Last year around this time I wrote about the honor of being nominated for Wild South’s Roosevelt-Ashe Society’s “Outstanding Journalist in Conservation” for 2010. I did not win but I did not expect to. I remember thinking and writing upon seeing my fellow nominees, “these are the people I write about.” And just being there and being part of that company was award enough.
This year I was even more surprised to be nominated once again. But this year I knew the ropes. I had been to the “Green Tie Gala” last year and I knew to expect a wonderful time with people from all walks of life — volunteers, philanthropists, environmentalists, agency personnel, conservationists, journalists, etc – with one thing in common, and that’s a passion for the outdoors.
Then something surreal happened. When they announced the winner for the 2011 Outstanding Journalist in Conservation – I heard my name. That was it; the jig was up; I was being convicted by a jury of my peers.
Hi my name is Don and I’m an addict. I’m addicted to wild places; clean air; pure water; granite mountains; bough and trunk. I’m addicted to the sound of the wind in the leaves; bubbles of brooks; riffle of rapids; breakers on beaches; howls of wolves and hoots of owls. I’m addicted to meadow and prairie; desert and forest; birds and birdsong; wildflowers and ferns. I’m addicted to nature wherever I find her; in my backyard; in a city park or on a greenway; at the nearest lake; the middle of the ocean; the heart of the deepest wilderness. I’m just addicted to outside.
I came by my addiction innocently enough. There was a special wild place in my childhood and adolescence. It was a shack on Horseshoe Lake just outside of Mer Rouge, Louisiana. It was a shotgun sharecropper shanty with, eventually, some rudimentary add-ons. Initially there was no electricity. There was never running water, though a well was drilled at some point and a pump installed. I have no idea how old I was when I was first introduced to the camp but my the time I was 8 I was perched on the front end of a 12-foot johnboat sculling along the shoreline fishing for bass and/or bream.
Behind the camp was the immensity of Beouf River Swamp, tens of square miles of hardwood forest, where we squirrel hunted and deer hunted by day and followed the baying of coonhounds at night. Beouf River Swamp was a wilderness to young eyes, but in reality it was an even-age second growth forest, having fallen under the saw at the turn of the 20th century. And by the time I graduated high school it was gone again — this time for good — and converted to farmland except for the occasional 640-acre “school board” parcel. By that time Horseshoe Lake had become a suburb ringed by “camps” side by side with piers protruding into the lake making it impossible to scull along the shoreline. I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I was, personally saddened by the loss of “my” wild stomping grounds — but there was no hue and cry, it’s just the way things were back in the late 1960s.
But this addiction led me to pursue a degree in wildlife conservation.
Now, it was the 1970s and much of the “science” of the day centered on how to grow more straight trees and how to produce more game animals. But there were ornithology classes and herpetology classes and plant taxonomy and systematics and then — ecology. And ecology was both the thread that connected everything and the glue that held landscapes together. This was the revelation! White-tailed deer, eastern cottontails, bobwhites, hooded warblers, spotted salamanders, loblolly pine, white oak, sumac; these were not autonomous organisms but all integral parts of a larger, holistic landscape. And the words of John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world,” were no longer just lines in a textbook.
Then by a circuitous route, tinged with wanderlust and the longing for wild places, I wound up in Western North Carolina, where through some serendipitous chain of events I began, around 1994, writing a column called “The Naturalist’s Corner.” The column first appeared in The Enterprise Mountaineer and when Scott McLeod, the editor that hired me, left the Mountaineer and started The Smoky Mountain News, “The Naturalist Corner” and I moved also. “The Naturalist’s Corner” has been the therapy for my addiction.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Scott McLeod and the Smoky Mountain News for having the confidence to basically turn “The Naturalist’s Corner” over to me, giving me free reins to write about wherever my addiction might be taking me at the moment. And the realization, through this award, that the message from “The Naturalist’s Corner” sometimes resonates with readers across Western North Carolina and beyond is truly humbling.
Okay, Wild South/Roosevelt-Ashe, you got me. I’m guilty – I’m an addict. Oh, and thanks for recognizing my addiction!
I was encouraged by a recent press release from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. The release stated, “In a show of force and unity, over 100 North Carolina sporting groups are calling on the General Assembly to restore critical funding for conservation. The groups, ranging from venerable statewide wildlife, turkey, waterfowl, deer, bear hunting organizations to trout, bass and local rod and gun clubs, are seeking investments in land, water and wildlife infrastructure in what amounts to less than 0.5 % of the entire budget.”
These groups representing Trout Unlimited Chapters, Wild Turkey Federation Chapters, Quality Deer Management Associations, NC Ducks Unlimited plus scores of other sportsman/sportswoman organizations across the state are all signers on a recent letter to North Carolina’s General Assembly. Here are some excerpts from that letter:
“We are hundreds of thousands of dedicated sportsmen and women from North Carolina. We span political parties and ideologies. We are bird hunters and waterfowlers, trout and bass anglers, hunters and trappers. What we share is a deep-rooted passion and concern for conservation and our sporting heritage.”
“The country’s original conservationists, hunters and anglers, are still on the forefront of conservation. Our dollars spent on licenses, gear, and associated expenditures such as travel, bait and tackle, meals, and lodging has a tremendous impact on the state’s economy. According to the most recent survey of the USFWS about the economic value of fish and wildlife based recreational activities, we contributed $4.3 billion to the state’s economy while supporting over 46,000 jobs.
“For years, the General Assembly has recognized sportsmen’s economic input and commitment to fish and wildlife resources by fully funding the state’s four conservation trust funds. Now conservation funding has been cut by a disproportionate 90 percent. Fiscal responsibility is important, but it doesn’t mean abandoning successful programs that have protected tens of thousands of acres of game lands, wetlands, fishing habitat and farmland across the state.
“In order to effectively safeguard key components of our economy, the sports and traditions that North Carolinians enjoy, and the health and integrity of some of our most important natural resources, it is essential that you restore a portion of these critical funds for the wild places that sustain our sporting heritage and economic impact.
“This request comes to less than a half percent of the state budget, but the payoff is enormous. For every dollar invested the state receives at least $4 of natural goods and services such as drinking water protection, flood control and cleaner air. When you add in the associated benefits for our $22 billion a year travel and tourism and $32 billion agricultural industries, it is clear that conservation is crucial to our economy. Please support this major economic driver by:
• Restoring funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) to $40 million, still well below historic levels.
• Removing the general prohibition on the use of CWMTF funds for land acquisition.
• Maintaining the dedicated revenue source for the Natural Heritage Trust Fund and Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, and oppose any diversion of those funds.
• Funding the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund at $2 million.”
When traditional environmental groups like Audubon NC, Southern Environmental Law Center, Western North Carolina Alliance, NC Sierra Club and others decried the Republican assault on the environment in North Carolina’s General Assembly and penned a letter to Gov. Bev Perdue thanking her for vetoing S781 and S709 (both of which, I believe, have been overturned), it was easy for Republican lawmakers to rant about “tree huggers” and “environmental whackos.”
But when members of the General Assembly look at this wide ranging and broad base of support, marshaled by the NC Wildlife Federation (who, by the way, was also a co-signer on the letter to Perdue) that crosses all party lines and ideologies, perhaps they will see that all North Carolinians treasure North Carolina’s wild places.
In 1987 the U.S. Forest Service issued a "final" forest management plan — a plan so vague and so lacking in ecosystem and environmental protections that conservationists and environmental organizations across the country denounced it. The Wilderness Society (TWS), to point out many of the shortcomings of the proposed rule, especially as it pertained to the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, published North Carolina's Mountain Treasures in 1992. According to the North Carolina's Mountain Treasures website at www.ncmountaintreasures.org/info/about.html, "Its purpose was very specific: to arm citizens with accurate, detailed, current information they could bring to bear to help protect deserving wildlands and other ecologically significant areas on these forests."
Here we are a decade later and finally, after two or three more failed efforts at crafting a forest management rule, it looks like the Forest Service has a working rule in place to replace the 1982 rule. The management rule is a template that sets the parameters for creating actual national forest management plans specifically for each national forest. And with the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests awaiting new management plans, TWS has prepared an updated North Carolina's Mountain Treasures: It's purpose is "... to give the public sufficient information about the forests' special places to speak effectively on their behalf."
Although there is a rule in place, plans for Pisgah/Nantahala may be 12 to 18 months down the road. According to Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian director with TWS, the delay is because the Forest Service is searching for a replacement for Marisue Hilliard, who retired as supervisor of the Pisgah/Nantahala National forests in January. Martin said that while TWS was disappointed in the delay, it, "... will allow us to garner more support for protection of Mountain Treasures, which we can always use more of."
TWS and its partners believe that many ecologically diverse and important wildlands throughout the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests lack adequate protection and these areas are the focus of the new edition of North Carolina's Mountain Treasures. This edition of "Treasures" focuses on seven landscape conservation areas that TWS and its partners feel are in urgent need of protection. Those areas are: Unicoi Mountains Conservation Area, Nantahala Mountains Conservation Area, Highlands Conservation Area, Balsam Mountains Conservation Area, Black Mountains Conservation Area, Linville/Grandfather Mountain Conservation Area and Unaka Mountains Conservation Area.
According to Martin it was a long (four years) arduous process to come up with the latest edition of N.C. Mountain Treasures. It included meetings with about 40 partners plus public comment and collaboration. Clearly, some wonderful and special places across the Nantahala and Pisgah forests are not included but TWS and its partners hoped to highlight areas that lack any kind of long-term protection and are at risk.
North Carolina's Mountain Treasures points out the need for protecting wildlands across the region and illustrates many of the threats — climate change, invasives, fragmentation and poor recreational management — facing these areas. Interested parties can find North Carolina's Mountain Treasures on line at http://www.ncmountaintreasures.org/info/about.html or visit North Carolina's Mountain Treasures Facebook page, which is in the process of being updated to be even more inclusive.
Hard copies are currently available in some area libraries (check yours) and will soon be available in most, if not all public libraries across Western North Carolina.
According to Martin, "Mountain Treasures represents over 300,000 acres of core conservation areas on public lands in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest. That's out of 1.1 million acres of public land, of which currently only about 65,000 is designated Wilderness. We feel that all of these lands deserve some high level of protection in the upcoming forest plan revision. For example, they could be recommended as Wilderness, Scenic, Old Growth, or Watershed Restoration areas. I'd like to think that public support for these areas will lead to the eventual passage of North Carolina's first wilderness legislation in more than 25 years."
Due to a lack of foresight and copious amounts of poor planning, I found myself last Sunday evening (Feb. 26) on the side of U.S. 19 across the highway from Kituwah with not one but two flat tires (yeah, the spare was flat). With logistics that would rival a Marx Brothers movie, we finally had mom and girls plus their friend Adam Wampler on their way home and Steve Wampler was there helping me get one tire back in good enough condition to limp on back home.
After one failed effort and one successful effort to get a tire plug kit, plug a tire, take it in to Bryson City, air it up and get back to Kituwah, I was putting said tire back on my vehicle when Steve exclaimed, “Man, what a gorgeous night. Just look at all the stars.”
Well, I did glimpse up briefly — but only briefly. I was on a tire mission. It was a dark night, only a sliver of a moon and clear skies and Kituwah is somewhat removed from light pollution. Yeah, I thought, it probably is a pretty night but I’ve got lug nuts to tighten and things to do back home.
Finally with four inflated tires under me, I was headed back home. I took one more look around and it was, indeed, a lovely night. Looking at the stars I was thinking, with only a crescent moon – the next week or so would be good for sky watching. So when I got home I did a quick Internet search to see what kind of heavenly bodies might be out there. No, I wasn’t watching J-Lo and Cameron Diaz on the Oscars — well OK, only for a second.
But if these clouds get out of the way there is some pretty cool stargazing to look forward to. One opportunity is a phenomenon known as “zodiacal light.” Zodiacal light is caused by the sun’s rays reflecting off cosmic dust particles located along the ecliptic — the path the sun follows across the cosmos (the zodiac). Zodiacal light is best viewed when the ecliptic is at a steep angle (almost vertical) to the horizon. This is most prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere near the spring and/or autumnal equinox. Zodiacal lights occur in spring in the first hour or so after sunset and in the autumn an hour or so before sunrise. Zodiacal lights in autumn are also known as the “false dawn.”
Zodiacal light resembles an inverted cone — widest at the horizon and tapering as it follows the ecliptic skyward. It is best viewed right after sunset on nights with little or no moon. An unobstructed view of the western horizon offers the greatest chances of getting a good look at this heavenly glow. The zodiacal viewing window only lasts for a couple of hours.
Late February and early March also offer some good planet watching. Venus and Jupiter are both blazing brightly in the late winter night sky. These two glowing celestial orbs are on track for a spectacular fly-by on March 13. Venus is climbing in the west-southwest every evening as Jupiter descends from the south-southwest. They will be in conjunction, separated by only about three degrees on March 13. And if your neck gets stiff from all that westerly viewing, turn to the east where you can watch Mars begin its ascent into the spring heavens.
As always, the farther you can get away from urban light pollution the better viewing you will have. But, before you decide to head to the boonies for some night-sky watching — check your spare!
This year was the 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen-science project created by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The count took place between Feb. 17 and Feb. 20. For the past seven or eight years I have used the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) as an excuse to visit my old stomping grounds in Northeast Louisiana. I would go over, spend the weekend visiting friends and take one day to count birds at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Monroe. This year I couldn’t make the trip over due to a change in work schedule and a few too many logistical speed bumps. I could, however, squeeze a few hours of birding in this past Saturday afternoon so I slipped away to Kituwah for a little avian accounting.
Kituwah is about 300 acres along the Tuckasegee River in Swain County. It was purchased by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in 1996 and is the historic site of the Band’s revered mother town. Tribal members farm small plots on the site and it is open to the public from sunup to sundown.
I was walking along the railroad tracks at Kituwah, moments after arriving, when a dry raspy “kehesch!” made me think I had stepped through a portal to my Louisiana home. I turned in time to see the robin-sized, brown and white projectile catapult straight up above the winter-brown grasses, poop and zigzag outta there like a NASCAR driver after a tire change. Another step, another kehesch! and then another till five Wilson’s snipe had popped up and taken off like a band of drunken banshees trying to decide which way to go. The erratic zigzag flight probably evolved as a way to deter aerial predators but it has been a boon to Winchester and other ammunition makers as rattled hunters, with shotguns wagging this way and that blast away into empty space.
Used to be a snipe was a snipe was a snipe, and all were considered subspecies of the common snipe, Gallinago gallinago, the European and Asian version. But recently the Wilson’s snipe, Gallinago delicata, of the America’s was split and elevated to species status.
Now you don’t have to go south to find Wilson’s snipe in the winter. A few overwinter in the northern tier of states and there is a resident West Coast population that reaches into Canada. However, they are more common in the South in the winter and some migrate all the way to South America. They are common winter residents in the marshes, farmlands and rice fields of Louisiana.
I encountered two other species that could have easily been recorded at Black Bayou. In one wet thicket near the main canal that traverses Kituwah I flushed an American woodcock. This whirling dervish popped up like it was ready for blast off – then just as abruptly changed its mind and floated back down to earth on the other side of the thicket. I hope I get a chance to take the girls over one evening soon and catch this species’ amazing aerial courtship display.
The third marshy species I found at Kituwah was a northern harrier – the “marsh hawk” of my Louisiana youth. This buoyant flier glides effortlessly a few feet above ground over marsh and/or farmland to suddenly pounce or fall from the sky, on unsuspecting prey like small rodents or birds.
The northern harrier has a more rounded or disc-shaped face than most hawks that is owl-like in form and function. The feathers around its face help direct sound to its ears allowing the harrier to hear its prey much like owls do.
Females and immatures are brown with a large white rump patch. The male is an exquisite slate-gray leading to its colorful colloquial moniker – the gray ghost.
All in all it was a wonderful and relaxing GBBC. Not high numbers – 37 species – but not bad for a few winter hours. Sparrows ruled the day as far as species, they included song, swamp, chipping, field, fox, white-crowned, white-throated and savannah.
The Naturalist’s Corner dispatched its chief investigative reporter, Kuteeng Satire, to the land of Dudley Doright to bring you the truth regarding Canada’s plan to shoot, shoot from airplanes, poison, trap and otherwise kill thousands of wolves because the stupid animals are eating caribou displaced by the decimation of their habitat by Canada’s grand gesture of saving the United States from its foreign oil dependency by selling it more expensive foreign oil from Canada. The fact that Canada is in the process of destroying 10.6 million acres of boreal forest, decimating wildlife populations and destroying indigenous peoples’ way of life in a quest to sell the world’s dirtiest oil to their southern neighbors just shows that their wallet, uh, heart is in the right place.
In order for the world and the U.S. in particular to understand Canada’s heartfelt generosity, The Naturalist’s Corner’s Kuteeng Satire interviewed Ima Dunce from Canada’s Minister of Environment, Peter Kent’s office.
Satire: Mr. Kent was quoted as saying; “Culling is an accepted if regrettable scientific practice and means of controlling populations and attempting to balance what civilization has developed. I’ve got to admit, it troubles me that that’s what is necessary to protect this species.” Why is the killing of thousands of wolves necessary?
Dunce: Because there are too many wolves and they are killing the poor caribou.
Satire: So caribou are worth saving but wolves are not?
Dunce: But of course! Caribou are sweet creatures. They geeve us food and fur and they only eat grass and lichens. They are gentle creatures. Not like zee wolves. Zee wolves are mean and with their beeg teeths they eat the caribou. They eat mama caribous and baby caribous and all caribous — all the time they are just killing and eating and eating and killing.
Satire: So wolves are evil?
Dunce: Certainly! You deed not learn anything from Leetle Rouge Riding Hood?
Satire: Red Riding Hood?
Satire: How do you plan to kill the wolves?
Dunce: We will shoot them. We will shoot them on the ground. We will shoot them from the sky. And when we can’t find anymore to shoot we will poison them with strychnine.
Satire: But wouldn’t it make more sense to protect and restore caribou habitat, rather than simply kill wolves.
Dunce: Whoever says that — they are not from Canada. They don’t understand. Who would say such a thing?
Satire: Lu Carbyn, emeritus research scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service would say such a thing.
Satire: Is it true that if you mine all of the tar sands area you will have to destroy an area of boreal forest the size of Florida?
Dunce: There must be, what, 40 or 50 states? Eef you lose Florida, no beeg deal, right?
Satire: Will poisoning wolves harm other wildlife?
Dunce: What other wildlife?
Satire: Like wolverines, cougars and other predators?
Dunce: All bad, bad, bad animals.
Satire: What about raptors?
Dunce: Oh no, you are meestaken. Baskeetball players are wild but they would not eat dead animals!
Satire: Not the Toronto Raptors. You know, birds of prey.
Dunce: That eat other animals?
Dunce: They are bad!
Satire: Are the people supportive of the tar sands mining?
Dunce: Oh wee-wee! Fox and the Hare News deed a poll and 67 percent of voters supported the tar sands and the Keystone pipeline.
Satire: Uh, that was a, uh, fair and balanced American poll from Fox and the Hare News that misled respondents by stating the pipeline would lower gas prices. What about Canadian polls, say in Alberta near the tar sands?
Dunce: What about them?
Satire: Seventy-one percent of Albertans support a moratorium on any new tar sands projects.
Dunce: Oh, that was all a beeg misunderstanding. The people could not understand zee poll.
Dunce: It was een French!
I think the shrewd rodent hedges his bet a bit. I mean if you think about it, the difference between Feb. 2 and March 20, first day of spring, is about six weeks. So to say there will be six more weeks of winter is a pretty safe bet. But what will those six weeks entail?
To say we’ve had a mild winter in Western North Carolina is a bit of an understatement. And it seems most of the Southeast is in the same boat this year. I recently saw a photo on my Louisiana friend Burg Ransom’s Facebook page of a big ole gator cruising Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge in Monroe, La.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about northern pintails after seeing one at Lake Junaluska. The week after I saw the one there were five on the lake. Pintails are early migrants and early nesters, reaching nesting grounds in Arizona in late March and early April and in Alaska by early May. But north-bound at the end of January seems a tad early.
Another Facebook friend, Waynesville’s own photographer/artist/musician extraordinaire, Ed Kelley, posted a photo on Feb. 2 of one of Punxsutawney Phil’s southern cousins up a tree. Seems Ed’s dog encouraged Waynesville Willie to seek higher ground, but most groundhogs — at least the ones that aren’t celebrities — are still snoozing in early February. And I saw another sleepy-time rodent last Sunday. I was driving to the mudflats that used to be Lake Junaluska when a chipmunk, tail at attention, scurried across the road in front of me.
And early northern pintails aren’t the only avian anomaly. Wayne Forsythe of Hendersonville recently posted on the Carolina Birds listserv that he and fellow birder Ron Selvey recorded two palm warblers in Henderson County on Feb. 3. That is the earliest record I’ve ever heard of for Western North Carolina.
There are a few forsythia blooms here and there and I, like everyone else, have jonquil/daffodil leaves between ankle and knee high already. I’m sure orchard owners are beginning to get a little nervous. Buds are pretty cold-hardy, but if these balmy temps keep up and coax those blossoms to open early — then we get one of those hard spring frosts — it could be bad news.
Now, I like winter. Having lived only in Louisiana and on Hilton Head Island before I got to Highlands in 1986, I never experienced what could actually be termed winter — some cold snaps now and again but no winter season. But after moving to Western North Carolina, I have learned to revel in the progression of seasons and winter is the perfect end to the cycle.
With that said, it being so near spring now and heating oil still between $3 and $4 a gallon, I could pass on this winter. But don’t try and tell the folks from Clayton Lake, Maine, where it was –24 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday, or those out in Denver and Nebraska where white-out blizzard conditions dumped feet of snow and shutdown interstates and airports last week that we’re having a mild winter.
Dateline 1999: David Kullivan a forestry/wildlife student at Louisiana State University, tells faculty that while turkey hunting in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers foraged in trees as close as 10 yards from him. Soon after, an expert-avian search team fielded in part by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and funded largely by Zeiss Optics hit the woods to track down this fabled icon of southern bottomland hardwood forests. After weeks of searching, the search team was left scratching their heads as the ethereal Lord God Bird once again vanished into the impenetrable swamp.
Dateline 2000-2004: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz … For most, thoughts of ivorybills had faded back into the foggy swamps.
Dateline April 28, 2005: Announcement of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker made by John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Those present included Gale Norton (then Secretary of the Interior), Michael Johanns (then Secretary of Agriculture) and the Congressional delegation from Arkansas where the bird had been “rediscovered” on Bayou de View. And there were no cautions or qualifications as Fitzpatrick announced: “For a bird guy, I can’t begin to tell you how thrilling it is — it’s thrilling beyond words to stand here with two cabinet members at my side … After 60 years of fading hopes that we would ever see this spectacular bird again, the ivory-billed woodpecker has been rediscovered.”
Now we have to backtrack just a bit because Cornell was actually doubling-down on “evidence” they acquired in spring 2004, but they were buying time to, according to the Cornell University News Service, “… allow the search team to gather convincing evidence of the bird’s existence.”
May 2005: Not to be outdone, Auburn ornithologist Geoff Hill and students “find” ivory-billed woodpeckers on the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida Panhandle. In fact, Hill estimated that there were likely at least nine pairs of ivorybills in the Choctawhatchee.
And about that evidence:
Cornell’s 2006 search results: The single best piece of evidence obtained was the four-second video footage taken by David Luneau on 25 April 2004. In total, the Cornell search team spent 35,440 hours engaged in various forms of search activity including man-hours plus automatic cameras and automatic sound-recording devices.
Cornell went on to expand their search (increasing man and remote sensing hours), sending teams to Florida and Louisiana through 2009.
So where does that bring us to today? Private, individual searchers continue to find ivory-billed woodpeckers. Some have even produced their own blurry videos. Yet none have produced any kind of clear images and none have been able to take researchers back and document sightings.
When this saga began a lot was made about not being able to prove a negative – in other words there is no way to prove that ivorybills are extinct, I mean we can’t have someone under every tree at the same time, right? But it looks like the scientific community has decided to take on the challenge.
July 2011: Dr. Nicholas J. Gotelli, University of Vermont, et al, publishes “Specimen-based modeling, Stopping Rules, and the Extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” Gotelli put the odds at finding a live ivory-billed at less than 1 in 15,625.
October 2011: Andrew Solow of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, et al, publishes “Uncertain Sightings and the Extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker,” which concludes there is, “…substantial support for extinction.”
I hear the ringing call of another iconic woodpecker in my ears – ha-ha-ha-HA-ha! ha-ha-ha-HA-ha! ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.
No, I’m not talking about those of us who stay in the warm confines at Cataloochee, nursing Ninja porters, while the kids hit the slopes. These cold-weather wimps are ruby-throated hummingbirds. As most of you hummer-watchers know, our ruby-throats, basically the only nesting hummers in the eastern U.S., have generally all departed for warmer climes by the end of October. But are the times and maybe the climes changing?
My recent (Jan. 8-16) weekly installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond” titled “Winter Hummingbirds in the U.S. (Ruby-Throats & Global Warming)” raised some really interesting questions. This Week at Hilton Pond is a weekly e-newsletter produced by Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History’s executive director Bill Hilton Jr.
Hilton is no stranger to winter hummers. He has banded more than 80 winter hummers since 1991. I met Hilton back in 2002 when he came to the residence of Ted and Ann Kirby in Waynesville and banded a rufous hummingbird that had taken up residence — see www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/ 11_02/11_27_02/out_lola.html.
Hilton noted in the newsletter that despite all the vagrant hummers he had banded he had never banded a ruby-throated after Oct. 18 or before March 27. But according to Hilton’s account all of that changed this past December when he got a call from a friend from Buxton. This friend, who lives between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, reported that she had at least a half-dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds coming to feeders in her yard.
Hilton said they arrived in Buxton around 1:30 p.m. and that by 2 p.m. they had their first ruby-throat (a female) in the trap. In two days at Buxton, Hilton banded nine winter ruby-throats, seven (five females and two immature males) in his friend’s yard and two other females at an alternate site. Hilton noted that all the hummers were healthy and one was even going through its annual mid-winter molt.
Hilton, like any good scientist, is never more than a reflective moment away from “why” and/or “how.” And like any good scientist he would never posit one event as proof of anything, but keen anecdotal observations are the precursor of any hypothesis worth more study.
Hilton reflects that the warm Gulf Stream is only about 10 miles offshore of the Outer Banks and that it helps to moderate winter temps. But, “… even though the Gulf Stream has been this close for millennia there were NO reports of winter ruby-throats in North Carolina before about 1995 or so,” writes Hilton. He believes that ruby-throats on the Outer Banks may be benefiting from ever-so-slight increases in annual winter temperatures – gasp! “Climate change.”
Hilton writes, “… Mountaintop glaciers melting … polar ice fields shrinking … droughts worsening … severe storms increasing … ocean levels rising (and even affecting dunes and beaches at Cape Hatteras National Seashore) … and now “cold weather wimp” ruby-throated hummingbirds wintering where they never have before …” and wonders out loud, “… if – because of their recently acquired ability to survive WITHOUT migrating to the neotropics – ruby-throated hummingbirds are THE species that finally drives home the point that global warming is for real?”
To read Hilton’s entertaining narrative regarding the winter ruby-throats (along with his usual outstanding photography) and/or to learn more about Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History visit www.hiltonpond.org.
Thanks to a head’s up from Tim Carstens last Sunday morning (1/15), I saw a drake northern pintail, Anas acuta, at Lake Junaluska. This “nomad of the sky” is cosmopolitan in distribution, breeding in northern Europe, Asia and North America. Its range has been estimated at more than 11 million square miles and it is known to overwinter as far south as Panama, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Some even make it to Hawaii and other Pacific Islands for their winter break. Not even oceans can deter this sleek strong flyer. One pintail tagged in Labrador, Canada, was found nine days later in England and several pintails tagged in Japan have been recovered from the U.S., as far east as Mississippi.
In North America, the northern pintail breeds from the prairie pothole region of the Upper Midwest across Canada and Alaska. Nearly half of this population migrates through California. Many overwinter in California’s Central Valley but others continue south to the west coast of Mexico. Northern pintails in the Central Flyway overwinter from the Texas Panhandle down to the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, most of those in the Mississippi Flyway spend their winter in Louisiana with smaller numbers spread throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. The primary wintering range for northern pintails in the Atlantic Flyway is along the Atlantic coast of New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. North Carolina generally accounts for 50 percent or more of this population.
The drake northern pintail is one handsome dude. The head is chocolate brown with a clean white stripe that snakes up from the white breast and neck. The back and sides are slate-gray with black highlights and it has a bright white rump patch. The “pin” tail is long. It can account for a quarter of the total length of an adult mail in breeding plumage. The middle two tail feathers are black and the outside ones are gray with white margins. An iridescent green speculum is displayed in flight and the bill is blue with a black stripe in the center and black margins.
The female is more muted with a tawny head and a mottled brown and white body. Her bill is dark blue-gray, usually with darker blotches. The female has a rather long pointed tail as duck tails go, but nothing comparable to the male’s pin.
The drake’s tail accounts for most of the colloquial names — like spiketail, sprigtail, sprig, etc. but I knew them in Louisiana as snakeheads. I’m not sure of the origin of this name, but I’ve heard two accounts. One is the white stripe that “snakes” up the drake’s head and the other is in reference to the bird’s habits. Pintails are a skittish lot and when they’re on the water and they become alarmed they raise their heads up on their long snake-like necks to get a better look around.
Because of the pintail’s immense range and global population it is listed as a species of least concern. However, the northern pintail’s North American population has been in a tailspin since the late 1950s. Numbers have dropped from an estimated 10 million in 1957 to around 3 million today. Disease has played a part in the loss of North American pintails, both in the past and more recently. Two outbreaks of avian botulism in Canada and Utah in 1997 claimed close to a million pintails. But loss of habitat and changes in agriculture appear to be the most serious threats to North American pintails.
Numbers from the Atlantic Flyway mirror this dramatic decline. The Atlantic Flyway Midwinter Survey recorded an average of about 250,000 birds in the late 1950s. Today’s survey records about 50,000 pintails.
North Carolina joined South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Florida in 2004 to create a multiagency project committed to finding ways to reverse this population decline.