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The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has renewed its commitment to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s inquiry-based, hands-on science education programs. That is music to this tone deaf naturalist’s ears.

Step out on the deck with your morning coffee or pause in the yard for a moment after you strap the kids in the car for the ride to school and listen.

Yep, those are birds singing. Chickadees, tufted titmouses, cardinals, towhees, song sparrows, mourning doves and robins are all in full voice in my yard.

Around 8 a.m. last Sunday (Feb. 26), my wife and I backed out of the driveway and headed to Clyde’s restaurant so my daughter Izzy could have a pancake for breakfast. It was around 19 degrees. On the side of the driveway, in clumps, slender green fingers were clawing through the brownish-gray leaf litter. Daffodil leaves were reaching for the cold sunlight shining through the bare limbs of the trees.

We were leaving Monroe, La., just after dawn last Sunday, Feb. 19. We crossed over a small levee and dam on Bayou Desiard. There, strung out down the bayou like a flotilla, were 100 or more double-crested cormorants. When I was growing up in northeastern Louisiana, cormorants were either absent or extremely rare. But today these large fish eaters are expanding and/or reclaiming their territory at an alarming rate.

The guns of winter

There was a blast from Vice President Dick Cheney’s 28-gauge shotgun — a gun, by the way, that one Web site touts as “...just right for petite shooters” — and lawyer Harry Whittington was down.

One of my daughter Izzy’s favorite videos is “Little Bear’s Winter Tales.” She likes the episode with the blizzard. The mantra for the characters becomes, “Whether the weather is hot or whether the weather is cold, we’ll weather the weather whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.” It seems like an appropriate mantra for Western North Carolina.

Cornell University and the ivory-billed woodpecker have been inextricably linked since the announcement in 2005 of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed in the Big Woods of Arkansas. Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) has embraced that link. It’s featured prominently on its Web site — the last time I checked, it was the most visited segment — and in their solicitations. There is also a bit of an undercurrent out there of skeptics (including me) who feel that Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not provided an airtight case for its claims. Regardless of where you stand on that issue, there is more to CLO than just ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Winter is a great time for studying tree identification. The mountains look steel-gray from a distance. The forest, up close, is a study in muted earth tones. There’s bark, smooth grey bark, scaly, nearly black bark, fissured gray bark and papery yellow bark to name a few. There are terminal buds, auxiliary buds and lateral buds. Twigs may be hairy (pubescent) or smooth (glabrous). By learning these characters and characteristics, you can turn a winter forest of cold gray and brown timbers into a living forest of black cherry, red maple, basswood, mockernut hickory, Southern red oak, Northern red oak, etc.

The Carolina Field birders, friends and volunteers conducted their fourth annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count on Thursday, Dec. 29.

A wintry mix

Christmas Day brought showers interrupted by buckets full of sleet. Sometime late Christmas night or before dawn the next morning, a dusting of snow covered the lawn. Winter precipitation is often a mix in the eastern United States. Sleet and freezing rain are almost exclusively eastern phenomena.

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