Life in an Urban Creek
My wife, Melissa, and I were on our daily morning walk with our two dogs, Penny and Lilly. As we neared Burnt Mill Creek, we found a baby snapping turtle hunkered down in the middle of the street. We carried the half-dollar sized hatchling to the creek and she/he swam happily away.
Female snapping turtles come out of creeks, ponds and rivers in the spring and lay their eggs in the uplands, often having to cross treacherous roads. The hatchlings emerge in the summer and head back to the creeks. After I learned this fact a number of years ago, I dutifully stopped alongside a busy highway to “rescue” a large female snapping turtle trying to cross the road. No one told me that they have incredibly long necks, so as I grabbed this turtle, out came her head with powerful jaws snapping, reaching around to try bite my hands. A few motorists probably had a good laugh watching me sprint across 4 lanes of traffic, arms outstretched, carrying a very mad and active turtle to the safety of the woods.
Why does the female snapping turtle cross the road? To get to the other side to lay its eggs. But if you attempt a rescue, watch out for that long neck and the powerful jaws attached to the business end.
As the turtle hatchling swam away in Burnt Mill Creek, it reminded me of all the life we see in this urban creek. We have yellow crowned night herons prowling the banks looking for fish. One winter we were blessed with a visit to the creek from a lone wood stork, well north of its breeding colony near Sunset Beach. We also regularly see belted kingfishers skimming the creek, large pileated woodpeckers hammering at the trees and a family of red tail hawks lives in the large bald cypress trees in Wallace Park bordering the creek. We even had a family of barred owls take up residence behind our house near the creek. Each spring we watch as male pumpkinseed sunfish sweep out shallow nests in the creek bottoms for the females to lay their eggs in. We have even seen small schools of silvery mullet that have travelled up the Cape Fear into Smith Creek and then into Burnt Mill Creek to feed.
What makes this all even more amazing is that Burnt Mill Creek is one of the most polluted tidal creeks in Wilmington. The 4,300-acre watershed of the creek drains the heart of the city, and it has a very high percentage of impervious surfaces like streets, parking lots and roof tops that allow rain water to run off, becoming polluted stormwater as it flows into the creek. Sediment, fluids from cars, trash, pet waste and other pollutants in the watershed get picked up by this runoff and are dumped into the creek. The creek is listed as impaired and monitoring by the city and the University of North Carolina-Wilmington shows the creek is facing large algae blooms, toxic sediments and low dissolved oxygen.
The city’s Stormwater Services is working with N.C. State University and other partners to engage communities, schools and businesses in the watershed to install rain gardens, cisterns and rain barrels to capture and treat some of the stormwater. The city has also installed stormwater wetlands in the park and vegetated swales in parking lots. They are now testing ways to retrofit existing streets and parking areas with permeable pavement, tree planters and sidewalk rain gardens to reduce stormwater entering Burnt Mill Creek.
There is a long way to go to restore Burnt Mill Creek, but the many birds, fish, mammals and reptiles that live in it are symbols of the necessity and opportunity to save the creek.
-- Ted Wilgis, coastal education coordinator