Retired UNCW Professors Write Nature Book ‘An Abundance of Curiosities’

Generations of students at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington were inspired by Eric G. Bolen and James F. Parnell, two professors who were prominent figures in UNCW’s biology department.

Bolen wrote books and articles on wildlife ecology, while Parnell literally wrote The Bird Guide to the Carolinas, as well as volumes on the state’s freshwater mammals and fish.

Both men are officially retired now (the academic term is “professor emeritus”), but both remain very busy. Evidenced by their new book, “Sights Abundance: The Natural History of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain.” It is a remarkable text.

Like the Gaul of Julius Caesar, North Carolina is divided into three parts: the mountains in the west and the rolling foothills, or Piedmont, in the middle. From the line of fall – where the rivers have their first waterfalls – is the vast coastal plain, where sedimentary rocks take over metamorphism, and the land is gently flat, sloping towards the ocean.

As the title suggests, the region is full of wonders. North of Cape Lookout, the barrier islands stretch far out into the Atlantic, creating the Outer Banks and enclosing the huge shallow lagoons, or sounds. Along with the legendary wild ponies, the Banks provide a haven for seabirds and sea turtles.

A Venus flytrap grows on a nature trail behind Alderman Elementary School in Wilmington.  It inhabits savannas and bogs where the soil remains moist and poor in nutrients.

Closer to Wilmington, the Coastal Plain is the birthplace of the Venus flytrap, one of a whole garden of insect-eating plant species. Lake Waccamaw is the largest of the “Carolina Bays,” unique, oblong ponds and bogs that all seem to line up with one another. (Few scientists today accept the theory that the Carolina Bays were formed by a massive meteor shower, but no better explanation has been offered.)

The mouth of the Cape Fear River forms a way station for migratory birds of all kinds, especially seabirds and shorebirds.

“An Abundance of Curiosities” offers a beautiful overview of it all, illustrated with many striking color photographs. Boles and Parnell write in prose easily accessible to the average reader, making this book ideal for students and nature lovers.

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One of their best chapters is a survey of the European naturalists and early American naturalists who first witnessed these wonders, from John White (the artist of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to Roanoke Island) to John Lawson, through Mark Catesby (an important and almost forgotten predecessor of Audubon’s) to Quaker plant hunters John and William Bartram. (Native Americans, of course, lived in this area centuries before white people arrived.)

In the 1820s, Alexander Wilson captured an injured ivory-billed woodpecker near Scots Hill. He brought it to a hotel room, but the giant woodpecker, with a wingspan of nearly 3 feet, quickly punched a fist-sized hole in the plaster. The ivory-billed woodpecker is now extinct, since humans cleared its preferred habitat of dead and decaying tree trunks. The same goes for the green Carolina parakeet, which once roamed the pine forests of Lower Cape Fear. (Bolen and Parnell include a sidebar on this charming little bird.)

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In the early 1900s, North Carolina State University botanist B. W. Wells first saw “the Great Savannah” – a huge natural flower garden, full of insectivorous plants – from the window of an Atlantic Coast Line passenger car near Wallace. The Great Savannah is gone now, plowed for agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s, but a replica, the BW Wells Savannah, was created from the rights-of-way of massive Duke Energy power lines.

The coastal plain can be a source of inspiration. Rachel Carson, author of “The Silent Spring,” basically began her career as a naturalist with a trip to Beaufort, North Carolina in 1938.

Things are changing, the authors note. Wood storks, which normally nest far to the south, have moved into North Carolina swamps since 2005. (Wood storks like to be near alligators, which feed on raccoons that feed on eggs stork.) Manatees are being spotted at Tar Heel waters more and more often.

Bolen and Parnell end their book with an impassioned plea to save endangered species.

A major flaw of this volume is the lack of an index, but the authors have added detailed bibliographies at the end of each chapter for those who want to know more.



The Natural History of the North Carolina Coastal Plain”

By Eric G. Bolen and James F. Parnell

Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press