Too many birders hang their binoculars up and put their field guides back on the shelf after May, fearing the “dog” days of summer. But the summer months offer a great opportunity to get to know your local nesters. While it’s true that rising thermometers, incubation and chick-rearing duties quiet and/or shorten the morning chorus, early morning still offers a great deal of avian activity. And here in Western North Carolina  we’re fortunate to have the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cherohala Skyway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other avenues to race those rising temperatures up the mountains and prolong those good birding opportunities.

Last Saturday (June 18) I had the pleasure of leading a field trip for the Great Smoky Mountains Audubon Chapter to look for local nesters. The disparate elevations across WNC not only allow you to chase cooler temperatures they also provide different birding opportunities.

We started out last Saturday at Kituwah along the Tuckasegee River in Swain County. The area, formerly known as Ferguson’s Field, is home to the Kituwah mound and revered by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as the “mother town.” The EBCI purchased the mound and 309 surrounding acres in 1996 to preserve the site. Tribal members farm small plots on the site. Kituwah is open to the public from sunup to sundown and birders are welcome. Kituwah’s open areas and brushy fence row habitat offers a chance to view different birds than one would encounter along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The purple martin colony, near the entrance to Kituwah was busy when we arrived Saturday morning. Tree swallows, barn swallows and chimney swifts joined the martins in the sky chasing insects. We also got a brief glimpse of a blue grosbeak along the railroad track near the entrance.

We started out along the railroad tracks and were shortly greeted by the “fitz bew” of a willow flycatcher. The wet brushy habitat at Kituwah is ideal for these little flycatchers. A pair of noisy, curious blue-gray gnatcatchers also greeted us along the tracks.

We were observing eastern bluebirds and listening to yellow-breasted chats and common yellowthroats near an old barn along the tracks when the sky suddenly filled with barn swallows.

A glance up showed the reason for all the excitement as the swallows escorted a male Cooper’s hawk out of their territory.

We never did get looks at a chat, although we heard at least three. Another noisy brush-denizen that sang and sang for us while remaining hidden was a white-eyed vireo.

We did, however, luck out on another Kituwah resident. We were skirting a cornfield along a turn row, when a short burst of song stopped us. An orchard oriole popped up into the top of a small tree and gave us great looks – singing all the time.

We were beginning to work up a sweat at Kituwah so we abandoned the lowlands for the coolness of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a little after 11 a.m. when we stopped at the Big Witch Overlook for lunch. As we were sitting in the cool shade, first a black-throated blue warbler, then a chestnut-sided warbler came over to check us out. At Jenkins Ridge we were serenaded by a brown creeper but never got looks at the little tree hugger. We did get great views of a Canada Warbler and a pair of common ravens, though.

Darkening skies spurred us on along the Parkway to Heintooga Ridge Road. We picked up a ruffed grouse with at least one fledgling and a pair of hen turkeys with a whole herd of polts along Heintooga. At the Balsam picnic area, at the end of Heintooga road we heard golden-crowned kinglets and saw red-breasted nuthatches.

The rain overtook us and we headed back to Waynesville with around 60 species. Not bad for the “dog” days of summer.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Watershed stroll

The first 2011 sojourn into the Town of Waynesville’s 8,000-plus acre watershed occurred last Saturday (June 11). The town has been sponsoring and coordinating a couple of guided hikes into the watershed each year since 2007. It’s a way for residents and other interested parties to see this wonderful resource that has been placed in a conservation easement to ensure the town has an ample supply of high-quality drinking water for generations to come.

For those of you just awakening from a seven-year coma, there was a bit of a stir back then regarding some of the attributes of the easement. Some areas of the watershed are in a “forever wild” easement — which basically means hands off. However, a large portion of the watershed is in a “working forest” easement — which gives the town the authority (and perhaps even the directive) to actively manage the forest. And “active” forest management includes logging — a term that, justifiably, sends shivers up and down the spine of many environmentalists/conservationists.

There was an immediate hue and cry (some perhaps politically prompted) regarding the motivation for and the consequences of logging in the watershed back in 2004. While emotions fer and agin logging the watershed ran rampant at coffee shops and in “letters to the editor,” the town proceeded in a rational way by creating a public oversight committee and commissioning a study of the condition of the watershed and the creation of a management plan for the watershed. I believe it was during this laborious process of studying the watershed and hashing out the details of a management plan that the idea of hikes into the watershed, where citizens could get a first-hand look, germinated.

The hikes have been well received and this year’s first hike was no exception. Alison Melnikova, assistant town manager and watershed hike coordinator extraordinaire, had to halt registration at 65 for this hike. Forty-nine of those registered showed up!

I must say we were quaking in our boots a bit concerning the logistics of providing a quality experience for 65 hikers. But a big shout out to Dan Callaghan, Forest Stewards’ Americorps apprentice forester; Ed Kelley, photographer/naturalist; and Michael Skinner, executive director at Balsam Mountain Trust for answering the frantic pleas for help and volunteering their time to help create a quality outing for participants.

Dr. Pete Bates, professor of natural resources at Western Carolina University, president of the board of directors of Forest Stewards and lead researcher of Waynesville’s Watershed Management plan, has always been one of the leaders for the watershed hikes. In the early years Bates’ groups never got in much of a hike due to all the Q and A regarding the management plan. But Bates is a stalwart and convincing supporter of the plan and the science used to create it and is always happy to discuss the merits and objectives of the watershed management plan.

This year ,Bates got to stretch his legs and obviously had a good hike: “Overall I thought the hike went well. I had about 20 in my group, and we did about an eight-mile, out and back from the water treatment plant.  We saw a variety of forest communities ranging from white pine plantations to rich coves to northern hardwoods at about 4,700-feet elevation. For those in my group, it was a great opportunity to see the watershed and learn more about the town’s efforts to care for its forests.”

We took advantage of Ed Kelley’s photographic skills by offering a last-minute opportunity for those interested in nature photography and had about a half-dozen takers. According to Kelley, “…we did a lot of close-ups and exercises in observation, looking for subject matter, addressed some creative things you can do with your camera when there’s not a lot of great photo subjects, and I answered some technical questions about photography, as well as tried to get them to thinking about using what they saw along the way to plan future photo outings (i.e. a remembering the location of a group of staghorn sumac that will be blazing orange-red in the fall.)”

Michael Skinner kind of floated between groups. Fortunately, he was with my group, with his bird-app, when we had blackburnian warblers overhead. He was able to play the song, coaxing the blackburnian down where most people got good looks. Skinner noted, “I had a few in the group suggest we do this more often.”

As for me, I was doing my usual grand job of spreading misinformation. We encountered some yellow mandarin (not in flower) and I was trying to think of the other common name for it when “cucumber root” jumped out of my mouth. I have no idea why. The plants look nothing alike. There is some similarity in the flowers but even that’s a stretch. I guess I’ll write it off as a senior moment. The other common name for yellow mandarin is fairybells — sounds a lot like cucumber root doesn’t it.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Dead snakes are certainly interesting and can pique a child’s curiosity. Izzy (9) and Maddie (5) found just such a specimen next to the garage door last Saturday. We couldn’t tell for sure the cause of death but guessed the dogs must have done it in.

The small (15 inch) gray-brown reptile was an immature black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta. Immature black rat snakes don’t live up to the “black” moniker. They have dark brownish patches on a gray-brown background. There is a superficial resemblance to copperheads. The differences are evident but for some reason many people don’t see snakes through a rational perspective. If you’re calm enough to look and note features here’s what you will see:

Copperheads get their common name honestly – there is a rusty, copper-colored patch on the top of its head. The top of a young black rat snake’s head won’t have this rusty patch. The head of an immature black rat snake is basically patterned like the rest of the snake’s dorsal (back) – that is dark splotches on a lighter background.

The copperhead is a pit viper. It has a broad, triangular or wedge-shaped head. There is an actual pit between the eye and the nostril but this feature may not be obvious with just a cursory look. However, the triangular head and elliptic pupil are quick giveaways. The rat snake has an oval shaped head and large, round pupils.

There is another difference regarding the head that’s pretty easy to see once you learn to look for it. The copperhead and other pit vipers have a small smooth, shiny plate over the nose that extends back just pass the eyes. The rest of the triangular head is rough or scaled. On rat snakes and other non-venomous snakes, this shiny plate covers the entire head.

And while both have dark patches over a light background there is a distinct difference in the pattern. The dark splotches on the dorsal of the young rat snake are square looking. They are broader on the top of the back and narrower on the sides. The copperhead’s copper-colored blotches are narrower on top and broader on the sides. They’ve been described as hourglasses draped over the back.

And there should be no problem distinguishing immature copperheads. They have bright, yellow-tipped tails. The splotchy pattern continues on the tail of the young rat snake.

For some reason North Carolina leads the nation in copperhead bites. It may be because there are few poisonous snakes in North Carolina and people don’t take time to look or because copperheads are, in fact, pretty common and like sheds and woodpiles and the fact that prey like mice are attracted to human habitation, so they are often found in proximity to people.

But if you learn how to recognize copperheads (and other poisonous snakes) and give them their space there should be no conflicts. Snakes can basically only strike with authority within a distance of just over half their total body length.

So learn to recognize snakes, teach your children to recognize snakes and adhere to two simple caveats – 1) never try to touch or capture any snake you can’t positively identify and 2) always give poisonous snakes and/or the ones you can’t identify a wide berth – and enjoy your serpentine summer.

Of course, there’s no mistaking the guy in the photo. But when we looked closely at this four-foot plus black rat snake, we could still see the faint splotchy pattern on its back. It must have been a young adult.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Summer Daze

Soccer balls litter the yard, my wife is auditioning for NASCAR on the lawn mower and I am following the tiller through a soft, loamy sea of rich smelling earth in the garden. In the evening, fireflies are dancing in the dark outside our windows like some kind of organic neon sign flashing SUMMER TIME – SUMMER TIME – SUMMER TIME. Bathing suits are all folded with care, stuffed in the pool bag — knowing a “swim date” soon will be there.

In the Old South, we would become more crepuscular in the summer. The heavy lifting would be reserved for early morning and late afternoon. Routine chores, maintenance and preparations would be undertaken under the fiery glare of the midday sun, often on some kind of crude table under the shade of a giant water oak with a glass of southern iced tea — you know the kind with enough sugar to leave a residue on the bottom of the glass — just an arm’s length away.

I remember a summer job I had during college — checking cotton. We would hike through endless oceans of cotton, pulling the “squares” to check for boll weevils. We would record the percentage of weevils we found so the farmer could determine if it was time to call in the crop dusters. Every afternoon we would watch the thunderheads gather and try to keep track of their direction. We usually had enough fields to check that we could avoid the heavier downpours and keep working. Often, at dusk, as we headed home across those green seas of cotton, heat lightning would light up the distant sky with surreal blue-green flashes.

I remember scents too. It would start in spring with jasmine. Then it would gradually grow into a sweet, sticky blend of Japanese honeysuckle and wisteria.

And no down home southern summer would be complete without the roar of cicadas. Cicadas were so common that you didn’t hear them until they quit — then the silence would be startling. These were annual cicadas — not periodic –—so they were there every year. Another common sound was the “rain crow.” Rain crow was the colloquial name for the yellow-billed cuckoo. It was given this name because of its propensity for calling on cloudy days or especially before rain events.

Annual cicadas are not too common here at higher elevations, but I encounter them occasionally at lower elevations. I recently heard some periodic (13-year) cicadas near Hot Springs. I understand there is a brood of 13-year cicadas hatching in some spots across Western North Carolina this year, but they’re not nearly as widespread as that emergence of 17-year cicadas we had a couple of years ago.

The periodic cicada is certainly loud and during a pronounced emergence they can be deafening. But their call is an otherworldly ebbing and flowing “whirrrrrrrrrrrrrr – uuuurrrrrrrrrrrr” not the buzzy drone of the annual cicada.

Rain crows I have. And every summer I look forward to hearing their muted “crow” when those storm clouds start to gather.

I guess it’s because the days are so long, but we often think of summer as a long drawn out affair. But, trust me, those luminescent explosion will disappear from the night sky before you’re ready and katydids will be calling to alert you to the approach of autumn. So don’t delay – get out and sweat some!

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Pretty in pink

I have had the opportunity to make several trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the vicinity of Devils Courthouse and Black Balsam this month. The first was on May 7 with Birding for the Arts. Then I had a private birding tour on May 12, and I was up Saturday and Sunday this past weekend doing bird point surveys for the U.S. Forest Service.

Birding was, of course, the primary objective of these trips and the birds didn’t disappoint. However, we beat most of the migrants up to Black Balsam on the May 7 Birding for the Arts trip. I believe common yellowthroat was the only migrant we turned up at that site. Everyone had made it back by this past weekend though. I had alder and least flycatchers, veery and hermit thrush, gray catbird, chestnut-sided and Canada warblers had joined the common yellowthroats, northern bobwhite was present and I was somewhat surprised to find brown thrashers at one of the sites up on a bald along the Art Loeb Trail.

But the repeated trips up the Parkway also gave me the opportunity to follow the bloom cycle of the endangered pinkshell azalea, Rhododendron vaseyi. This native azalea has wowed me since I first came to Western North Carolina back in 1986. It was one of the harbingers of spring I looked for on Whitesides Mountain when I was living in Highlands. I have written about the pinkshell before and it seems like every time I research it, its distribution has grown a bit. In the late 1990s most of the literature I read said it was known from three counties in WNC. I’m pretty sure it’s been documented in at least five counties of WNC, and one source that I read — Will Cook, research associate in Duke University’s department of biology — noted, “…it may also grow in adjacent areas of South Carolina or Georgia.”

The Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas notes that Rhododendron vaseyi is an interesting species because its 5 to 7 stamens are, “…intermediate between the Rhododendrons with 10 stamens and the Azaleas with 5.” It’s also distinguished from other native azaleas by its short (2-5 mm) corolla tubes. Most native azaleas have long narrow corollas reminiscent of honeysuckle.

George Vasey, first director of the U.S. National Herbarium, discovered pinkshell azalea in 1878. And while the majority of pinkshells are, indeed, pink, blossoms can range from almost pure white to deep purplish-pink.

In early May, not many pinkshells were in bloom, but the buds (which may actually be darker pink) were glowing from the rock ledges along the shoulder of the Parkway, where the shrubs cling.

By mid-May the buds began to burst, bathing the parkway in pastel pink. They are probably beginning to wane now, but there should be good viewing this weekend.

You begin to pick them up as you pass the Richland Balsam Overlook headed towards Asheville. They are common all the way to Mt. Pisgah. Going south on the parkway from Waynesville, you can find pinkshells just before and just beyond Waterrock Knob. And as I mentioned earlier, they can be found on Whitesides.

Grandfather Mountain claims to be home to the world’s largest population, and I’m sure there are other pockets at high elevations along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in other locales.

You owe it to yourself to keep an eye out for this shrub — it is, indeed, pretty in pink.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Quiet please!

Last Saturday morning I was racing around in the woods of the Tusquitee Ranger District on the other side of Murphy, surveying some of the outlaying bird points, trying to finish up that district. I don’t know why it is, but every district I survey has a few of those points.

Bird count protocol calls for ending each day by 10 a.m. As the day heats up the birds quiet down – not singing as much. Most of the points are in groupings – there will be four or five along a route then a few miles away will be another cluster of four or five. When they are grouped like this it is pretty easy to get eight or 10 points in a morning.

But then there are the outlayers. Points, sometimes just one, but usually two, maybe three, set out miles away from any other points and often hard to access, along abandoned or rarely used roads. I had five points left to wrap up Tusquitee.

I got an early start and was at my first point at 6:45 a.m. Surveyors spend 10 minutes at each point. So, doing the math – five points; 10 minutes at each point – that’s only 50 minutes of actually surveying and I’ve got nearly three hours – I’m thinking this should be a pretty easy morning. But when you start adding up all the incidentals – opening and closing Forest Service gates, which means removing the wasp nest(s) first – then it’s six miles as the crow flies – at least a 20-minute drive – between the first two points and the third and another three miles between the third point and the last two. By the time I arrived at my last point it was 9:55 a.m.

Thankfully it was overcast and only 57 degrees Fahrenheit as I approached that last point. And the birds were singing. In fact the birds were singing and chipping and chattering. They were about as raucous as birds can get.

Survey protocol asks you to estimate the distance the birds are from the physical point. You are to estimate what species are within 25 meters of the point, what species are between 25 and 50 meters from the point and what species are greater than 50 meters from the point. You are also asked to designate what birds you hear during the first three minutes of the survey; what birds you hear from minutes four through six and what birds from minutes seven through 10.

It was easy enough, right away to tell some of the species within 25 meters of that last point. When I arrived there were at least eight or nine birds, representing three species, all within 50 feet of the point. There were three male hooded warblers singing away.

There was a pair of indigo buntings. The male was singing a part of his song, plus chipping (indigos have a loud, sharp chip note) and scolding. The female was also chipping and scolding away. I assume there was a nest nearby.

If that wasn’t enough commotion, there was also a mamma pine warbler with fledglings. She was chipping and scolding me while the babies were all clamoring for a mid-morning snack.

The noise was intense. It was like being at the symphony and having somebody in the next row blasting Snoop Dogg from a boom box. I actually had to change seats – moving 25 meters or so from the point – so I could hear the rest of the symphony.

Some of the other performers included black-throated green warbler, Kentucky warbler, ovenbird, pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, mourning dove and Carolina wren.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This past Saturday, May 7, was (I believe) the 12th-annual “Birding for the Arts” fundraiser for the Haywood County Arts Council. I can’t remember exactly how many Saturdays we’ve done it, but I do know it’s become one of my favorite Saturdays.

Joe Sam and Kate Queen are always the most gracious and enthusiastic hosts, and there is always a mix of first-timers and returnees. And I had a more visceral connection to the Arts Council and some of their wonderful community work this year because Director Kay Miller assisted Central Elementary’s PTO in securing grants to bring two cool educational performing arts programs to Central this year.

We began, as always, at the Performing Arts Center on Pigeon Street, but this time we had a little competition for space. The place was bustling, as vendors for Haywood’s Farmers Market were busy setting up and displaying their wares. Native plants, artisan breads and handmade arts and crafts were impossible to ignore as we did a quick turn around the parking area looking for birds.

We started out at the Performing Arts Center with a Mimidae trifecta. All three of our eastern mimics – northern mocking bird, gray catbird and brown thrasher – were present and loosening up their vocal chords.

Our next stop was Lake Junaluska. We began our tour of the lake at the newly enhanced wetlands behind the cafeteria. A spotted sandpiper was there enjoying the banks of Suzy’s Branch where it has been released from an underground culvert and allowed to meander across the wetlands. Two green herons were at home, on their nests, along the narrow, brushy island between the wetlands and the lake. Yellow-rumped warblers, who winter with us but are now preparing to depart for their northern nesting grounds, were common in the larger trees around the wetlands. Also present, singing loudly and persistently but somehow managing to stay hidden in the foliage, was a blackpoll warbler. We did, however, get great views of a yellow warbler at the edge of the wetlands.

After the wetlands we made a quick stop at the large parking lot on the lake near Stuart Auditorium. There we got good  (comparative) looks at tree swallows, northern rough-winged swallows, barn swallows and purple martins.

We proceeded to the cross where, after minutes and minutes of searching, a loudly singing Cape May warbler finally popped out of the deep cover of a spruce and provided great looks. We were teased again by singing blackpolls in the large oaks near the cross and a couple of people got quick glances, but we never got good looks. We also found a couple of lingering waterfowl – a ruddy duck and a female lesser scaup – to go with the dwindling population of American coots.

We headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway from the lake, which turned out, to our chagrin, to be quite windy. Despite the wind, we got great looks at chestnut-sided warblers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks.

It was also a great day for raptors and other soaring birds. A sharp-shinned hawk, carrying breakfast in its talons, buzzed us at one overlook and we got great looks at a red-tailed hawk that stooped at 100 mph from a gazillion feet up into the woods across the parkway from us to chase an apparent interloper out of its territory. We also saw ravens, turkey vultures and broad-winged hawks riding the bumpy thermals.

And what better way to end an all-day birding quest than standing at the edge of a wetlands in Bethel, out of the wind, and watching three Baltimore orioles within 50 feet of each other. We wound up with 74 species seen or heard for the day.

Whether you’re an arts aficionado looking for a cool and fun way to support the Haywood County Arts Council, a beginning birder looking for tips, an experienced birder willing to share tips and promote your hobby, or a community member who enjoys the outdoors and enjoys communing with like-minded souls, “Birding for the Arts” is an event you should attend. See ya next year!

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I spoke with Blair Ogburn, senior naturalist at Balsam Mountain Trust, the other day and she related a perplexing incident. She said she was leading a group on a nature hike when she heard a blue-winged warbler. Now, blue-winged warblers have a really distinctive song. The Peterson field guide describes it as “... a buzzy beeeee-bzzz as if inhaled and exhaled.” But with a little spit, it would be a perfect Bronx cheer.

Blair, who was without binoculars, borrowed some from one of the hikers and scoured the brushy field where the song was coming from. She couldn’t find a blue-winged warbler anywhere. She did, however, find a golden-winged warbler – and that was the songster.

Ron Davis, assistant natural resources professor at Western Carolina University, and I had a meeting at Balsam Mountain Preserve last Friday and took a little timeout to search for the bird. We found it again still singing the blue-winged song but with an occasional alternate song that was more like a golden-winged. This is the second time in the past few years that I have observed this phenomenon. Bob Olthoff and I ran into a golden-winged singing the blue-winged song along Max Patch Road – it seems like it was in 2006 or 2007.

The golden-winged warbler, Vermivora chrysoptera, and the blue-winged warbler, Vermivora pinus, are so closely related and hybridize so freely that some biologist think of them and their various hybrids as a “superspecies.”

The typical first generation cross between a golden-winged and a blue-winged is known as a Brewster’s warbler. The Brewster’s was first thought to be a separate species. One of the common backcrosses is the Lawrence’s warbler. Each species and all the hybrids are capable of singing the common blue-winged song, the common golden-winged song and/or a number of variations of the two. And hybrids are likely to mate with either of the original species.

As early as the middle of the last century, the two warblers had fairly distinct ranges with little overlap. The blue-winged was found across the central-Midwest (Missouri, southern Illinois, southern Iowa, southern Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.) The golden-winged resided in the eastern U.S., New England and into Canada plus down the Appalachians to north Georgia and North Carolina.

Both species use early-successional habitat and as land uses began to change with more small eastern and New England farms reverting to scrub and woodland, blue-winged warblers began to expand their habitat eastward and northward and this march appears to be extirpating golden-winged warblers from these regions. Golden-winged populations are declining rapidly and hybridization is thought to be one of the causes.

The blue-voiced golden-winged was still with us as of last Saturday when the small group from the Great Smoky Mountains Audubon Chapter (GSMA) that I was leading stopped by. We got some pretty good looks and maybe he will stay through next Saturday (May 7) so our “Birding for the Arts” group will also get good looks.

The GSMA group also got good looks at scarlet tanager, northern parula, wood thrush and American redstart in the vicinity of the golden-winged. We also had good luck around Lake Junaluska with views of a couple of green herons on nests at the new wetlands. We got distinguishing looks at all the common swifts and swallows – chimney swift, tree swallow, northern rough-winged swallow, barn swallow and purple martin. Warblers encountered at the lake included yellow warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, palm warbler and blackpoll. It’s looking like we should have a really good trip for next Saturday’s “Birding with the Arts.”

This annual Haywood County Arts Council fundraiser is a great excuse to get out on a spring day, enjoy the mountains, see some really cool “performers” and help support all the great Arts Council programs. Space is limited so call the arts council at 828.452.0593 to sign up. Hosts Joe Sam and Kate Queen and I look forward to seeing you there.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

New nesters

I believe all of my feathered friends that nest and raise families in my yard and in the woods surrounding my yard are once again setting up housekeeping. That includes the year round residents like downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, yellow-shafted flicker, Carolina chickadee, American robin, tufted titmouse, song sparrow, northern cardinal, Carolina wren, eastern towhee, brown creeper and eastern phoebe.

Neotropical migrants that have returned include hooded warbler, northern parula – which nested for the first time last year and is back this year – blue-headed and red-eyed vireo, ovenbird, wood thrush, black-and-white warbler, scarlet tanager and red-breasted grosbeak.

I have had broad-winged hawk flyovers and assume they will once again nest in the woods around the house as they have for the last several years. And new to the mix this year is a pair of barred owls.

We have always heard the occasional barred owl in the distance. But about a month or so ago we had a pair really near the house. You could tell it was a pair because the male’s voice is lower pitched than the female. It became apparent after a couple of weeks that these two had taken up residence, and we hear them almost daily now.

The variety of vocalization is truly amazing. The standard barred owl call is an eight-note “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all” which frequently has a gurgled or slurred “you-all” at the end. When a pair decides to establish a territory and set up housekeeping there is a cacophony of calls. A lot of the territorial and/or challenge calls are a series of one-note “whos” followed by a “you-all” at the end. This call is predominantly the domain of the male but the female joins in from time to time.

When a pair engages in a round of simultaneous calling it can really get raucous with eight-note and one-note calls mixed together, occasionally joined by a series of caws and some plain crazy sounds. It is neither a duet nor a call and response kind of event. It is more like Joe Cocker and Aretha Franklin simultaneously singing different songs and trying to out do each other.

Some calls are more commonly associated with one or the other sex, for example males are more likely to perform the “series” call while the one-note call and whistles are more commonly performed by the female. However, either sex is capable of emitting any of the calls. The male (noted by the lower pitched call) of the pair in our woods was heard repeatedly this past weekend giving the one-note call.

This auditory performance will, hopefully, be enhanced in a few weeks by the screeching begging calls of juveniles. To get an earful of barred owl calls check out

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Pilgrims from across the country and around the globe are on the move. They are headed to the Mecca of biodiversity – the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – to join in celebrating the 61st annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, April 26-May 1.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park – International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site – is home to more than 1,600 different species of flowering plants. Ephemeral jewels kick off a yearlong parade of color each spring as they plough through winter’s leaf litter splashing color, Jackson Pollock-like, across the gray-brown forest floor.

Dr. A.J. Sharp, former head of the University of Tennessee’s Botany Department, coordinated the first Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in 1951. More than 400 participants attended that first pilgrimage. More than 1,600 pilgrims will participate in this year’s event.

Spring ephemerals such as white-fringed phacelia, trout lily, crested dwarf iris, bloodroot, trillium, violets, anemone, yellow mandarin and on and on are, as always, the stars of the Pilgrimage but if you get tired of bending and stooping, take a bird walk and lift your head and binoculars upwards to see and hear Neotropical migrants like blackburnian warblers, scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Or learn about medicinal plants on a “Native People – Medicinal Walk.”

Whatever you do, don’t expect to be bored. There are 141 guided hikes, programs and/or presentations at this year’s Pilgrimage. There will be salamander walks, bat walks, butterfly walks and old growth walks, just to name a few. Some of the programs include “Why Bartram Matters” by actor J.D. Sutton, “Flora and Fauna of the Civil War” by author and former U.S. Fish & Wildlife refuge manager Kelby Ouchley, both at the Mills Conference Center in Gatlinbur, and “Return of the Elk in Cataloochee Valley,” onsite in Haywood County plus many more at venues like the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. There will also be a gallery of exhibitors, artists, native plant vendors and merchants located in Mills Conference Center.

If you’ve never been to the Pilgrimage, you owe it to yourself to go. You can get detailed information regarding this year’s hikes and/or programs at No matter your skill level or interest, you are sure to find a program or programs and leaders that fit the bill.

I know it’s easy to overlook. It’s in our own backyard and there’s the tendency to think, “I can go in the Park any time.” And while that may be true – you can’t go into the Park anytime with guides and mentors like the ones at the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.

I have to give a shout out to a couple of old Louisiana connections. Dr. R. Dale Thomas, retired professor of botany from ULM (University of Louisiana Monroe – Northeast Louisiana University back in the day) was my plant taxonomy instructor, and if anything matched his field expertise it was his enthusiasm for being in the field. Thomas will be leading a trip along Chestnut Top Trail on Thursday, April 28, and a tree and shrub hike on Friday. One of my classmates in Thomas’ class, now  Patricia Cox, a professor of botany at the University of Tennessee for 13 years and now a senior botanist for the Tennessee Valley Authority, is a fern freak. Cox will be leading four or five hikes but said her favorite was the fern walk on the Little River Trail. “You can see more than 20 species of ferns within a half-mile,” Cox said.

WCU’s own Dan Pittillo, retired botany professor, is another perennial trip leader as well as Hal and Laura Mahan, owners of The Compleat Naturalist in Asheville.

You can also call the W.L. Mills Conference Center for more Pilgrimage information at 800.568.4748.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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