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The answer is, in the case of the federally endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel, a resounding yes. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission with the aid of North Carolina Department of Transportation, Duke Energy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service has extended a helping hand, uh, pole — make that poles.

NCWRC and partners have erected three flying squirrel crossings along the Cherohala Skyway that runs from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tenn. The crossings consist of tall utility poles erected on either side of the Skyway. The poles serve as launching and/or landing pads for this small arboreal rodent whose preferred method of locomotion is gliding through the forest from tree to tree.

The two subspecies of flying squirrels found in the Southern Appalachians — Carolina northern flying squirrel and Virginia northern flying squirrel — are both endangered. Biologists believe these two subspecies are relic populations of northern flying squirrels that were stranded in the fir and spruce forests of the high peaks of the Appalachians when the last ice age receded.

The tawny red Carolina northern flying squirrel is about a foot long and weighs less than a pound. It is slightly larger than its ubiquitous gray cousin, the southern flying squirrel that is found primarily below 4,000 feet. The Carolina northern flying squirrel is found at high elevations (generally above 4,500 feet) in Western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. It is known from nine locations in the state.

The completion of the Cherohala Skyway in the mid-1990s essentially divided the Carolina northern flying squirrels of the Unicoi Mountains into two populations, one on either side of the Skyway. The northern flying squirrel can glide about 160 feet. The roadbed, right-of-way and shoulder maintenance along the Skyway created too wide of a canopy gap and telemetry studies showed that the squirrels were not crossing the road.

Segmenting and/or restricting the movements of even healthy populations of wildlife are never good things. They reduce the gene pool and limit foraging, breeding and denning habitat. In the case of small, imperiled populations like the Carolina northern flying squirrel, such effects can be devastating.

The flying squirrel crossings erected in 2008 are having a positive effect. “Carolina Northern flying squirrels have been documented using and exploring all six poles in three corridors along the Skyway. Spring and summer seem to be the peak time for dispersal, though we also have documented flying squirrels crossing in fall and winter, even during a snowstorm,” said NCWRC biologist Chris Kelly.

Cherohala Skyway managers have implemented a “do not mow” policy at these squirrel-crossing sites. They hope to encourage native tree growth at these corridors so the poles can eventually be removed.

These crossing poles are clearly having a positive impact but Carolina northern flying squirrels are seeing their share of negative impacts. These little critters depend on conifers. The conifers are not only used for food and denning but the conifer oil that is ingested when the squirrel feeds on conifer cones and fungi that grows on conifer roots seems to deter a debilitating intestinal parasite, strongyloides robustus, that can make the squirrel unable to reproduce.

And conifers have been under attack for decades in the Southern Appalachians. First the balsam woolly adelgid decimated the fraser firs. Now the hemlock woolly adelgid is doing the same to the eastern hemlock. The loss of high-elevation hemlocks in the Unicoi Mountains is especially troubling. Carolina northern flying squirrels have been able to rely on red spruces in much of their former spruce-fir habitat. But the Unicois lost their spruce-fir component four to five thousand years ago due to a slight temperature rise. The eastern hemlock is the only high-elevation conifer left in the Unicois and its future looks bleak.

You can help NCWRC in its mission to protect the Carolina northern flying squirrel and other non-game species through the Tax Check-off for Nongame and Endangered Wildlife on your state income tax form. Checking line No. 27 lets taxpayers designate part or all of their state tax refunds to this fund.

To learn more about the “squirrel crossings” and to see a couple of cool videos visit

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

A beautiful morning and Lake Junaluska was calling again. I approached the lake along Golf Course Road on the side that borders U.S. 19. A thick white mist was rising from the warm water into the crisp morning air and the coots were disappearing from the surface and popping back up like giant black corks bobbing in the water. There is definitely no shortage of coots at the lake this fall.

My first stop was at the pull off just before North Lakeshore, across from the wetlands. Across the lake was a group of around a dozen redheads. These handsome diving ducks regularly grace the lake from time to time now through spring. This particular group has been around since the last cold snap. Near the redheads was a pair of gadwalls. Gadwalls are mallard-sized puddle ducks. The male is gray with black tail coverts. The hen gadwall can look a lot like a mallard hen but the mallard hen usually shows a blue speculum (wing patch) when resting and/or swimming while the hen gadwall generally shows a small white patch (from the inner secondaries) near the rump.

A raft of ruddy ducks was napping out from the large parking area near the chapel. Ruddy ducks have been regular winter visitors over the past few years and their population seems to be growing, there were at least 40 present last Saturday.

I was surprised to find an immature pine warbler foraging in one of the spruces near the cross. We occasionally get pine warblers passing through in the spring and fall but November 13 seems a little late.

A stop across from the lake at the Waynesville Greenway parking area on Richland Creek produced white-throated sparrows and a pair of hairy woodpeckers.

Another pleasant surprise was three or four rusty blackbirds gorging themselves on dogwood berries at the lake. The rusty blackbird is named for its gorgeous rust-tinged winter plumage. Rusty blackbird numbers have dropped precipitously since the 1960s and biologists are trying to discover the causes. Smithsonian and partners have created the International Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group to try and discover the causes of the decline and work to help re-establish the population. You can google “rusty blackbird working group” to learn about these efforts.

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

The Naturalist's Corner

East Fork Headwaters

Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy is still hoping for a Christmas present from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Most folk who follow conservation issues across the region are probably aware that CMLC and its partner, The Conservation Fund, have a contract with former congressman and Brevard cattle and timber farmer Charles Taylor and his family for the fee-simple acquisition of 8,000 acres of outstanding wilderness in southern Transylvania County known as the East Fork Headwaters.

The Conservation Fund is sitting on a $3 million down payment, and the Taylor family has agreed to finance the rest of the $33 million price tag. It was widely publicized last week, prior to a Wildlife Resources Commission meeting, that TCF was not prepared to pay the $3 million unless NCWRC would commit to managing the tract, assisting CMLC and TCF in seeking funding and eventually take title of the tract.

Wildlife Resources released a statement after the Nov. 4 meeting titled, “Wildlife Commission Pledges Support for East Fork Headwaters.”

“This land is highly desirable for protection and public use, and is truly multipurpose. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission supports The Conservation Fund’s effort to effectuate long-term conservation of this valuable resource,” said Gordon Myers, executive director of NCWRC, in a press release.

Many who read the press release and/or the official resolution passed by NCWRC probably breathed a sigh of relief and felt that the preservation of this large, ecologically sensitive tract was guaranteed.

Alas, CMLC is not quite so confident. I received an email from Kieran Roe, executive director of CLMC, that stated: “While WRC has made a partial commitment that the conservation groups have been seeking — they have clearly stated their willingness to serve as long-term land managers, and also to assist with seeking federal conservation funds, they have still not fully committed to partner in seeking state funds for which they are uniquely eligible — specifically the North Carolina Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

CMLC goes into more detail at their Save the East Fork Headwaters web page ( They still insist that TCF needs a commitment from NCWRC that it will also assist in seeking state funding before they will proceed with the down payment. According to the website CMLC is still confident a deal will be reached: “WRC Executive Director Gordon Myers has made it clear that he wants to continue to collaborate on a solution that will give the Conservation Fund board sufficient confidence to pay the first installment of $3 million to the landowner. Payment of this installment will result in transfer of title, albeit with a hefty mortgage. Mr. Myers has proposed to set up the East Fork Headwaters Team that will include himself, agency personnel, the State Property Office, the Conservation Fund, and Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. The stated purpose of the team is to “figure out how to get the deal done.” We appreciate Mr. Myer’s ‘can-do’ attitude a lot.”

No one but the players know for sure what kind of sticking points are out there in the land of “budget shortfalls.” CMLC believes that public comment in support of the deal has been and will continue to be important. Their website has addresses and suggestions for people who want their voices heard in support of the purchase of this impressive, biologically rich and diverse landscape.

I, for one, wish them success.

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

Last year around this time we talked about York University Professor Bridget Stutchbury’s groundbreaking research with migrating purple martins and wood thrushes (see

Stutchbury, her students and now other researchers — with the aid of some nano-technology — are opening new windows on the world of bird migration. The new technology is in the form of geolocators. These tiny “backpacks” designed by the British Antarctic Survey can weigh as little as 1.1 gram, making them small enough to place on songbirds such as thrushes and martins. The geolocators are held in place at the base of the bird’s spine by small straps around the bird’s legs. The geolocators detect light and allow researchers to estimate a bird’s latitude and longitude by recording sunrise and sunset times.

The accuracy of the geolocators is within 180 miles.

At first glance, plus or minus 180 miles might not seem like pinpoint accuracy, but when you figure you’re tracking a mobile eight-inch object over a linear distance of 4,000 miles and you can not only estimate its location but determine the direction of its movement, it’s pretty amazing.

Results from Stutchbury’s research are already turning the ornithological world on its ear. Stutchbury told Science Watch in a September 2010 interview featuring innovations in research, “Data from the geolocators indicated that songbirds can fly in excess of 500 km (311 miles) per day whereas previous studies using other methods estimated their flight performance at roughly 150 km (93 miles) per day.”

Her research also showed marked differences between fall and spring migration: “We found that songbirds’ overall migration rate was two to six times more rapid in spring than in fall. For example, one purple martin took 43 days to reach Brazil during fall migration, but in spring returned to its breeding colony in only 13 days.”

Stutchbury has expanded her collaboration with the Purple Martin Conservation Association and other researchers to include martins in British Columbia, Texas and Virginia. She hopes to discover, “… how breeding populations map onto wintering sites in South America and how migration distance and breeding location affects migration routes and timing.”

Stutchbury told Science Watch that being able to track migrants to and from their wintering and breeding grounds is paramount to bird conservation:

“Many migratory songbirds are undergoing long-term population declines, in large part due to winter habitat and stopover site loss. Identifying the stopover and wintering sites of specific breeding populations is critical for understanding how breeding versus over-wintering events contribute to population declines.

“Knowing where breeding populations spend the winter, and vice versa, is critical for focusing conservation efforts in regions where they are needed most, and for establishing new and more effective international partnerships in migratory songbird conservation.”

Geolocators are also being used to study migration patterns of threatened and/or endangered birds like the red knot, roseate tern and piping plover.

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

October nights

The clear night skies last week provided the perfect backdrop for this year’s Hunter’s Moon. The Hunter’s Moon is the first full moon after the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox. This year’s harvest moon fell in September just six hours after that equinox.

The Hunter’s Moon usually appears in October, but remember the lunar cycle is not constrained by our calendar and sometimes the Hunter’s Moon does not appear until November. This moon helps mark the northern hemisphere’s tumble from the sun as the Earth spins into its dark phase of short days and long nights.

According to EarthSky (, the moon normally rises about 50 minutes later each successive day. However, that time is shortened during the Hunter’s Moon and it grows shorter the farther north one goes. Here and in other mid-latitude (between 30 and 60 degrees) areas like Washington, D.C., and Boston that time diminishes to about 30 minutes daily. By the time you make it to Fairbanks, Alaska, the Hunter’s Moon will rise at approximately the same time for several days in a row.

This makes evenings under the Hunter’s Moon a really special time as there is no real period of darkness between the setting sun and the rising moon. The Earth slides uninterrupted from the sun’s golden yellow to the moon’s liquid amber.

As the hunter, Orion, takes prominence in the northern hemisphere sky, one would think he would take great pride in the full Hunter’s Moon, after all it was his ego that got him there. However, there might be a little conflict of interest as this year’s Hunter’s Moon completely whitewashed the Orionid meteor shower. The peak for the Orionids this year was between 1 a.m. and dawn last Thursday (Oct. 21), but only the most devoted falling star catchers would have bothered to stare into the face of the glowing Hunter’s Moon.

The Hunter’s Moon is also obscuring Comet Hartley 2. Named after astronomer Malcolm Hartley who discovered the comet in 1986, Hartley 2 passes through about every 6.5 years. The comet was closer to Earth (11.2 million miles) on Oct. 20 than it has ever been since its discovery. But the bright moon and the small size of the comet made it difficult to see. Hartley 2 is about .8 miles in diameter. If it were the size of Halley’s Comet (5 miles in diameter) it would have been like having two full moons.

However, if you’re late to bed or early to rise there should be decent views of Hartley 2 at the end of October and beginning of November. The comet will be near the constellation Gemini, on the eastern horizon in the pre-dawn darkness. On Oct. 28 the comet and the moon will be very close as the moon passes through Gemini.

If you don’t get a good in-person view of Hartley 2, NASA’s got you covered. After being slingshot around Earth’s orbit in June to gain momentum, NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI is set to rendezvous with Hartley 2 on Nov. 4. The close encounter of satellite-kind should provide some outstanding imagery.

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


Blue, white, lavender and purple corymbs, racemes and panicles will glow from shadowy woods and blaze from sunny meadows from now until the first hard, killing frost. Asters comprise a large beautiful complex and challenging group of wildflowers to pin down. More than 20 species of the genus aster have been recorded from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because of considerable variation within species and the tendency of species to hybridize, even competent botanists are sometimes left to a “judgment” call when trying to identify certain individuals.

As a not-so-competent botanist, if I’m without a guide once I get past the half dozen or so I can recognize they are simply, “one of the asters.” That doesn’t diminish their beauty or my delight in seeing them, though.

If you’re a botanist or botany student with a good grasp of botanical terms there is probably no better guide for asters in the region than the most current Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. But one must be really familiar with botanical terms to navigate quickly and correctly through the large dichotomous keys in the guide. And probably not many of us weekend warriors want to carry the five-pound tome along in our backpacks.

A couple of more accessible and easier to hike with guides I always recommend are Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains. Both of these guides have a type of key that aids you in identifying the plant. The Newcomb’s key is a bit more involved — more detailed. Newcomb’s also relies on line drawings for descriptions and has only a few color plates. I actually like the line drawings, particularly when dealing with very similar characteristics that might be overlooked in a photograph.

The Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains uses a general key to group similar plants within a family or genus together and then relies on detailed descriptions to pin down the species. Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains uses photographs to help with ID. And while they are great photos and there are 600 of them it’s easy to see that in the plant world, you are going to be left with a lot of stand-alone descriptions. I believe the guide lists 29 species of asters and has 12 plates.

There is no silver-bullet, especially in field guide form, when it comes to identifying asters. Both of the last two field guides are good guides. I know some people who use the two in tandem and increase their odds of ID-ing local asters.

And while most of us will never know most of the asters of Western North Carolina at first glimpse that, as I said before, does not diminish their beauty. And they will hold forth till the killing frost. Learn the ones you can, get a key or keys you’re comfortable with and try to learn more — but most importantly get out there and see them — even if they remain always, “one of the asters.”

Scott’s Creek Overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway is usually a great place for asters. I have recorded Aster divaricatus, white wood aster, A. novae-angliae, New England aster, A. infirmus, cornel-leaved aster and A. acuninatus, whorled wood aster from this overlook.

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

According to a recent report from Chris Kelley, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Mountain Wildlife Diversity Biologist, seven of 12 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons across the mountains of North Carolina successfully fledged chicks. Last year only three of 12 nesting pairs were successful.

NCWRC annually monitors 13 known peregrine territories and searches for falcons in other suitable habitat. This year, according to Kelly, 10 of the 13 known territories were occupied, plus eyries were discovered at Pickens Nose, in Macon County, and Victory Wall, in Haywood County.

These two new nesting sites do have some peregrine history. Victory Wall, here in Haywood County, had nesting peregrines in the 1990s but the birds shifted to Devils Courthouse. Pickens Nose was a NCWRC hack site during the peregrine falcon reintroduction program.

Hacking is the process of taking chicks that were born in captivity to good nesting sites when they’re about a month old. They are kept in a protective enclosure and food is provided. There is minimal human interaction, so the chicks don’t imprint on people. When the chicks can fly, the enclosure is opened. Food is provided until the chicks begin to hunt for themselves.

One male hacked at Pickens Nose nested successfully at Devils Courthouse a few years later. According to Kelly, peregrines were seen at Pickens Nose last year but nesting was not documented. This year two fledglings were documented.

Whiteside Mountain in Jackson County between Cashiers and Highlands is the most successful nesting site in the state. Forty-five chicks have fledged at Whiteside since 1984. Two fledglings were recorded this year. Last year was the first nesting failure at Whiteside in 11 years. There is no way to document, for certain, the cause of the failure but officials know that the closure was violated last year.

When falcons are known to be at a site, authorities close the area to rock climbing and other invasive activities for the duration of the nesting season. Peregrines are very sensitive to disturbance. Adults may leave the eyrie unattended if they are disturbed and frightened chicks have been known to tumble to their death.

Another long-time nesting site was also successful this year. A pair at Looking Glass in Transylvania County successfully fledged three chicks. Looking Glass was home, in 1957, to the last wild pair of peregrines before they disappeared from the state. Thirty-one chicks have fledged from Looking Glass since reintroduction began.

Second-year females were found at three sites this year — Big Lost Cove and Grandfather Mountain in Avery County and North Carolina Wall in Burke County. Nesting attempts at Big Lost Cove and North Carolina Wall were unsuccessful (not uncommon for sub-adult birds.) Kelly reported the results at Grandfather as “unknown.” She stated that a pair was observed at the “usual nest ledge” but it wasn’t clear if they nested. Grandfather boasts lots of remote rock faces that can make it hard for observers to locate birds. Nine documented chicks have fledged at Grandfather.

Grandfather also offered another surprise this year. The second-year female was banded but, according to Kelly, her state of origin could not be determined.

This year’s success is welcomed news. It’s heartening to see these kings and queens of the sky reclaiming their Carolina blue.

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

Foggy fall morning at Lake Junaluska

I decided to get out and get a breath of autumn air this morning (Saturday, Oct. 2) by taking a quick tour around Lake Junaluska. It was pretty fresh and there was a little white sheen to some of the rooftops along U.S. 23/74.

By the time I reached the Junaluska golf course I was socked in. I decided to stop at the little parking area at Richland Creek on the Waynesville Greenway. The fog was thick and close.

There were a few chirps emanating from the fog; the occasional roar of traffic along the four-lane; the tink of golf balls being launched by metal woods from the fog-obscured fairway across the creek and then, the unmistakable twittering of hummingbirds. A pair of lingering female ruby-throated hummingbirds were chasing each other around a batch of Japanese honeysuckle that had been coaxed into blooming by the spring-like vernal period.

A mewing gray catbird soon appeared from the middle of the honeysuckle tangle. A Tennessee warbler passed by hawking insects in the brush along the far side of the creek, and a pair of gray squirrels were busy plucking the few remaining walnuts from a nearby black walnut tree. There were a few song sparrows, a couple of cardinals, some crows and blue jays, an eastern phoebe and a female belted kingfisher was stationed on a dead branch just above the creek.

I left the greenway and headed for the fog-shrouded lake. The silhouette of a double-crested cormorant was barely visible. When I stopped to get a better look I could also pick out a few pied-billed grebes through my binoculars. Continuing around the lake, it became apparent that the pied-billed migration was in high gear. I didn’t count individuals but I must have seen at least 15. The winter population of coots is also growing by leaps and bounds.

I took a quick side trip to the Corneille Bryan Native Garden. Pink and white turtleheads, deep blue gentian and white and blue asters joined the blazing red euonymus berries like colored candles in the fog. The liquid “whoit!” of Swainson’s thrushes mingled with the gurgling brook and the fog dripping from leaves. There must have been a half-dozen Swainson’s foraging in the garden.

I decided to make one more stop at the small wetlands behind the dining hall at the lake. It was nice to see the new NC Birding Trail sign dedicated by the Great Smoky Mountains Audubon chapter. Lake Junaluska is site number 37 in the mountain guide to the NC Birding Trail.

Lake Junaluska has a way of always surprising you, and this trip was no different. I spied a couple of warblers flying into a large black cherry adjacent the wetlands. Binoculars revealed a couple of bay-breasted warblers. As I approached to get a better look, I noticed movement in the tag alders along both sides of the small ditch at the wetlands. There was a mixed flock of migrating warblers chasing insects. Bay-breasteds made up the bulk of the flock, but I also saw one Cape May, one black-throated green, one blackpoll and a couple of chestnut-sided warblers. And to top it off, at the end of the wetlands was a pair of wood ducks.

When I threw in the starlings, mockingbirds, a couple of woodpeckers and the other usual suspects, I wound up with 39 species. Not bad for a quick, foggy trip around the lake.

The Naturalist's Corner

North Carolina’s loss – Louisiana’s gain

Chris Canfield has stepped down as executive director of Audubon North Carolina to assume the position of vice president for Gulf of Mexico Conservation and Restoration. Canfield took the helm at Audubon North Carolina in 2000 and during his 10-year tenure the organization has grown in scope and stature to become one of the premier conservation/environmental organizations in the state – its influence reaching from the mountains to the sea.

Canfield was awarded National Audubon’s Charles H. Callison Award in 2009 for his outstanding leadership and service. John Flicker, then National Audubon president, noted, “He [Canfield] has made Audubon North Carolina a model for Audubon’s state programs nationwide.”

Some of Audubon North Carolina’s accomplishments under Canfield’s watch include spearheading a grassroots coalition to stop the U.S. Navy from building an airfield adjacent to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge; working to improve natural resource management at Cape Hatteras National Seashore; implementing a statewide Important Bird Area program that includes four million acres at 96 sites across the state and helping, with partners, to establish North Carolina’s Birding Trail that stretches from the Outer Banks, across the Piedmont to the peaks of Western North Carolina.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done in North Carolina,” Canfield said. He noted that it was especially rewarding to work with local Audubon chapters, individuals, groups and agencies across the state. Canfield saw North Carolina’s IBA program as a way to assimilate, enhance, expand and incorporate different natural resource goals and land ethics into an overarching conservation initiative that could simultaneously meet a myriad of ecological and environmental needs. “And I believe it’s as good a model as any out there,” he said.

Canfield’s new position was not on any Audubon job board and Canfield did not apply for it. “At the (Audubon NC) annual meeting in Highlands, I spoke from my heart about the oil spill and the environmental impacts along the Gulf Coast,” Canfield said. “Next thing I know, I got a call from Audubon headquarters in New York saying we want you to coordinate the work going on in the Gulf.

“It threw me, at first. I thought, uh-oh, the universe is calling my bluff. But,” he said, “I have Tabasco in my soul,” referring to the fact that he was born in Baton Rouge and spent the first 20 years of his life in Louisiana and south Alabama.

Canfield toured the area with National Audubon president David Yarnold and said, “I am humbled by the work going on in the Gulf and what I’ve been asked to oversee.”

The position is a work in progress. “There’s a lot, yet, to be figured out,” Canfield said. “There’s a lot of great work going on along the Gulf from Texas to Florida, and it’ll be my job to codify and coordinate all these parts to create an in-depth program to benefit the entire region.

“We know how to deal with oil on a beach. But we don’t know what the long-term impacts could be.”

Canfield said that BP should step up and do more to assist in restoration in the Gulf. He said it would be part of his job to figure out how to work with the myriad oil and energy companies that are as much a part of the gumbo of Gulf coastal life as the marshes and estuaries they drill in. “We know we can do it better,” he said.

My North Carolina mountain heart will miss Chris, but the Tabasco in my Louisiana soul welcomes him home.

The Naturalist's Corner

Panther Top fire tower

My family spent a wonderful sunny Sunday afternoon this week in the Tusquitee Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest just west of Murphy.

Our first stop was the Panther Top Lookout tower on Forest Service Road 85. The 30-foot high former live-in tower was constructed in 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Panther Top is the western-most fire tower in the state.

Its 2,293 feet elevation will fool you. In fact when we arrived at the summit, Denise remarked, “It’s like we’re at the top of the world.” The illusion is created because you are overlooking low-lying valleys all around with mountains in the distant background.

I’ve been doing spring bird-point counts for the Forest Service in the Tusquitee District for four years now and almost every fall I get back for an afternoon to look for migrating raptors simply because there are a couple of places where you can see lots of sky.

In the past I have focused my attention on the north end of the Beech Creek Seed Orchard. And each trip has resulted in a few migrants. I believe the biggest day was between 30 and 40 broad-winged hawks and three bald eagles.

This trip I decided to scope out the fire tower. After about 20 minutes I caught a bald eagle that was already south of the tower and watched as it continued to track to the south-southwest. It was probably another half-hour of scanning the skies, watching little girls gambol on the grassy knob and tracking butterflies that danced over the bald (a couple of monarchs, some sulphurs and great-spangled fritillaries and two black swallowtails) before I found two more black specks through the binoculars. These were so far in the distance that I couldn’t find them without the bins.

But as I watched them circle and glide they came nearer and nearer till we could make them out with the naked eye and soon there were five broad-wings that lazily circled and then streamed off to the southwest.

Soon after the hawks another mature bald eagle appeared, and as it circled the sun sparkled brilliant-white from its head and tail. I lost this bird and don’t know if it was migrating or checking out the draw-down Hiwassee Reservoir for a meal.

We left the fire tower and went to a spot where there is a colony of redheaded woodpeckers. We played a tape and soon three redheaded woodpeckers were over the truck checking us out.

It was getting late for migrants, around 5 p.m., when we left the woodpeckers and made one last stop in the seed orchard. We didn’t add any raptors to our list but did see one more migrant monarch and one bright, fresh Gulf fritillary.

All in all a wonderful Sunday afternoon.

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