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Naturalist's Corner

One less whooper

Cayuga, Ind. – Wildlife Officials announce arrest.

Enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources have announced the arrest of a suspect in the recent shooting of a federally endangered whooping crane.

USF&W agent D. Doright told reporters, “This big hairy dufous just walked into our command center and said, ‘I want my bird back.’”

Wildlife and Fisheries along with Indiana DNR had set up a command center in rural Indiana, near Cayuga (pronounced REDDDNECKKK) after the discovery, Dec. 1, of the body of crane #217. One of only 500 whoopers left in the world.

The alleged perpetrator, Sas Quatch, a large, hairy, humanoid, said by locals to live in, “a large, manmade burrow” near the Chew Lake Dam turned himself in to authorities Wednesday, Dec. 16.

“I don’t know what the big deal is,” Quatch said. “There’re at least 500 of those big squawkers out there, which is amazing considering the way you bare-ones have mucked the place up. That’s more than double the number of all of my tribe.”

When officer Doright asked Quatch why he left the scene of the crime, Quatch replied, “ Duuhhh! The squawker had a transmitter on ‘im. That means one of you tweebs ain’t far behind.”

“Did you know it was a, uh, squawker, when you shot it?” Doright asked.

“Jeezz man! Look at it! It’s a friggin five-foot tall white bird. Whadddaa you think it is?” replied Quatch.

“Why did you shoot it?” asked Doright.

“Ta eat, ya hillbilly,” Quatch said.

“Why did you want to eat a whoo – I mean, squawker?”

“Well, I got an email from a cousin out in Texas. He said he understood a flock of squawkers had been established out here and that I had to try one. He said they tasted like ivory-bills and as big as they were, you’d have leftovers for a week.”

“You eat ivory-bills?!!”

“Man, I’m not talking to you anymore. My lawyer is on the way. What are you looking at? Oh, sure, cavemen can do commercials but I can’t have a lawyer?”

Quatch refused further comment but Scuzz Howe of the law firm Dewey, Stickum and Howe read a short statement.

“Our client, Mr. S. Quatch was clearly within his rights as an aboriginal hunter to take this animal for sustenance. Sadly, at this point in time, in our society, it’s not like Mr. Quatch could walk into a supermarket and buy a turkey.”

“If the stomach growls, you gotta prowl,” Howe said.

The Naturalist's Corner

Junaluska waterfowl are plentiful, varied

A quick turn around Lake Junaluska last Sunday revealed 13 species of waterfowl and/or wetland birds. This tiny (200-acre) clear dot nestled at 2,500 feet in the highest county east of the Mississippi River must call out to migrants seeking passage through the mountains. It will consistently turn up a dozen or more species of waterfowl from now through early spring.

The trip also pointed out how quickly birders, like myself, become jaded. That Sunday I was commiserating with a couple of other regular Junaluska birders about how “not much was going on at the lake,” that morning. But when I looked at the list a little more objectively, I realized it was a pretty diverse list. It included belted kingfisher, American coot, pied-billed grebe, double-crested cormorant, ring-billed gull, bufflehead, hooded merganser, lesser scaup and others.

I remembered having seen some postings from Stephan Pagans, a birder I know from Monroe, La., on the Birdmail listserv. The postings were from a couple of surveys along a large impoundment, D’Arbonne Lake, in north-central Louisiana. When I combined the waterfowl and wetland species from Pagans’ two stops, I tallied 11 species. Nine of the 11 were present at lake Junaluska last Sunday. The two species Pagans had that were not at Junaluska were gadwall and great egret. Both species have been recorded at Junaluska and gadwalls will be present sometime between now and spring.

That little bit of species sleuthing led me to refer to another list. I have a list of birds from Lake Junaluska prepared a few years back by Jonathan Mays before he left the area for the Great North Woods of Maine. That list, which may not even be current now, has 68 species of waterfowl, waders and kingfishers from this tiny mountain lake.

The list, which was years in the making, includes a number of rarities/oddities for a small inland lake including brown and white pelican, Ross’s goose, cackling goose, surf scoter, white-winged scoter, black scoter, willet, laughing gull, Sabine’s gull and Caspian, common, Forster’s and black tern.

The waterfowl at Junaluska will ebb and flow as fronts come and go this winter. One day in December of 2000 turned up more than 500 different waterfowl and waders composed of at least 20 different species. So if you start jonesing for waterfowl this winter before you pack the car and head for the coast, take a drive around Junaluska, you might be pleasantly surprised.

The Naturalist's Corner

Tessentee birds

Bob Olthoff and I took advantage of last Sunday’s (Nov. 29) Indian Summer weather for a couple of hours of birding at the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee’s Tessentee Bottomland Preserve (formerly Tessentee Farm). Not only was the weather cooperative, the birds were, too. We spent about two hours on the trails that ramble through the different habitats (pine/oak forest, canebrakes, wetlands and red cedar savannah) of the Preserve and recorded 36 species.

The 36 species were all birds that one would expect to find overwintering at Tessentee; however, high numbers of two particular species seems to suggest that the balmy November weather has been conducive to lingering migrants. We were pleasantly surprised at the number of fox sparrows. After encountering seven or eight, we quit counting individuals, but they were seen and/or heard throughout the wetlands, canebrakes and forest edges. A conservative estimate would be high teens. The loud, smacking chip note seemed to emanate from almost every tangle we investigated, and we even heard them occasionally breaking out into song across the Preserve. The eastern, or red fox sparrow is a large handsome sparrow with a gray crown and nape, rufous cheek patch, rufous rump and tail, and large rufous spots on its breast and flanks.

We also encountered at least seven or eight hermit thrushes. Most views were glimpses of a spotted breast and a rufous tail twitching through the leaves and brambles but we did, finally, have one pop up and give good looks.

As I mentioned before, these are both species I would expect to find overwintering at Tessentee. But even on a good day, it’s unusual to find more than one or two of each. It was cool to see them in such numbers — and lagniappe to hear them singing.

Tessentee Bottomland Preserve is site number 53 in the North Carolina Birding Trail’s Mountain Guide. I believe the checklist for the Preserve is presently at 116 species. To get to Tessentee Bottomland Preserve take Riverside Road off US 23/441, 5.2 miles south of Franklin. Follow Riverside for 0.5 miles to its end. Turn right on Hickory Knoll Road and follow it for 1.8 miles. Turn right at 2249 Hickory Knoll Road. There is a sign on Hickory Knoll Road indicating Tessentee Bottomland Preserve; the red farm gate to the left is the entrance to the property. If you’re a birder and would like to spend more time recording species at Tessentee and/or other Land Trust for the Little Tennessee properties and/or the Franklin Greenway, contact Dennis Desmond, land stewardship director for LTLT at 828.524.2711, ext. 205 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Also, if you would like to help enlarge, enhance and protect the integrity of Tessentee Bottomland Preserve, LTLT is looking for tax-deductible donations to help purchase 5.5 acres adjacent to the Preserve, along Tessentee Creek. Please contact Kate Parkerson at 828.524.2711, ext. 203 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Naturalist's Corner

The omnibus stops here

Reliable, undisclosed anonymous sources tell this reporter that the Fiscal year 2010 Omnibus Bill expected to be signed in a couple of weeks will seal the deal on the North Shore Road to Nowhere. The bill will allegedly include a cash settlement for Swain County.

The deal was first thought to be sealed in 1943 when the Bryson City Times reported, “The National Park Service says that as soon as money is made available after the war it will build a modern highway along the shores of Fontana Lake connecting Bryson City with the TVA access highway at Fontana Dam, making it a through highway to Deal’s Gap 50 miles west of here. Anyone with the smallest amount of imagination can visualize what a road of this kind will mean to Bryson City ... When this highway is built by the Park Service, the developments inaugurated, and we feel confidently they will be soon after the war, then there is nothing that can keep Bryson City from becoming the tourist center of Eastern America ....”

However, imagination and visualization weren’t enough to loosen federal purse strings and the weeds grew through the streets of Proctor, Pilkey, Judson and other North Shore communities.

As the ire grew in Swain County, there were fits and starts of construction. In 1959, the state of North Carolina fulfilled its road-building obligation by constructing 2.67 miles of highway from Bryson city to the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and there the road ended.

Now this would have been a good time for some high-powered marketing spin and Swain County could have had a Road to the Park. Instead, the road languished again, until the Park Service picked up its picks and shovels and from 1963 to 1971, constructed six more miles of road before running into the infamous anakeesta rock and declaring: that’s it, this road ain’t going nowhere, leaving us with the time-honored Road to Nowhere moniker. Not to mention a really cool tunnel.

After more fits, there was another start at construction back in 2000 when then Rep. Charles Taylor and then Sen. Jesse Helms appropriated $16 million for construction of the North Shore Road. Even though the $16 million was about $550 million short of the estimated cost of such a road, the appropriation spurred some Swain County residents to action.

The Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County was created in 2001. Although totally lacking in acronym-imagination, the CEFSC did strike a chord with many Swain County residents and environmental groups with its proposal for a cash settlement in lieu of the improbable North Shore Road. Through some mathematical calisthenics the group came up with a settlement figure of $52 million.

When asked if the omnibus figure contained any fives or twos the reliable, anonymous source only smiled and said s/he was confident that settlement advocates would be “pleased” with the figure.

Stay tuned for a flurry of press releases.

The Naturalist's Corner

The hunter is back

Orion the hunter, one of the most noted and most recognizable constellations in the heavens is once again gaining prominence in the Northern Hemisphere. The hunter begins stalking the eastern skies around 8:30 p.m. and will be with us, though rising later and later, till he slips into the morning sky next April.

Astronomers believe Orion, as we know him, is more than one million years old and will be with us for one to two million years more. Orion’s sword gleams with another one of the night’s treasures.

This bluish dazzle, observable with the naked eye is the Orion nebulae, an interstellar cloud of cosmic gas and dust. A good pair of 10X binoculars and a dark night can provide a pretty impressive look at the Orion nebulae. Jupiter also dances brightly in the November sky. It is the brightest point of light in the southern sky. With binoculars, you will likely be able to pick out one or more of this giant planet’s larger moons.

Binoculars can also help you get a good view of the Seven Sisters. The Seven Sisters or Pleiades is a small dipper-shaped star cluster that will be with us all winter. If you draw an imaginary line through Orion’s belt from the southeast to the northwest it will point to a bright star – Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the bull. Just beyond Aldebaran are the Pleiades; they mark the bull’s shoulder. The Pleiades, like Orion, will be with us till April, but they are especially prominent in November when they glow from dusk till dawn.

While this cluster is known as the Seven Sisters, most people will only make out six stars in the dipper, with the unaided eye. Many more stars will come into focus through binoculars. There are more than 100 stars in this cluster. Astronomers believe all the stars in the Pleiades cluster originated from the same cloud of dust and gas more than 100 million years ago.

The Pleiades are out there. The gravitational-bound cluster is more than 430 light-years from Earth. They blaze through the firmament at 25 miles per second.

Another open cluster of stars prominent in the November sky is the Hyades Star Cluster. If you find Aldebaran, you’ve found the Hyades, even though Aldebaran is actually not part of the cluster. It is actually in front of, or nearer to the Earth, than the Hyades. There are about 200 stars in the Hyades cluster. About a dozen are visible to the naked eye, and they mark the head of Taurus.

If you’re reading this on Wednesday, Nov. 25, grab your binoculars and get outside before the waxing moon becomes full on December 1 and puts a golden damper on searching for night objects.

The Naturalist's Corner

I wanna go home with the armadillo

When you’re stuck in one place for 12 hours at a time, a lot of weird stuff goes through your head. The other night at work, the refrain, “I wanna go home with the armadillo,” from Texas troubadour Gary P. Nunn’s classic “London Homesick Blues” crept in and would not dislodge.

Twelve hours of “armadillo” brought back lots of Louisiana memories. The little roly-poly, weird looking, armor-plated nine-banded armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus, was a ubiquitous feature of the landscape of northeast Louisiana where I grew up. It was found from forest to farm and from bayou bank to backyard, much like Western North Carolina’s whistle pig.

At the little tarpaper camp on Horseshoe Lake where much of my misspent youth was spent, armadillos were a regular spring feature. Each spring, right after mamma skunk and all her little stinkers vacated, the armadillo would move in and raise her family.

Besides being cute, baby nine-banded armadillos are unique in the world of mammals. They are the only mammals that give birth to genetically identical quadruplets each and every litter.

Unfortunately for the armadillo, this is one feature that paints a big red bull’s eye on its shell for collectors for animal labs. Genetically identical specimens are ideal for tests that require consistent genetic makeup. Another trait that makes armadillos favored lab specimens is the fact that they are one of the few known, non-human, species that can contract leprosy systemically.

But as a 9- to 12-year-old kid, my attraction to armadillos was less intellectual and much more visceral — they were just loads of fun. Armadillos have rather poor senses of smell and vision and are generally quite distracted when they are busy snuffling and shuffling around for food. This is even more apparent with youngsters, making them relatively easy to sneak up on.

Once you sneak up on them — then the fun starts. Armadillos have a habit of launching themselves vertically, about two-three feet off the ground when startled. This is a definite no-no where autos are concerned and probably the reason that road-kill is most people’s initial contact with armadillos. Where other animals like chipmunks, possums, etc., have a tendency to hunker down when suddenly surprised by a half ton of plastic and metal hurtling along at 70 m.p.h., armadillos pop right up. But in the woods, they just grunt, bounce up, hit the ground, run a couple of yards and start foraging again. What better way for a bored 10-year-old to amuse himself than by following a troupe of armadillos around in the woods, goosing them?

I remember the first time I learned, incredulously, that armadillos are adept swimmers. A friend and I were cruising the back roads of Morehouse Parish one day and encountered an armadillo on a bridge crossing Bayou Bonne Idee. I stopped and let my friend out on one end of the bridge, drove to the other end and got out. We had the critter cornered. But as we approached, the armadillo stood up on its hind legs, sniffed and launched itself into the Bonne Idée below, where it splashed down, bobbed up and paddled ashore.

The nine-banded armadillo is found from Central America into the southeastern United States and is increasing its range northward.

While I found no records from North Carolina, the armadillo has made it to The Land Between the Lakes in Tennessee-Kentucky and can be found in Georgia and South Carolina. It is probably only a matter of time before it makes its way to coastal and/or Piedmont North Carolina.

The beetles' fall tour

No, not the Fab Four — more like the Fab Gazillion. Swarms of thousands to perhaps hundreds of thousands of Asian lady beetles, Harmonia axyridis, (those cute little ladybugs) are coming, not to a location near you, but to your location.

This tiny bug has a penchant for swarming in the fall looking for good overwintering sites. Across Asia from Siberia to Japan, those sites are mostly mountainsides, cliffs and rock outcroppings. Here in the good ole’ U.S. of A., those sites are too often homes, businesses and/or other man-made structures.

We will probably never learn our lesson bout messin’ with Mother Nature. Asian lady beetles were brought to this country in the late 1800s to early 1900s as biological control agents targeting pests like aphids and others. It seems it took the Asian beetle a little while to get established. The first established population was recorded in Louisiana in 1988. Since then they have spread across the U.S. reaching Canada in 1994.

When I first researched these little buggers back in 2001, I spoke with Jim Costa, professor and entomologist (we can now add author and director of Highlands Biological Station to his titles) at Western Carolina University. Costa noted that these ladybugs emit an aggregating pheromone in the fall. This pheromone is not especially intense but its effectiveness is multiplied by numbers. The bigger the swarm, the smellier the brew.

Homeowners are likely to first notice ladybugs on the outside of their home, flitting around windows or doorways or crawling on outside walls. But unless your home is airtight it is only a matter of time before you notice that spot on the wall above the kitchen window is moving.

What to do? If you consider exterior pesticide application by a professional pest control company, here are some things to think about. If you spray too early, the insecticide is not effective when the beetles arrive. If you wait until they arrive, many will make it into interior spaces and the spray will be ineffective. And, of course, you are increasing the toxin level around your home.

Interior application is even trickier. These little bugs are hard-nosed and hard shelled. They must be sprayed directly or crawl across treated surfaces for the insecticide to be successful. Once again, this increases toxin levels, and now, it’s inside your home.

One way to deal with ladybugs inside your home is to vacuum them. For those with a soft spot for these cute beneficial creatures, a handkerchief can be placed between the vacuum hose and the dust collection bag or area and the ladybugs can be trapped and relocated.

Whatever you do, you don’t want to agitate or squash these critters. This triggers a defensive reaction known as reflex bleeding. The ladybug emits a foul smelling, foul tasting (if you’re a predator) fluid that can stain walls and/or fabrics.

The Naturalist's Corner

It’s 11 p.m. – do you know where your wood thrush is?

“Hello, Ms. Stutchbury, this is OnStar. Your wood thrush that is supposed to be on its way to Mexico is actually in New Orleans.”

It’s really not as simple as that, but technology is beginning to fill in more blanks regarding avian migration. York University professor Bridget Stutchbury and her researchers are outfitting wood thrushes and purple martins with tiny (1.5 gram) geolocator backpacks in order to track their entire migration cycle from Pennsylvania to South America and back.

These dime-sized backpacks are held in place at the base of the bird’s spine by thin straps looped around its legs. According to Stutchbury, the backpacks do not interfere with flight nor the bird’s regular routine and/or habits. The geolocators record light levels. Researchers can analyze the light data and estimate the bird’s latitude and longitude to within 180 miles at any given time.

At first glance, plus or minus 180 miles may 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.

Plus I can assure you that, as we speak, techno-geeks somewhere are sipping lattes and devising ways to enhance the accuracy of these devices. It’s what they do.

Stutchbury and her researchers outfitted 14 wood thrushes and 20 purple martins with backpacks on their nesting grounds in Pennsylvania in 2007. In the summer of 2008, they recovered backpacks from five wood thrushes and two purple martins.

As is so often the case in the natural world, documentable facts prove that animals are even more extraordinary than we assumed.

Earlier migration studies estimated flight performance of migrants at around 95 miles per day. Stutchbury’s birds blew that assumption out of the water by winging more than 300 miles in a single day.

The study, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, indicates that fall migration is a more leisurely event than spring migration. According to researchers four wood thrushes spent from one to two weeks in the southeastern U.S. before crossing the Gulf of Mexico. A group of purple martins took around a month’s respite on the Yucatan Peninsula before heading on to Brazil.

Perhaps it’s that eons old biological urge to merge, but whatever the reason, spring migration back to breeding grounds is much more rapid and direct. One purple martin that sauntered down to Brazil in 43 days returned to its breeding colony in Pennsylvania in a blistering 13 days, averaging more than 300 miles per day.

This groundbreaking research has a myriad of applications. Songbird populations have been declining for decades, according to Stutchbury in a recent Science Daily article, “Tracking birds to their wintering areas is also essential for predicting the impact of tropical habitat loss and climate change. Until now, our hands have been tied in many ways, because we didn’t know where the birds were going. They would just disappear and then come back in the spring. It’s wonderful to now have a window into their journey.”

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

The rush to be green is making me blue

Let’s see, automakers can get CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) credits for making gas guzzlers like Chevy’s suburban that can run on ethanol. That way they can rate one of those gas-guzzlers that gets 13 mpg at 23 mpg.

Oh, and say goodbye to roasting ears. If we’re gonna get the congressionally mandated amount of ethanol (36 billion gallons) by 2022, it will take all the corn grown in the U.S. today. And not to be outdone, Indonesia and Central and South American countries are losing around a football field a minute of rainforest to biofuel production.

Here in Western North Carolina, wind energy proponents want you to believe they can create 1,000 MW (megawatts) of electricity by scratching out, in an environmentally sensitive way, of course, an acre here and an acre there along our ridgetops to place giant, 20-story high wind turbines. They know the fallacy of that scenario because they understand the jargon. The 1,000 MWs is wind-speak for “rated capacity.” The actual electricity produced (capacity factor) from 1,000 MW of wind-speak is around 300 MW. So if you wanted to produce 1,000 MW of real, usable electricity you would have to scratch out three times as much ridgetop.

The newest green rush is blue light. LED (light emitting diode) lighting is widely touted as the newest greenest energy saver when it comes to all your lighting needs. The problem, according to the International Dark-Sky Association, is that LEDs are blue. In a recent press release, IDA pointed out some of the drawbacks of using LEDs for outdoor lighting.

“The rapidly expanding use of bluish-white outdoor lighting threatens visibility at night and jeopardizes the nocturnal environment worldwide. This surge is fueled by the promise of energy savings and reduced lighting maintenance ... Unfortunately, bluish light produces high levels of light pollution with significant environmental impact. These lights are known to increase glare and compromise human vision, especially in the aging eye. Short wavelength light also increases sky glow disproportionately. In addition, blue light has a greater tendency to affect living organisms through disruption of their biological processes that rely upon natural cycles of daylight and darkness, such as the circadian rhythm. For only a modest improvement in outdoor lighting efficiency, these new sources dramatically escalate the environmental damage caused by artificial lighting.”

I can see it all now. My daughter Izzy’s daughter is getting ready for a family outing to the great outdoors. She loads everyone up in the nice roomy ethanol burning SUV. It’s twilight and the LEDs are just beginning to produce a beautiful blue glow across the horizon. They trek out through the vast cornfields till they come to a wide paved road that seems to follow roadside transmission lines up to a nice cleared ridgetop. There they sit and watch the bluish light reflect off the bright white blades of the magnificent wind turbine and revel in the seemingly inexhaustible beauty of the natural world.

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

Slogging through the watershed

It was dark, 39 degrees and a steady light drizzle when I walked from the house to my truck last Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m. By the time I got to town, the rain had stopped, and when I arrived at the treatment plant at Waynesville’s watershed, there were five brave souls huddled in the dark under the eave of the building waiting for me.

The last email I had received from assistant town manager Alison Melnikova said that 14 people had signed up for the short birding excursion before the annual fall watershed hike. I was surprised to see that nearly half had showed up under conditions that would have had many seasoned birders turning off their alarms and rolling back under the covers.

As we were trying to figure out logistics, Alison showed up in a town 15-passenger van. We all piled in the van and drove a mile or so into the watershed. The wind was steady and the rain was intermittent. We decided to keep Alison and the van nearby in case the rain became steady.

As one might expect on a cold, windy, rainy mid-October morning, it was pretty quiet up in the watershed. We had Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice around us at just about every stop we made on our way back down to the dam. We also heard a tom turkey gobble and we saw crows, an unidentified accipiter — either a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, a yellow-bellied sapsucker and heard blue jays.

At the dam around 8:30 a.m. we found a small flock of palm warblers and some ruby-crowned kinglets. We walked out on the dam. All the reservoir yielded — other than beautiful views of the mountains through wispy tatters of fog — was a pied-billed grebe and a belted kingfisher.

The 9 o’clock hikers were arriving down at the treatment plant and since some of the birders had signed up for both hikes, we decided to walk down and join them. But when we got to the intersection of the main road down to the plant and the spur road across the dam, we ran into a flurry of activity. We found a scattered, jumbled up mixed flock of migrants. There were rose-breasted grosbeaks, Swainson’s thrush, wood thrush, blue-headed vireo, gray catbird, Tennessee warbler, palm warbler, eastern phoebe and more. Before we could sort through everything, the 9 o’clock hikers were headed up the road into the watershed.

We walked down to the plant. I thought we had a respectable morning considering conditions and time birded. We finished the morning with just over 20 species. A couple of the birders peeled off, headed for hot coffee and drier climes. The rest jumped in my truck and we headed back to join the other hikers.

While conditions were damp, hikers’ spirits weren’t dampened and most reveled in the snow we encountered at around 4,000 feet. I didn’t do a head count but estimated that there must have been around 30 hikers, a really good number considering the conditions.

Remember to keep an eye on Waynesville’s Web site for information regarding next spring’s hike.

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

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