of the natural world. MFBR and contiguous undeveloped tracts create an approximately 900-acre natural area that connects with the 41,000-acre New Hope Game Lands to the south. MFBR proper is 367 acres and contains a combination of forests and old fields that support approximately 800 species of plants, 216 species of birds, 29 species of mammals, 28 species of fish, 28 species of reptiles, 23 species of amphibians, and 67 species of butterflies. In fact, more different species of animals have been recorded at the Reserve than in any other comparably-sized area in the entire Piedmont. For photos of plants, birds, butterflies, other insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals at the Reserve see Project Noah.”
Using prescribed fire and mowing, the five-member Conservation Department staff keeps parts of the reserve permanently in grasslands and other ecosystems while at the same time researching how to convert the fields back to some semblance of the Piedmont prairie that existed before European settlement. Flagged rows in the first meadow going counterclockwise are where the four major species of native grasses – Indian grass, little blue stem, big blue stem and gamma grass – are being cultivated to provide seed to increase the amount of meadow that can be reclaimed from the invasive species and also learn how these species behave. The N.C. Department of Transportation has even begun expressing interest in these species. On our short hike, Randall surmised that the original inhabitants, whose presence dates back 10,000 years, might have used fire for not only maintaining the grasslands for say buffalo and crop raising, but perhaps even more practically to eradicate the ticks and chiggers that are still a bane of our existence.
Johnny Randall worried that by writing about Mason Farm, I’d betray this secret and it would be suddenly overrun. Somehow I doubt that. The peaceful but wild nature of the place, the essentially flat, two-mile main loop trail, the complete lack of amenities (not even a port-a-potty in sight) and absence of grand vistas or any signs means that this gem is likely to remain quietly respected. And, oh yeah, leave the dogs at home.
You can reach Blair L. Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Reserve
The Mason Farm land was received by the university in 1894 by bequest of Mary Elizabeth Morgan Mason, one of the last descendants of the Morgan family, who had settled in this southeast corner of Orange County in the 1740s. Largely undisturbed since that time, much of the area has now reverted back to woodlands. Some of its forests are now at least 150 years old, with some trees exceeding 300 years in age. During the 1960s and 1970s, several portions of this tract were set aside specifically for biological uses by the UNC Board of Trustees, and Mason Farm Biological Reserve was officially established in 1984. Today the area is administered by the N.C. Botanical Garden as both a natural area and biological field station.
Source: N.C. Botanical Garden