Still soaring after all these years
Eagle Lady Doris Mager enjoyed a “rock star” reception last Friday (6/18) at the Waynesville public library. But instead of overage adolescents flicking bics and shouting “Freebird,” Mager and her friend E.T. (Extra Terrific), a 27-year-old great-horned owl, were welcomed by enthusiastic toddler-screams of “owwwlll! owwwlll!”
Fifty or more people — the majority under 10 years of age — filled the library’s meeting room to see and learn about her feathered friends. And while the room was filled with the kind of energy and excitement that only toddlers can bring to a confined space, once Mager and her birds took center stage I have to say, I’ve never seen that many young minds that focused for that long.
Of course, Mager is a pro. She has been an avid avian advocate for more than four decades. It began in Maitland, Fla., where Mager worked for the Florida Audubon Society. Her efforts, including spending six nights and seven days in an abandoned bald eagle nest, helped raise money for an aviary to care for injured raptors. That aviary underwent a $2 million facelift and reopened in 2001 as the Audubon National Center for Birds of Prey. The facility has treated 10,000 or so injured birds of prey since its inception in 1979.
Mager left the Florida Audubon Society in 1983 to create the non-profit SOAR (Save Our American Raptors.) With her focus on children, Mager with her birds in her van crossed and crisscrossed the country from Cape Cod to Savannah, across Texas and New Mexico and the Carolinas presenting more than 200 programs a year at schools, libraries and other venues. For a short synopsis of Mager’s “bird life” go to http://www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/6_01/6_20_01/out_raptors.shtml to see an article I did in June 2001.
Mager was 74 when I interviewed her for that piece in 2001. She said then that she intended to “go till God gives me the sign.” It looks like “go” is the only sign she’s seen. And it was apparent last Friday that when it comes to raptors, Mager’s enthusiasm has not waned — even the toddlers were in awe. And, more importantly, they were listening.
A youngster asked Mager what someone his age could do to help birds. She responded, unhesitatingly, “leave them alone.” She explained that wild things are meant to be wild and unless an animal is sick or injured the very best thing one can do is to simply leave them alone.
Friday night at the dinner table my wife asked Maddy (our 4-year-old) what she learned at the library. With no coaching from dad, she responded, “Leave wild things alone.” Which is a great lesson for my girls right now, with a Carolina wren feeding fledglings in a hanging basket at our back door.
And while Friday’s program was geared to kids, it was quite informative and the facts were accurate. I noticed lots of adults paying attention and Mager does do programs for more sophisticated bird lovers. But if you have a budding birder or someone you want to introduce to the wonders of nature be sure to catch Mager and her friends at the Fines Creek library on Monday June, 28 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. She and E.T., Cara, a 34-year-old crested cara cara, plus a screech owl and an American kestrel, are sure to please.
Much of Mager’s tenure as “eagle lady” is recorded in the book RJ: Tribute to a Golden Eagle published in 1997 by Aquilla Press in Clyde.
Skulker of the tangles
The other morning at 6 o’clock at Hickey Fork in the Pisgah National Forest’s Shelton Laurel Backcountry Area in Madison County, the loud ringing song of a Swainson’s warbler shattered the early morning stillness. The mnemonic for the Swainson’s song is “whee, whee, whee, whip-poor-will, chick.”
I’m not particularly good at hearing mnemonics in birdsong,but the three loud clear introductory notes (I would lengthen them to wheeee, wheeee, wheeee) of the Swainson’s are diagnostic. They are followed by a rapid jumble of notes that ends abruptly and “whip-poor-will, chit” seems as good as anything.
This LBJ (little brown job) is an uncommon skulker of dense rhododendron and mountain laurel tangles generally along creek banks in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I imagine it is initially checked on many birder’s life lists as “heard only.”
Beware if you dive into one of these rhododendron hells in search of a Swainson’s that sounds like it’s “right there.” This little ventriloquist will have you walking in circles as it sings from the ground and/or low in the bushes.
Swainson’s nest across the Southeastern United States and are most often associated with canebrakes. Although Audubon formally described the species in 1834 and named it after English naturalist William Swainson, it wasn’t documented in the Southern Appalachians until the 1930s. The move to the mountains is generally thought to be an extension of the bird’s coastal range with rhododendron slicks substituting for canebrakes.
While the Swainson’s is, indeed, a LBJ, it is a handsome LBJ. It is a warm olive-brown above with a russet cap and a whitish supercilium or eyebrow. It’s breast and belly is cream-colored with immature birds showing a yellowish wash.
In the winter the Swainson’s trades its New World tangles for similar habitat in exotic places like Jamaica, the Yucatan and the West Indies. It has a global conservation ranking of “G4” — “apparently secure.” It is listed as uncommon but not rare. It is state listed as “S3” — vulnerable. This is most likely due to loss and threatened continued loss of habitat.
While it takes patience and perseverance to get good looks at this secretive bird, you can increase your chances by visiting known locations. I heard at least three Swainson’s at Hickey Fork the other morning. We also regularly record Swainson’s at Boone Fork in the Grandfather Ranger District. Jocassee Gorges in South Carolina is said to have one of the densest population of breeding Swainson’s warblers in the region. They may also be found at the newly created Chimney Rock State Park and along Bull Pen road along the Chattooga River near Highlands.
uddling – a kaleidoscope adventure
Maddy (my 4-year-old) and I had been in the woods at Harmons Den checking on some bird points. We came out of the woods at the Harmons Den Horse Camp. At the intersection of Cold Springs Road (FS Rd. 148) and the entrance to the horse camp (FS Rd. 3526), there is an open area with picnic tables and a small gravel parking area. The horse camp road and the parking area were literally covered with butterflies. There were dozens of groups of butterflies of 10 or more on the ground and scores of more butterflies wafting, hovering and fluttering around.
This was the weekend after Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day weekend had been quite busy at Harmons Den with riders and their equine friends enjoying the many trails. The musky aroma of horse — sweat, urine and manure — still lingered and the butterflies were loving it.
Now some women hold in contempt what many males of the species consider if not epicurean delights at least tasty staples — things like cold pizza and warm beer, or orange juice out of the carton.
Well, male butterflies take these gourmand tendencies to a completely different level. Horse sweat appetizer followed by sun-baked manure accompanied by chateau equine urine, 2010 is a menu that male butterflies would (and may) die for.
And you know what, ladies? We do it all for you. In the case of the human species, it’s more an act of consideration — like cleaning out the fridge, getting rid of leftover beer or not dirtying the dishes. But in the case of the butterfly, it’s all about survival of the species.
While nectar provides nourishment and sugar, it is sorely lacking in the kind of nutrients needed for reproduction. Male butterflies — being male, after all, — take it upon themselves to gather these salts and minerals. These salts and minerals may be obtained in small quantities from sources like rotting fruit, tree sap, wet soil and dead plants. But none of these sources come close to the motherload of minerals offered by urine, feces and/or carrion.
The male ingests these nutrients then transfers them to the female in the form of spermataphores during copulation. These spermataphores enhance the viability of the female’s eggs helping to insure the survival of the species.
This act of congregating at one spot, whether it is a puddle, a moist area, a pile of dung or some carrion is known as puddling. Puddling is a male trait and while it is serious business for the species, the butterflies appear to shun the gravity of the situation and seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves — like when your boyfriend or husband is on the couch eating cold pizza and drinking warm beer and watching the Lakers and Celtics in the NBA Championship.
One name for a group of butterflies is a kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope seems quite appropriate for the colorful congregation of butterflies Maddy and I encountered, which included eastern tiger swallowtails, red-spotted purples, eastern commas, question marks, summer (I think) azures and red admirals.
Because of the open areas, nearby woods and availability of horse-nutrients, the area around the Harmons Den Horse Camp is Lepidoptera heaven. To get there, take I-40 west to the Harmons Den exit (exit 7). Turn right onto Cold Springs Road. It’s about 3.7 miles to the entrance (FS road 3526) to the horse camp. The open area and parking lot are on your left at the intersection.
Perks of Adult ADD
The other morning I was in the wilds of the Cheoah Ranger District below the Cherohala Skyway sawing and dragging trees out of Forest Service roads so I could get to my bird points for this year’s survey. Rather than paying attention to where my digits and/or limbs were as I was sawing and where the “pressure” points were and how to saw so that I wouldn’t bind my blade, my ADD kicked in. I remembered the last Waynesville Watershed hike and Dr. Pete Bates, professor of natural resources at Western Carolina University and lead researcher of Waynesville’s Watershed Management plan, talking about the watershed’s restoration plan. Bates noted that the management plan’s focus was on restoration of a healthy, diverse forest and the best way to achieve that was to mimic (as closely as possible) nature. One of the silviculture tools he talked of was creating gaps.
There is a lot of talk today about “edge species.” These are species like white-tailed deer in the mammal world and golden-winged warblers in the bird world — species that thrive in new, often, brushy growth. If you listened to some people, you would be led to believe that the survival of edge species depends on more and more frequent clearcuts.
Truth is white-tailed deer, golden-winged warbler and other ‘edge” species thrived in the “New World” long before timbering and/or forestry was ever introduced. How did they do it?
The answer is gaps. In mature or old growth forests, trees often tumble to the ground. There are a myriad of reasons. It could be old age — after 500 or 600 years, some trees just die. It could be hard winters or windstorms or any combination. It could occasionally be fire.
What is lost in most of today’s forests is scope and perspective. A 400-year-old red oak crashing to a primeval forest floor, taking collateral damage with it as it falls, could easily create a two- to three-acre clearing. This clearing — or “gap” — is home to edge species.
Forest gaps are where and how edge species survived, thrived and/or ebb and flowed as time marched relentlessly onward. The need to have burgeoning populations of white-tailed deer or other gap species as targets for hunters in hopes of keeping wildlife agency coffers full has little “natural” appeal for me.
The idea of managing properties and/or forests in a holistic way that mimics (to the best of our ability) natural processes is an idea our grandchildren and the wildlife that makes their lives complete can live with.
Damn! How did that chain get stuck!
OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER: The Forest Service with all its budget shortfalls and incredible workload does an amazing job with maintenance upkeep. Many of the roads I traverse to get to my bird points are “fire” roads and they are cleared regularly — thank you, thank you. Some of the backcountry roads are not fire roads and they get cleared as time and resources allow. If you’re a FS employee with a chainsaw in the back of your truck and happen to bump into a tree blocking one of these roads during your travels, instead of selecting an alternate route how about cutting that tree out of the road and I will gladly compensate you with the beverage of your choice!
Murky waters – Louisiana in limbo
The giant oil slick (reported to be the size of Puerto Rico) sliding around in the Gulf of Mexico like bacon grease on a George Foreman grill tied to the back of an alligator is once again sliming its way toward a Louisiana landfall. Latest predictions from the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) call for oil pushed by southeasterly winds to reach the marshes and barrier islands of Atchafalaya Bay by today (May 12.)
Media pundits from National Public Radio to Fox News that I listened to Saturday (5/9) seemed punch-drunk and dazed, their main concern appeared to be trying to determine if the word or words catastrophe and/or catastrophic applied to this unprecedented environmental disaster. The marshes, bays and coastal waters of Louisiana account for nearly 30 percent of all the country’s seafood harvest. Fishing, shrimping, oystering and crabbing from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle have already been shut down and now those closures are moving west. Oil in some form has washed ashore from west of the Mississippi to Dauphin Island in Alabama.
Louisiana’s 8-million acre coastline composes 40 percent of all the nation’s coastal wetlands, creating estuaries and nurseries and rookeries for thousands of species of commercial and sports fishes, marine mammals, birds, turtles and shellfish. More than 170 species of marine animals have been documented at a single oyster reef in the Gulf. When BP’s (British Petroleum) “black gold” seeps into these soggy shelters it becomes “black death” and the question becomes not is this a catastrophe but what is the scope of this catastrophe and how long will the deleterious effects linger?
Twenty-one years after Exxon’s “black death” from the Valdez oozed ashore in Prince William Sound. It’s estimated that more than 20,000 gallons of the crude remain on some of the beaches. And while industry, corporate and political spokespersons are quick to try and gauge human catastrophe by dollar signs a study from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council noted that alcoholism, suicide and domestic violence rates all rose in hard-hit communities following the Valdez spill. And even though the oil is just now skimming the Gulf coastal marshes, beaches and barrier islands, NOAA has already closed 10,807 square miles of Gulf to shrimpers and fishermen. Try telling one of them that losing their livelihood is not catastrophic.
And the breadth of human greed and complacency responsible for this catastrophe is tragic, in itself. As we watch BP floundering around in the Gulf unable to contain the flow of oil it is apparent they are clutching at straws while waiting for a relief well (the only tried and true technology to corral the blow out) that will take months to drill. Despite statements in its 2009 exploration plan that the type of catastrophe presently occurring in the Gulf was virtually impossible and that they were totally confident in their ability to handle any emergency, it is clear that BP was and is unprepared to respond to this type of event.
And while it would be easy to make BP the whipping boy — their drilling technology and protocol certainly meet U. S. industry standards across the board. And that’s the scary part.
Hopefully the chorus of “Drill baby, drill” will be replaced by “Stop, in the name of love.” Because, face it, until the energy picture changes significantly, domestic oil is going to continue to play a major part and as rigs steam into deeper and deeper waters chances of a repeat will only grow greater unless stricter safety regulations are put into place and enforced.
Why we do it
“You’re getting up when?”
“You’re going out in this weather?”
People who have a passion for the outdoors and revel in the beauty and the subtle and not-so-subtle intricacies of nature are accustomed to these questions and their accompanying incredulous stares. The questions give me pause to wonder if the questioner has ever watched the sun, dripping red, crawl out of the blue ocean at dawn or ever seen the dappled light of the morning sun, like spotlights on the forest floor or ever sat with back against a solid oak and watched the last milky wisps of fog ascend from the mountain side after a sudden summer shower.
There are certainly grand and exotic places, beautiful and intriguing creatures and vistas to die for around the globe. But so often that “ah-ha” moment in nature comes simply, suddenly and without fanfare.
We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway last Saturday (May 1) for the Haywood County Arts Council’s annual “Birding for the Arts.” We had ambled away from our cars, peering into the gray but greening windy woods trying to put some corporeal shapes to the invisible warbles emanating from the forest. We turned to walk back to our cars and Joe Sam Queen called out, “I’ve got a scarlet tanager!”
We followed Joe Sam’s finger to a large maple at the edge of a clearing. At the end of a branch, surrounded by burgeoning maple leaves and waning flowers, framed by the overcast sky, was a most exquisite orange-variant scarlet tanager. Now scarlet tanagers are beautiful birds in their standard dress — deep scarlet front and back with jet-black wings and tail. But on this bird the scarlet was replaced with a soft, lush pumpkin-orange. And the soft light from the overcast sky let you drink in all the subtle shades and tones and admire its intricate hues.
The next day, Sunday, May 2, I was again on the Parkway in search of neotropical migrants. I was with Chuck Dayton, Sara Evans and some friends of theirs from Minnesota and Asheville. The blustery wind was making it difficult to get good looks at birds when and if we could find them. We were hearing chestnut-sided warblers regularly but having no luck at coaxing them up for a gander. Then at one overlook, a fresh male suddenly popped up from the underbrush and flew into a small, mostly bare tree, not 20 feet from the edge of the overlook.
He seemed oblivious to the nine pairs of binoculars focused on him as he serenaded. He turned, first right profile and then left profile – showing us the rich chestnut sides he is named for as well as a bold black eye stripe and black chin streak. His yellow pincushion cap gleamed in the sunlight. He faced us, threw back his head and sang with gusto — “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” Next he turned his back to us and threw up his head. From his nape, down the middle of his back, he fairly glistened a yellowish green, interspersed with deep black lines.
And that, my friends, is why we do it.
Earth Day: hope vs. optimism
Lordy, lordy look who’s 40 — Earth Day and the EPA. Officially created and established in 1970, Earth Day was the spirit and philosophy that was going to take us to Nirvana; was going to create that idyllic symbiotic lifestyle of social and environmental justice where humans cared for the planet and a clean, healthy beautiful planet nurtured and nourished us. The EPA was the vehicle that was going to take us there.
Forty years later, species are disappearing at an alarming rate; war and genocide, as well as famine and pestilence, are the norm across much of the planet, clean, pure water is vanishing, and a dark cloud of pollution and acid rain envelop the Earth.
Chuck Dayton, who splits his time between St. Paul, Minn. and Waynesville, penned a personal, poignant, retrospective piece regarding Earth Day for Conservation Minnesota Magazine. You can find the article at http://www.conservationminnesota.org/news/?id=4729.
It is a great read by one who was inspired by Earth Day and dedicated his career to the environment.
Dayton recalls that first Earth Day: “The first Earth Day was a dramatic expression of a growing awareness that corporations had been using our air and water as a free dump, and something needed to be done. It occurred at a time of anti-war protests and anti-establishment rhetoric: a time when change seemed not only possible but also inevitable.”
And juxtaposes it with the present: “Today, Earth Day 40, while still an important affirmation of the need to care for the planet, seems to me less optimistic than in 1970. I no longer think that the big environmental problems will be solved in my lifetime. At nearly 71, I know that we are surely passing on huge burdens to our descendants, including those that may become impossible to solve, if climate feedbacks are allowed take over ...”
Retired after decades on the environmental frontline, Dayton still expends a large amount of time and energy working on environmental issues. Where does he find his resolve?
“Hope is important, even if we’re not able to be optimistic ...” he writes. And he quotes civil rights advocate, peace champion and former Yale Chaplin, William Sloane Coffin: “Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world. If your heart’s full of hope, you can be persistent when you can’t be optimistic. You can keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing. So while I’m not optimistic, I’m always very hopeful ...”
I believe another quote from Coffin is also appropriate: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”
Perhaps with hopeful hearts steeled by truth and buoyed by love we can effect a change in paradigm that will lead to Earth Day every day.
Spring in the watershed
The Town of Waynesville’s annual spring pilgrimage to the Waynesville Watershed will be Saturday, April 24. This one will be set up similar to last fall’s event with an early morning birding option. Those who want to look for early Neotropical migrants and lingering winter visitors should meet at the treatment plant at 7 a.m. For directions and details regarding the trip, please go to www.egovlink.com/waynesville/action.asp?actionid=9348.
Spring migrants are arriving across Western North Carolina. Blue-headed vireos have been in my yard for a couple of weeks now. On a quick trip up around Harmon’s Den last week, Bob Olthoff and I heard black-throated green warbler and Louisiana waterthrush, as well as blue-headed vireo. Brown creepers have also been singing in my yard. I hope we at least get to hear a couple on the 24th – it’s a really cool, musical little ditty.
Other reports from across the mountains of Western North Carolina include northern parulas, black-and-white-warblers, black-throated blue warblers and returning broad-winged hawks. By the 24th of April, we should be able to add scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak to the list. And one never knows what the reservoir itself might produce. While it’s nowhere near as productive as Lake Junaluska with regards to migrants, waterfowl do find it occasionally and there is generally a belted kingfisher present. We were treated one spring to a brief flyover by an immature bald eagle.
By 9 a.m. birders will be back at the treatment plant and have the option of joining in the day hike or heading for coffee and beignets (I guess that would be doughnuts in this part of the world, what a shame.) Day hikers will split into two groups. I will lead the ambling, looking, listening and sniffing group. We will keep our eyes and ears open for birds, wildlife and spring ephemerals.
The wildflowers should be poppin.’ I have bloodroot, toothwort, trout lily and various violets blooming in the woods around my house now. Other spring wildflowers we could encounter include trailing arbutus, Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, trillium, bellwort, anemone and showy orchis.
Dr. Pete Bates of Western North Carolina University, who has headed a team of scientists and natural resource managers to create a management plan for the Waynesville watershed, will lead the robo-walkers. Pete, who is much more learned and accomplished than I, actually has the ability to walk and talk at the same time. This is a great hike for those who want to stretch their legs as well as their understanding of the ecology of the watershed.
The worst thing that could happen is that you get the opportunity to enjoy a spring morning outdoors, in the middle of this outstanding natural resource that Waynesville town fathers had the foresight to preserve, protect and enhance in perpetuity.
Spring’s a buzzin’
Mom was a little concerned the other day as she helped Izzy find a butterfly net to catch white-headed “bumblebees.” Izzy was back in a couple of minutes with a roaring buzz emanating from her closed, cupped hands. She deposited her captured quarry into her butterfly cage and there, for all practical purposes, was a large white-headed bumblebee buzzing loudly and bouncing off the netted walls of the cage.
Actually it wasn’t a bumblebee Izzy had caught but an eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica. I was to blame for the misnomer. A few springs ago I had impressed my then 4-year-old daughter with my daring by snatching a “bumblebee” from a flower with my bare hands. Then I told her how, when I was a little boy growing up in Mer Rouge, La., we used to wander the lawns around town catching “white-headed bumblebees” and tying sewing thread around their middle to create bumblebee kites. None of us knew what a carpenter bee was, but we all knew that the bumblebees with the white to yellowish-white square patch on the head could not sting and were fair game.
Humans seem to learn early, perhaps by osmosis in the womb, that if something buzzes and it’s black and yellow — it’s a bumblebee and it will sting you. The white patch on the head or face of the male eastern carpenter bee is a quick give away. It’s prominent and easy to see, and even 8-year-olds can remember that if it has a white head, it doesn’t sting.
The female eastern carpenter bee does not have a white head, and while it is not as aggressive as a bumblebee it can sting. Carpenter bees (even the females) and bumblebees can easily be distinguished by coloration in the field once we get past that “black and yellow sting” thing. The abdomen (remember insects have a head, thorax and abdomen) of the carpenter bee is bare and black. The abdomen of a bumblebee is hairy and yellow.
Carpenter bees are not social nesters like bumblebees and honeybees. The female carpenter bee makes its nest by tunneling into wood. Before the urbanization of America, this meant dry standing wood. Conifers seemed to be preferred. Today carpenter bees are sometimes thought of as pests because they will bore into homes and other structures. The damage is usually confined to a small area, as carpenter bees prefer to lay their eggs in the same hole or tunnel they were born in.
Carpenter bees, especially the females are useful pollinators and gardeners, and orchard keepers sometimes provide softy dry wood for nesting. The male is not as useful as a pollinator because it will sometimes “rob” flowers by chewing through the corolla rather than crawling in, thus bypassing the gathering and dispersing of pollen.
Males are content to spend most of their time hovering around and guarding their territory. While they can’t sting they are quite curious and will quickly come to investigate any intruder, including the two-legged kind.
Little do they know that this plays right into Izzy’s hands, or net.