I can always count on Rankin Bottoms Wildlife Refuge when I need a Loosiana Delta fix. This musky backwater with its willow groves, bald cypress, cottonwoods and buttonbush is the antithesis of the cool clear, swift mountain streams common to the Western Carolina mountains.
Situated at the confluence of the Nolichucky and French Broad Rivers at the eastern end of Lake Douglas just north of Newport, Tenn., in Cocke County, Rankin Bottom swells in the summertime behind the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Douglas Dam to flood most of the 1,255-acre Rankin Wildlife Management Area.
The flooded willow groves of Rankin Bottoms are great places to explore by canoe or kayak from late spring through Labor Day, while TVA keeps the water level up (992 feet target level) during summer. The wet and wild habitat is home to prothonotary warblers, willow flycatchers, Baltimore and orchard orioles, eastern kingbirds, yellow-throated vireos, osprey, common egrets, wood ducks plus a large colony of cliff swallows under the bridge across the French Broad at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s boat launch and many, many more.
TVA begins to lower Lake Douglas around Labor Day and as the water recedes exposing mudflats, Rankin Bottoms becomes a hotspot for migrating shorebirds, waders and waterfowl. Various species of sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, yellowlegs and others can be seen in fall and spring migration. I have also seen white pelicans and tundra swans at Rankin. Different species of terns and gulls are also commonly found at Rankin Bottoms from fall through spring.
My birding buddy, Bob Olthoff, and I took a trip up to Rankin Bottoms recently (Aug. 7). It not only looked like Louisiana, it felt like Louisiana. It was around 77 degrees Fahrenheit when we got there at about 8 a.m. and it just got hotter and muggier.
The water was still high. There was a bit of exposed shoreline but we didn’t find any shorebirds.
It was still a great day. We must have seen a couple of hundred common egrets. There were lots of great blue and green herons around also. And ospreys were hanging around on a couple of nests. There is quite an impressive nest on an old railroad trestle just up the French Broad a few hundred yards from the bridge. It looks like it has been refurbished continuously for a number of years. It’s at least 3-feet high and 3-feet across.
We stood along side the railroad track at one point, overlooking the bottom and recorded about 20 species. These included a good cross section of water birds and passerines like common egret, great blue heron, green heron, wood duck, double-crested cormorant, eastern kingbird, prothonotary warbler, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, red-eyed vireo, Baltimore oriole and others.
We also encountered my first of the year, monarch butterfly and a beautiful fresh male black swallowtail nectaring on buttonbush. Bob and I have found zebra swallowtails at Rankin bottoms in the past.
To get to Rankin Bottoms from Waynesville, take I-40 west to exit 432 B. That will put you on U.S. 25/70. Follow U.S. 25 east out of Newport to Rankin Hill Road (I would estimate about five miles, but I have never measured it). Follow Rankin Hill Road to the railroad crossing. At the crossing take Hill Road to the left and follow it to the bottoms.
If you go looking for shorebirds as the water recedes this fall, you may want to go in the late afternoon. Most of the mudflats are east of the road and it can be a difficult sun field in the morning. Shorebird viewing is best when Douglas Lake is between 980 and 990 feet. When the level drops below 975 feet all of Rankin bottoms is exposed and shorebirds begin to move downriver. To get reservoir elevation call 800.238.2264, Douglas Reservoir is #07.
I was all set to write about the annual summer fireworks displayed every August on that really big screen above our heads, brought to us free of charge by the comet Swift-Tuttle and sponsored by your universe.
Then I looked at a lunar table — arrrggghh, not much dampens a meteor shower like light. And a big ole full moon is going to be with us from before sunset on August 13 — supposedly the peak of this year’s Perseid meteor shower — till after sunrise August 14. And to make matters worse, some Internet sleuthing discerned that the best time to peek at Perseids this year would likely come just before dawn, today, August 10, before this week’s edition of the Smoky Mountain News hits the streets.
But, wait, there’s still hope. There will be a decent viewing window Thursday morning, since the full moon will set around 4:30 a.m. but sunrise isn’t until around 6:45 a.m.
Friday morning will offer the same type of scenario but with only about an hour of decent viewing time.
But remember, as we approach the peak of the Perseids, there could be 20 or more meteors or “falling stars” in a single hour. Also remember that August 13th is the peak, the Perseids will continue, though in smaller numbers, through the end of the month and that pesky ole moon will be down to a sliver by August 21.
Between midnight and dawn are the best times to search for Perseids, even on moonless nights as they radiate from the constellation Perseus the Hero, which rises into the northeastern sky around 11 p.m. in August.
Think of the earth as your sleek sports coupe and the night sky is your windshield. Between midnight and dawn you’re screaming down the Autobahn pointed at Perseus, and the Perseids are like love bugs on a Florida interstate headed straight for your windshield. When these tiny bugs — usually pea-sized bits of cosmic comet debris — strike your windshield (the Earth’s atmosphere) at thousands of miles per hour the friction ignites them like flares. The friction is so great it actually breaks the molecules, both of the meteoroid and the molecules of the atmosphere. These glowing, ionized particles then recombine, releasing light energy, behind the meteoroid, which is traveling at 40 miles per second so the tail can stretch behind for miles.
Now some astronomers like to take their coupe for a cruise earlier in the evening. At this time, the radiant is lower on the horizon and instead of striking your windshield head on, the cosmic bugs will slide by, past your side windows.
Astronomers call these glancing meteors “Earthgrazers” and they can produce exceptionally long and colorful tails.
And if you’re determined to watch for Perseids during their peak on August 13th, in the glow of the full Green Corn Moon, the EarthSky website offers this advice:
“Sprawl out in a moon shadow. The best viewing on any date is from about 2 a.m. until dawn. As seen from mid-northern latitudes, the moon will be shining low in the south to southwest sky on the peak nights. That means the moon will be casting looooong shadows. Find a moon shadow somewhere that still provides a wide expanse of sky. A plateau area with high-standing mountains to the south and southwest would work just fine. If you can’t do that, find a hedgerow of trees bordering a great big hay field somewhere (though obtain permission, if it’s private land). Or simply sit in the shadow of a barn. Ensconced within a moon shadow and far from the glow of city lights, the night all of a sudden darkens while the meteors brighten.”
That’s probably not the exact scenario but a recent article in Current Biology claims that most, if not all, of today’s living polar bears are descended from one Scottish brown bear. Mama bear lived in Ireland near the peak of the last Ice Age 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. Increasing Arctic ice flows likely brought the polar suitors into contact with the brown bears. As the ice receded, the polar bears drifted back to their icy Arctic island, but with a little going away present from their lovely brown sweethearts — a neatly wrapped package of mitochondrial DNA, DNA passed exclusively from mother to offspring.
It has definitely piqued the researchers’ curiosities. One of the researchers, Mark Thomas of University College London said the study shows that species may not be as fixed and tidy as we would like.
Nor is hybridization necessarily a death knell for a species, but could actually help its survival and coping during times of stress. He pointed to recent studies by Stanford’s Peter Parham that shows Europeans gained genes that helped in battling northern diseases from interbreeding with Neanderthals.
Biologists and researchers have long been aware of the polar bear/brown bear dalliance but it was thought these trysts originated on the Alaskan “ABC” Islands (Admiralty, Baranof and Chicagof) around 14,000 years ago. However, new international research spearheaded in part by Beth Shapiro, assistant professor of biology at Penn State found DNA evidence in the skeletons of 17 brown bears from eight different cave sites in Ireland that predates the Alaskan peccadilloes by 10,000 years or more.
Dr. Ceiridwen Edwards of Oxford University, the Current Biology paper’s head author noted that the DNA from the older brown bear remains (38,000 to 43,000 years ago) had basically the same DNA structure as today’s European brown bears. But the DNA from younger specimen (10,000 to 38,000 years ago) more closely resembles that of modern day polar bears.
Researchers further studied the matrilines (line of descent from mother to offspring) of 242 polar and brown bears, including living bears and fossil records through 120,000 years and across their present and past geographic ranges. Results strongly suggest that all of today’s living polar bears carry that little mtDNA package of brown bear genes from Ireland.
Shapiro finds this scenario especially intriguing because studies of nuclear DNA show that brown bears and polar bears diverged from a common ancestor around a million years ago. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Shapiro said that the last Ice Age brought the two species back into contact, and that after interbreeding the ice retreated to once again separate the species.
It’s unclear what caused the fixation of this particular brown bear’s genome in the matriline of today’s polar bears. That will surely be fodder for more molecular biological research. The summary from the Current Biology article simply leaves it at:
“The reconstructed matrilineal history of brown and polar bears has two striking features. First, it is punctuated by dramatic and discrete climate-driven dispersal events. Second, opportunistic mating between these two species as their ranges overlapped has left a strong genetic imprint. In particular, a likely genetic exchange with extinct Irish brown bears forms the origin of the modern polar bear matriline. This suggests that interspecific hybridization not only may be more common than previously considered but may be a mechanism by which species deal with marginal habitats during periods of environmental deterioration.”
Today polar bears and brown bears (Kodiaks and grizzlies) are once again coming into contact. This time, however, it’s the shrinking Arctic ice cap and the encroachment of the terra firma bound browns into former polar bear habitat that is precipitating this contact. But the results are the same: interbreeding. The resultant hybrids are known as pizzly bears or grolar bears.
According to Shapiro, “Scientists should reconsider conservation efforts focused not just on polar bears, but also on hybrids, since hybrids may play an underappreciated role in the survival of certain species.”
A recently published study in Proceedings, an online medical journal of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that regular aerobic exercise like walking or hiking can improve the brain’s memory function and perhaps lessen the risk of dementia. As humans age, the hippocampus — the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing, and storing — tends to shrink, leading to impaired memory and increased risk of dementia.
The study published in Proceedings took 120 older adults with no dementia and separated them into two groups of 60. One group participated in a stretching program and one group participated in an aerobic exercise program for a year. Magnetic resonance images were collected at the beginning of the program, at the six-month point and at the end of the program. Those images showed that the stretching group demonstrated a loss in volume of the left and right hippocampus of 1.40 percent and 1.43 percent respectively. The group that participated in regular aerobic exercise, on the other hand, showed an increase in the left and right hippocampus of 2.12 percent and 1.97 percent respectively. According to the study, “… we found that, in the aerobic exercise group, increased hippocampal volume was directly related to improvements in memory performance.”
The study goes on to state — “In sum, we found that the hippocampus remains plastic in late adulthood and that 1 y [year] of aerobic exercise was sufficient for enhancing volume. Increased hippocampal volume translates to improved memory function and higher serum BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor that helps support the survival of existing neurons and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses]. We also demonstrate that higher fitness levels are protective against loss of hippocampal volume. These results clearly indicate that aerobic exercise is neuroprotective and that starting an exercise regimen later in life is not futile for either enhancing cognition or augmenting brain volume.”
A scientific study from the university of Rochester noted a 20 percent increase in energy for people who spent a minimum of 20 minutes a day outdoors as opposed to individuals who exercised indoors. The brain generates natural mood enhancers like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine when stimulated by aerobic exercise like hiking.
The study in Proceedings can be added to a long list of reports and research that point out how beneficial outdoor recreation is, in general to our physical, mental and spiritual well being. But this study concerning the reversal of memory loss may have special significance to many of us. Just think, a regular routine of walking/hiking 30 minutes or so, three times a week and soon we will no longer need to take that GPS with us so we can find our way back to the car.
Unless you are of a philosophical bent, you might want to skip this last installment of the spotted owl trilogy.
I have been intrigued by the dichotomy of man vs. nature for a long time. I can’t remember exactly what I saw while researching the spotted owl dilemma — the need to kill barred owls in order to save endangered spotted owls — that brought this man vs. nature dualism back into focus once again. It may have simply been the implication that man was, somehow, this omnipotent arbiter sitting outside that out-of-balance ecosystem with the knowledge and power to bring it back into balance by simply manipulating one small aspect — the number of barred owls — with only a cursory mention that, oh, by the way, it was human activities like the logging of million of acres of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest coupled with the human-induced expansion of forests across the northern plains and southern Canada in the 1800s that brought these two owls into proximity in the first place.
The strange thing about this man vs. nature dualism is that proponents and opponents of the anthropocentric exploitation of natural resources often find themselves supporting this idea of dualism if it appears to advance their particular agenda. You have logging companies, mining companies, real estate developers and others and their constituents who realize a livelihood and a lifestyle from clearing forests or extracting natural resources or manipulating them in a certain way that makes them more manageable or more profitable. And you have some environmental advocates who have gone so far as to posit that there should be large expanses of natural landscape with no type of human footprint at all.
In my, obviously, rather simple-minded observations, what you have is the opposite sides of the same coin. You can no more separate man from the environment than you can take fish from the water. Man is part and parcel of the environment and everything/anything man (you or I) does down to the breath he takes impacts the environment in some way.
It should be apparent that all natural resources aren’t renewable and/or reusable and that even some that might be, over time can’t be renewed at the rate we are using them up. And it should be just as obvious that there will never be a wilderness beyond the footprint of man. Vast expanses of sparsely inhabited wilderness greeted Europeans when they arrived in America only a few hundred years ago — and you see what’s left now.
And I am simple enough to believe in the theory of evolution and natural selection and I have little doubt that while a cave may have been inhabitable that those individuals that learned to use natural resources to create their own habitation in areas that had more readily available or better resources certainly had a leg up. And that ever sinse we crawled out of those caves and began to learn how to utilize the natural resources that we encountered, it’s always been those who were either more adept at utilizing those resources or those who were strong enough to amass the most resources who had the upper hand when it came to survival and advancing the species.
As Homo sapiens have evolved, one can only hope that the depth and breadth of his wisdom and compassion have evolved to the point where he realizes, as Pogo succinctly put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
No one, least of all I, wants to crawl back into the cave. And no one believes that the polio or smallpox virus should not be eradicated. But we are fouling our nest like no other species in history and we are not only fouling the physical aspects that provide sustenance for our bodies we are fouling the spiritual aspects that sustain our spirit and give us the capacity for awe and wonder and love and the lost of that awe and wonder and love will be what brings about Armageddon.
“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” said Thomas Berry.
I mentioned in last week’s Naturalist’s Corner that I found the decision by U.S. Fish & Wildlife to kill barred owls in an effort to save spotted owls intriguing on many levels. I will use this week’s and next week’s columns to outline a couple of those intrigues.
It’s no secret that the Endangered Species Act has become the lynchpin of conservation. Critical habitat designation has been used to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres and sometimes, as in the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, just the perceived presence of some iconic creature can prove pivotal in raising money and/or support for land acquisition.
I don’t fault environmentalists and/or environmental organizations for using whatever means they have to protect sensitive environmental areas. And I realize that preserving habitat has become a high-stakes legal enterprise requiring legal underpinnings like critical habitat designation that comes with the Endangered Species Act.
But I often think that we, as environmentalists, have the cart before the horse. To paraphrase James Carville’s succinct advice to then presidential candidate Bill Clinton – when it comes to protecting species – it’s the habitat, stupid. Protect the habitat and you’ve de facto protected all the organisms that call said habitat home. Perhaps habitat is too ambiguous or too amorphous for people to connect with, while a spotted owl or an ivory-billed woodpecker is more tangible.
Or perhaps it’s just so intuitive that we don’t consciously focus on it. I mean, if you’re a photographer and you want to get some good butterfly shots, where do you go? You go where there are lots of blooms – why – because it’s the right habitat. If you’re a hunter or a fisherman or a birder or a biologist you can simply look around you and you can list a suite of species that you would expect to encounter at that location.
If you take a spotted owl out of old growth forest, or take an ivory-billed woodpecker out of bottomland hardwoods they won’t survive. Now, I’m not saying you couldn’t raise them in captivity. I’m saying they are part of a larger whole. They are part of an ecosystem – a habitat and they have evolved with that habitat and they depend on it for their existence. And there are any number of other organisms that depend on that habitat, some we’ve probably never even heard of.
The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory has turned up more than 900 species new to science in a habitat that is largely second growth and sees millions of visitors a year. What might be discovered if thousands of acres of old growth and/or bottomland hardwoods were afforded the same kind of scrutiny?
At this late date of plunder of natural ecosystems in this country and around the world, we can’t afford to take our eye off any tool that gives us leverage to halt it. But we need to redouble our efforts to focus on a larger, more holistic, more sustainable picture.
Aldo Leopold, often called the father of conservation, once stated, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. ...” Yet here we are, destroying entire ecosystems and we don’t even have a parts list. We have no idea of what we are destroying. We need to put the horse back in front of the cart.
There must be a way. I mean if the Supreme Court can give corporations individual rights, why can’t we list endangered habitats?
The Migratory Bird Act makes it illegal to kill barred owls, Strix varia. It is a crime that is punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and can include jail time. That is unless you are working for the federal government and you are killing barred owls in Western old growth forests in an attempt to save the endangered spotted owl, Strix occidentalis caurina. The just-released federal recovery plan for the northern spotted owl calls for killing hundreds, maybe thousands of healthy barred owls. This issue is contentious and intriguing on many levels.
The northern spotted owl, a shy, retiring resident of Pacific Northwest old growth forests, was catapulted into the limelight a couple of decades ago when it was listed on the Federal Endangered Species List and made the poster child for the efforts to curtail logging in those old growth forests. The debate was loud and long and rancorous. There was the spiking of timber (driving steel spikes into standing timber) by anti logging activists creating danger for loggers with chainsaws and sawmill operators. Loggers and their supporters countered with demonstrations that included caravans of log trucks and other timbering equipment. Expensive and time consuming suits and countersuits were filed by both sides. And the federal government, depending on the current (at the time) administration’s environmental proclivities, either supported and, perhaps, strengthened regulations protecting old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest or eased said regulations.
Meanwhile, in the midst of pitched battles between the opposing sides, the northern spotted owl’s eastern cousin, the barred owl, began flexing its feathered muscles. The larger, more aggressive barred owl arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1960s and early 1970s and began flexing its feathered muscles. Barred owls out-compete and sometimes even attack northern spotted owls, usurping nesting habitat and displacing their smaller, western cousins.
Despite years of greatly curtailed logging, the northern spotted owl shows little sign of recovery. Focus is being shifted to the interactions between the barred and spotted owls. Robyn Thorson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Pacific Northwest’s director, called the barred owl, “… the biggest threat spotted owls are facing,” and, reluctantly, supports the culling of barred owls.
Now if barred owls were “exotic” — that is, if they had not reached the Pacific Northwest of their own volition — obliterating them with shoguns might be a lot easier to swallow. Surely, a lot of human-influenced factors like fire suppression and tree planting across the northern plains paved the way for barred owls, but still, they got there under their own power and for many, it’s just a question of natural selection.
In a scenario like this there is little doubt what the outcome would be. The barred owl is a generalist. It has a varied diet and nests successfully throughout a number of different habitats. The northern spotted owl, on the other hand is very selective regarding diet and nesting habitat. Add its aggressive nature – and it’s pretty easy to see that without help the spotted owl’s days are numbered.
When you throw politics into the mix, it becomes a real circus. Timbering proponents are ecstatic. They are pointing fingers and saying – “see, it wasn’t us, it was the barred owl all along, now let us go and cut trees again” never mind that the cutting decimated 60 to 80 percent of the northern spotted owl’s habitat already, severely restricting them while enhancing barred owl habitat. And there are a lot of people and organizations with a lot of vested time and monies tied up in the rescue of the spotted owl willing to try anything to keep their poster child from fading into the sunset.
I will admit to being somewhat ambivalent, but when I simply look at the biology — killing barred owls will never work unless you plan on killing large numbers of them for the better part of a century or longer, until enough old growth is created to give the northern spotted owl some sort of buffer.
The eighth annual Mountain Wildlife Days is scheduled for July 15 and 16 at the Sapphire Valley Community Center. The event is sponsored by Wild South along with partners Sapphire Valley Resort and Cashiers Travel & Tourism.
The program — organized in large part by Wild South volunteer John Edwards of Cashiers and designed to entertain and educate the public regarding the beauty, diversity and issues facing the wild things and wild places here in Western North Carolina and beyond — has been enthusiastically received across the region.
There will be new presenters this year including Freeman Owle, beloved historian and storyteller from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Owle will talk about how the Cherokee have valued and still value the creatures and mountains that have sustained them for centuries.
Kate Marshall, award-winning cinematographer, will share close-up videos of black bears and cubs. Marshall, who recently presented at the Black Bear Festival in Umatilla, Fla., will focus on human-black bear interactions, which ties in with the “bear smart” initiative sponsored by the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance (JMCA).
One long-time and much-loved Mountain Wildlife Days presenter, Rob Gudger and his show-stopping wolves, will be presenting a brand new program this year. The new program is designed to promote a better understanding of wolves and their place in the natural environment.
To help you better understand how these wonderful creatures tolerate Rob – the domestic dog is the wolf’s closest relative – their DNA differs by only about 0.2 percent. The wolf and its closest wild relative the coyote differ by about 4 percent. That chihuahua in your pocket and/or that newfoundland on the sofa get their intelligence and social skills from their amazing wild ancestors.
From fur to feathers: The Eagle Lady, Doris Mager, will be present with her collection of feathered friends including owls, falcons and a crested caracara. Cynthia Strain of the JMCA and the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society will lead a bird-walk Friday morning.
A couple of other free hikes will also be offered Friday morning. Guided hikes in Panthertown Valley and on Whitesides Mountain are offered — but there is a cut-off for participants. If you wish to participate in one of these hikes you should call the Sapphire Valley Community Center at 828.743.7663.
If flying and/or furry are not your cup of tea, how about scaly and slithery? Steve O’Neil, “Wildlife Warrior,” will present, along with a few furry mammals, a number of reptiles and amphibians with the message that salamanders are animals too.
The focus on Friday evening will be “seeing God in everything.” It will be a musical celebration performed by the newly created “Creation Singers” with messages from pastors Steve Kerhoulas of Christ Church of the Valley and Randy Harry of Cashier United Methodist Church. There will also be music by Judy Felts, Lee Porter and acclaimed wildlife photographer Bill Lea. Relax, folks, this is not a “Creationist” celebration but a celebration of nature as part and parcel of the creation we all enjoy.
For tickets and more information visit the Sapphire Valley Community Center or call 828.743.7663. For a detailed schedule of activities, visit www.wildsouth.org and click on 2011 Mountain Wildlife Days.
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.
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.