Birders are a restless, impatient lot. From the end of June till the end of August they walk around in a kind of stupor. You will see them occasionally stop shuffling, cock their head with hand cupped behind their ear, mutter “wren” and shuffle on, or suddenly, reflexively jerk their head upwards as the shadow of a pipevine swallowtail dances on the path beneath their feet.
Then, late August comes and imperceptibly, at first, the afternoon and evening light begins to shift hues as we wobble out of the sun’s direct glare. The wind has a different feel and a different smell; birders’ gaits quicken and lighten and binoculars are dusted off and stashed in the car or left out on the kitchen table. Migration is coming!
Some of the earliest migrants are shorebirds. I think it was Peter Matthiessen who coined the term “wind birds” in reference to shorebirds in his 1967 book The Wind Birds.
“The restlessness of shorebirds, their kinship with the distance and swift seasons, the wistful signal of their voices down the long coastlines of the world make them, for me, the most affecting of wild creatures. I think of them as birds of wind, “as wind birds.”
And wind birds can cover great distances in a short time and sometimes wind up in odd places.
And what better to stir the blood of WNC birders and jolt them from their summer doldrums than to have one appear magically on the green turf of Hooper Lane’s Super Sod farm, as if conjured from the wind itself – a long-billed curlew.
The long-billed curlew is a large (raven-sized) shorebird with a long (up to eight inches in adults, shorter in juveniles) decurved bill. The long-billed curlew is cinnamon to tawny-brown above and buff-colored below. It nests on high plains from southwest Canada to the northwestern U.S., across the plains states, down to the Texas panhandle. Most of the population winters from the southwestern U.S. to Central America. A few make it to the East Coast each fall and winter.
But according to Harry LeGrand, chair of the North Carolina Bird Records Committee, the Hooper Lane bird would be the first-ever documented record of an inland long-billed curlew in the state. And according to Catawba park ranger Dwayne Martin of Hickory, who couldn’t resist temptation, the curlew was still present at Hooper Lane as of Monday, Aug. 30, at 6:30 p.m.
To get to Hooper Lane, take the Asheville Airport exit (exit 40) off of I-26. Go west on N.C. 280 approximately 4 miles to a traffic light at the intersection of N.C. 191. Turn left, travel approximately 1/2 mile, turn left onto Jefferies Road. Continue about 2 miles and Hooper Lane is on the right. The bird was last reported from the field near the intersection of Hooper and Jefferies.
If you go, please remember to stay on the gravel road or on the edge of the field. Super Sod has been quite birder-friendly over the years, all they ask is that you do not walk or drive on the sod fields, do not block gates and park only along Hooper or Jefferies, not on any of their turn-rows!
A week or so ago White House energy adviser Carol Browner was hitting the morning TV circuit, telling anyone who would listen that the majority of the more than 200 million gallons of crude that gushered into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Deepwater Horizon blow out on April 20 was gone. According to Browner, 75 percent of the oil had been captured, burned, evaporated or broken down by natural environmental processes.
It’s long been understood that the Gulf is quite resilient when it comes to oil and other hydrocarbons. After all, there have always been seeps along the Gulf floor where hydrocarbons bubble up and escape. And since the beginning of the offshore boom there have been leaks and accidents.
Today — with more than 600 platforms and more than 30,000 miles of pipeline in the Gulf — leaked oil is not hard to find. And the warm fecund waters of the Gulf apparently produce a plethora of oil-gobbling microbes. And crude is water-soluble. Just the expanse of the Gulf and the motion of the ocean help dilute and disperse the oil.
But how gone is gone? Remember, we’re talking about BP and government estimates. They told us in late April that — gasp — 1,000 barrels a day were leaking into the Gulf. After they went back and sharpened their pencils, they admitted that was a slightly low estimate – and it was more like 40,000 barrels or more per day. They also told us, initially, that there was no underwater oil because oil rose to the surface. But discoveries by researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of South Florida and others of huge undersea plumes of oil that could be traced back to the Deepwater site made them recant those statements as well.
Apparently there are no more huge slicks sliding around on the surface of the Gulf and that is, indeed, a good thing. But the status and/or effects of those undersea plumes, where cooler temperatures and fewer microbes could mean a longer shelf life for the oil, are still to be determined.
And Browner failed to mention that the 25 percent of oil unaccounted for in that report is more than 10 times the total volume of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. If BP and government officials are having trouble finding oil, I’m sure Louisiana coastal residents could help them out.
Drew Wheelan, American Birding Association’s conservation coordinator, did a fly over of coastal Louisiana in early August. “In the last four days I have seen more oil, by volume, than I had previously in my entire first 11 weeks here in Louisiana,” reported Wheelan.
Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge near Grand Isle was one of the first places impacted by the oil spill. Oil washed ashore as early as mid May. On Aug. 13 Wheelan noted, “This oil on Elmer’s Island has been there since the very first days that the oil hit, somewhere around May 20. From the air, it is very apparent that they have just begun to scrape some oil out of the northwest corner of the deposit. This oil has been there for literally two and a half months without effort to pick it up.”
There were also reports of oil onshore last week from Pelican Island, Oyster Bayou, Bayou De West and many other locations. Plus slicks near South Pass and North Pass at the mouth of the Mississippi.
The well is not leaking at the moment and the oil in the Gulf is being diluted and/or dispersed and both of those are really, really good things. But there is a lot of oil left in the environment, especially in coastal Louisiana, and there are a lot of unanswered questions regarding the fate of those undersea plumes. I wouldn’t raise any “mission accomplished” banners just yet.
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do cause there ain’t enough time for all the summertime blues. And by blues I mean all those wonderful summer wildflowers that run the gamut from lavender to blue to violet and purple.
Joe-pye, Eupatorium maculatum, is raising his regal pale purple head along road shoulders, in fields and from almost any conceivable opening now. This large aster may grow to a height of 15 feet and the flowering inflorescence can be more than a foot high and a foot across. In summers past, I’ve seen beautiful stands of Joe-pye intermingled with the rich purple New York ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, in the open area at the intersection of Raccoon Road and U.S. 276.
Tall bellflower, Campanula americana, is another robust blue wildflower blooming now. The beautiful blue flower is an inch or so across and the protruding style turns up sharply at the end. It is pretty widespread across Western North Carolina and can be found along the Blue Ridge Parkway around the Waynesville Overlook.
The Parkway is a great place for summertime blues. Heintooga Spur Road and the Flat Creek Trail from Heintooga Picnic area offer a wide variety of summer wildflowers. Some of the blues to see there include obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, which can be found along Heintooga Road. Obedient plant got its name because if you take your finger and gently push the corolla to one side or the other it will, obediently, remain in its new position.
Stiff gentian, Gentianella quinquefolia, a small purple wildflower with a closed corolla may also be found along Heintooga Road as well as numerous places along the Parkway, especially the road shoulders around Richland Balsam.
An especially striking summertime blue is monkshood, Aconitum uncinatum. The plant can grow 2 to 4 feet tall and the blue to purplish-blue, rounded, hood-shaped flowers are clustered at the end of the stem. One of the most reliable places I know of to fine monkshood is along the Flat Creek Trail.
I have also found turtlehead, Chelone lyonii, along Flat Creek Trail. Turtlehead also has a somewhat closed lavender-purple corolla. I think these closed corollas invite bees and other pollinators to crawl in and roll around, insuring they will collect lots of pollen. Devils Courthouse trail is another good place for turtlehead.
And as long as we are talking hoods and heads it may be a good time to mention skullcap, Scutellaria incana. Skullcap grows to about three feet tall. It has square stems and opposite leaves. The lavender to purplish-blue flowers are clustered in racemes at the end of the stem. The upper part of the corolla is hood-like while the lower lip is larger and wider and there is a conspicuous patch of white near the throat of the flower. It is common along the shoulder of the Parkway.
It’s not spring, but it’s clearly not too late for a wildflower pilgrimage. In fact the wildflower show in Western North Carolina is far from over. Grab a hand lens and a field guide and get outside and revel in the summertime blues.
Toni Mullany of Waynesville sent me an email the other day noting a guest scoping out her phlox. She described the critter thusly: “It is about the size of a large bumblebee. It is all black. It has furry head and a large proboscis. Its movements are rather slow. There is usually a pair. It seems to be a cross between a butterfly and a bumblebee drawn by Dr. Seuss or a very creative 6 year old.” And I believe that is about as good a description as one could give in reference to the hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe.
Hemaris thysbe is in the family Sphingidae or sphinx moths. The hummingbird clearwing moth ranges from Alaska through British Columbia to Oregon and east across the Great Plains to Maine and south to Florida and Texas. And while the body of the bug itself is about the size of a large carpenter bee, the wingspan is usually just over two inches. This brightly colored moth is diurnal and hovers while nectaring at flowers with its long proboscis like a hummingbird.
The thorax (remember it’s an insect — with a head, thorax and abdomen) is generally a golden to brownish olive above and cream or yellowish below. The abdomen is so dark burgundy that it often appears black much like the throat of a male ruby-throated hummingbird. The cellophane-like wings are mostly clear with reddish borders.
There are four species of Hemaris in the Americas. They include H. thysbe, H. diffinis, H. gracilis and H. senta. Senta is a western species commonly known as the Rocky Mountain clearwing. I believe thysbe would be the most common species in Western North Carolina. Diffinis or the snowberry clearwing can easily be distinguished from thysbe by its yellow thorax and abdomen. Gracilis or the slender clearwing is a pretty rare moth in the East. It can be distinguished from thysbe by its chestnut bands or streaks on the sides of the thorax.
Some of the primary host plants for the genus Hemaris include honeysuckle, hawthorns, cherries, plums and snowberry. Hemaris caterpillars pupate in cocoons that are spun on the ground.
The hummingbird clearwing in Western North Carolina probably hatches two broods, one between March and June and one between August and October. In the northern part of their range, Hemaris moths generally produce one brood sometime between April and August. In Louisiana and other southern states the hummingbird clearwing may produce as many as six broods.
Besides phlox, adult hummingbird clearwings will nectar at various asters, bee balm, vetch, blueberry, thistle and butterfly bush.
If you have butterflies and hummingbirds in your yard or flower garden, be sure to keep an eye out for these small imposters.
Are you a fledgling birder? Would you like to learn more about the feathered flocks that visit your feeder and grace your yard?
Join Simon Thompson at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville on Wednesday, Aug. 4, at 8:15 a.m. for a very informative and personal “Introduction to Bird Watching.” The two-hour program costs $15 for Arboretum members and $19 for non-members. You may register online at http://ow.ly/2ezx5 or by phone at 828.665.2492.
Thompson is one of the foremost birding experts in the Carolinas and has gained national and international recognition through his Ventures Birding Tours. He is also co-owner of Asheville’s Wild Birds Unlimited. To learn more about Thompson and Ventures and Wild Birds Unlimited go to www.birdventures.com or drop by Wild Birds Unlimited at 1997 Hendersonville Road in Asheville.
Thompson brings his same enthusiasm for birding and joy of sharing whether he is pointing out a cinnamon-breasted warbler on the Cape of South Africa to someone with 600 species on his life-list or explaining the difference between a song sparrow and a chipping sparrow to a beginner on the grounds of the North Carolina Arboretum.
Thompson emphasized that the program is geared for beginners and said it would begin with a walk around Arboretum grounds. “We’ll walk around the grounds where we’ll likely see chipping sparrows, bluebirds and robins,” he said, “but, of course, we’ll keep our eyes open for whatever we might find.”
He said emphasis would be put on shape, size, habits and habitat. “But we’ll also listen,” Thompson said, to see if participants can learn about songs and calls.
According to Thompson the second part of the workshop would be inside and would be a little more formal. Thompson will delve into the world of optics and field guides discussing the pros and cons of the myriad of choices and helping workshop participants learn how to choose which products are best suited to their needs.
This program is a great place to start if you are a novice birder interested in getting a good start on techniques and equipment that will make it easier for you to get a grasp on this truly accessible and thoroughly enjoyable hobby of bird watching. I have often seen beginning birders go home crestfallen from a “bird walk” or “birding program” where the majority of participants were accomplished birders and no one had the time to stop and point out the robin or towhee that was singing.
You don’t walk out on a golf course for the first time and shoot a 75. You don’t walk out into your backyard for the first time and know all the species of birds that can be seen or heard. You have to learn. You have to learn technique and you have to learn skill and you need the proper equipment.
It is in the mint family, Lamiaceae. It exhibits the common mint characteristics of square stem and opposite leaves. It grows to three feet tall where it is topped by a rich red, round flowering head. The head or cyme may be up to four inches across composed of several tubular flowers arrayed in a circle.
Bee balm likes moist soil and is pretty shade tolerant. It is often found along wooded stream banks in Western North Carolina but also makes its way to road shoulders (especially the Blue Ridge Parkway) and the edges of openings and spoil areas.
I asked Izzy to show me where she got her bee balm and she led me down a dim path in the woods along the little stream that borders our yard. Bee balm, like all mints, spreads by rhizomes and often forms small colonies.
After a hundred yards or so down the trail, Izzy stopped. “It’s around here somewhere,” she said, “just look for the flowers.” And sure enough, about 20 or 30 yards ahead of us a couple of dozen scarlet inflorescences glowed from the shadowy forest.
While bee balm is shade tolerant, it also thrives in full sun and has many landscape applications. It blooms from late June through August and makes a great perennial border and/or adds color to any wildflower garden. It also attracts pollinators like hummingbirds, butterflies and bees and can be a colorful and useful addition in your vegetable garden.
Bee balm, like most colony forming plants, will, over time, begin to thin in the center. You can avoid this and keep your colony dense and beautiful by dividing the roots every two to three years. This is best done in fall or early spring. Dig up the rootstock and remove the older inner section, then replant the divisions a foot or so apart. Bee balm may be grown from seeds or rootstock.
Native Americans used bee balm for a variety of ailments like headache, fever, digestive problems and oral care. The antiseptic thymol, which is widely used in a variety of mouthwashes, occurs naturally in bee balm.
Before the colonists dumped King George’s tea in the Boston Harbor, the Oswego Indians were enjoying beverages brewed from Monarda didyma. The sudden shortage of tea led the colonists to embrace this beverage and thus Monarda didyma became Oswego or “liberty” tea. The name bee balm comes from the use of the crushed leaves of the plant to relieve the pain of bee stings.
Bee balm should be blooming now along the Parkway. It is generally quite prevalent around the Waynesville Overlook and in the vicinity of Big Witch Gap.
We were cruising downtown Rock Hill where they were setting up for their annual Red White & Boom! celebration when I noticed signs for Glencairn Gardens. With time to kill and anxiety building in little bodies, I decided to check the gardens out. We followed the signs and found a small shaded parking area where a few concrete steps served as a portal to another world. Concrete paths wound and looped their way past flowers, shrubs and trees; past ponds, tiered fountains and other water features all under the canopy of large pines, oaks and other hardwoods while sunshine splashed down bright and hot in manicured openings.
Youthful anxieties were quickly transformed into boundless energy as young legs bounded up and down paths, stopping to check out fountains and ponds and shaded nooks and crannies. Adult stresses faded as elephant ears and pickerelweed took me back to hot Louisiana summers, and Denise took mental snapshots of striking ferns and other plants to see how and where they might fit in our yard.
While it is hard to quantify, there is little doubt that physical environment, precipitated by green spaces such as Glencairn, aid the human psyche in shedding anxieties and stresses, reinvigorating our senses and mental faculties, enhancing our well-being and strengthening our sense of place.
When we entered Glencairn, we walked into a space that was clearly 6 to 8 degrees cooler than the heat that was building along the asphalt and concrete of downtown. The air was fresher — green plants are amazing air purifiers — and there was even a calming noise reduction from the nearby thoroughfares. Some environmental benefits of urban green spaces include, enhanced public health, wildlife sanctuary, pollution mitigation, storm runoff reduction, environmental education and community building.
We are sure happy that Rock Hill town fathers, back in 1928, saw the value of Dr. David and Hazel Bigger’s backyard garden when it was bequeathed to them, and that current town officials have had the foresight to enlarge (to 11 acres) and enhance this community garden and green space.
If you’re ever in Rock Hill and find your spirits in need of a lift or your mind and body in need of some naturetherapy, be sure and check out Glencairn Gardens. They’re located near downtown at 725 Crest St. You can get information regarding the garden by visiting www.cityofrockhill.com/dynSubPage.aspx?deptID=13&pLinkID=103 or by calling 803.329.5620.
A sure bet
I’m sure that if you belong to any environmental/conservation organization or if you have donated to causes in the past or perhaps simply visited a website recently, you have received pleas for donations and/or instructions detailing ways you can assist the Gulf Coast in dealing with the impacts of the massive oil spill created and still being fueled by the blowout of British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon drill ship on April 20.
I have received solicitations and/or announcements through different venues, from The Nature Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and N.C. Audubon. I have also seen dozens of other groups with online campaigns geared towards raising money for the Gulf Coast.
I know and you know groups like The Nature Conservancy, Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology do a lot of good work. Their resources afford them a place at the table when dealing with government bureaucracies and large corporations. But I often think of these and other large environmental groups as being a bit top heavy and wonder how much of the small donation I am able to give is eaten up in administrative, business-as-usual costs and how much gets to the heart of the problem.
With this thought in mind, I e-mailed the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Robert Barham. It just so happens that the secretary and I grew up about 12 miles apart in the farmlands of Northeast Louisiana – he in Oak Ridge and I in Mer Rouge. Barham’s reply was immediate, “We have a Foundation that assits our Department, and 100 percent of the money will be spent in Louisiana to help the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries recover from this event.”
That Foundation is the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation (LWFF). LWFF is a “friends” organization like Friends of the Smokies that operates here in Waynesville. According to executive director Kell Mc Innis, LWFF was created in 1995, and “every dollar donated to LWFF is spent in Louisiana to assist the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in their mission to protect Louisiana’s wildlife and fisheries resources.” Mc Innis also noted that you can earmark your donation specifically for oil spill mitigation. To do that at this time, you need to download a donation form from LWFF’s Website at http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/partners/foundation/ and check the box “in support of” and list oil spill. Mc Innis said that LWFF was working to update its online donation process to also allow this option.
Today the LDWF is working with state and federal agencies to assess habitat at risk from the oil spill, mobilize resources to try and protect habitat not already impacted, and join in coordinated efforts to rescue wildlife and rehabilitate animals that can be saved. According to e-mails LDWF also, “... continues to work with BP officials to ensure the safety of Louisiana’s seafood.”
But today’s efforts may be only the tip of the iceberg. The e-mail states, “Louisiana has faced many natural disaster storm events/hurricanes and the wildlife and fisheries resources have recovered in relatively short time spans. This man-made event and the scope of the impacts it presents are a challenge beyond anything the state has seen from an environmental, economic and/or life changing perspective — especially for those in the fishing community.”
Mc Innis said that the long-term far-reaching effects of the oil spill make LWFF an especially good choice for your charitable donations because the foundation was created to assist Louisiana’s wildlife and fisheries, and that is their singular mission.
Still soaring after all these years
Eagle Lady Doris Mager enjoyed a “rock star” reception last Friday (6/18) at the Waynesville public library. But instead of overage adolescents flicking bics and shouting “Freebird,” Mager and her friend E.T. (Extra Terrific), a 27-year-old great-horned owl, were welcomed by enthusiastic toddler-screams of “owwwlll! owwwlll!”
Fifty or more people — the majority under 10 years of age — filled the library’s meeting room to see and learn about her feathered friends. And while the room was filled with the kind of energy and excitement that only toddlers can bring to a confined space, once Mager and her birds took center stage I have to say, I’ve never seen that many young minds that focused for that long.
Of course, Mager is a pro. She has been an avid avian advocate for more than four decades. It began in Maitland, Fla., where Mager worked for the Florida Audubon Society. Her efforts, including spending six nights and seven days in an abandoned bald eagle nest, helped raise money for an aviary to care for injured raptors. That aviary underwent a $2 million facelift and reopened in 2001 as the Audubon National Center for Birds of Prey. The facility has treated 10,000 or so injured birds of prey since its inception in 1979.
Mager left the Florida Audubon Society in 1983 to create the non-profit SOAR (Save Our American Raptors.) With her focus on children, Mager with her birds in her van crossed and crisscrossed the country from Cape Cod to Savannah, across Texas and New Mexico and the Carolinas presenting more than 200 programs a year at schools, libraries and other venues. For a short synopsis of Mager’s “bird life” go to http://www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/6_01/6_20_01/out_raptors.shtml to see an article I did in June 2001.
Mager was 74 when I interviewed her for that piece in 2001. She said then that she intended to “go till God gives me the sign.” It looks like “go” is the only sign she’s seen. And it was apparent last Friday that when it comes to raptors, Mager’s enthusiasm has not waned — even the toddlers were in awe. And, more importantly, they were listening.
A youngster asked Mager what someone his age could do to help birds. She responded, unhesitatingly, “leave them alone.” She explained that wild things are meant to be wild and unless an animal is sick or injured the very best thing one can do is to simply leave them alone.
Friday night at the dinner table my wife asked Maddy (our 4-year-old) what she learned at the library. With no coaching from dad, she responded, “Leave wild things alone.” Which is a great lesson for my girls right now, with a Carolina wren feeding fledglings in a hanging basket at our back door.
And while Friday’s program was geared to kids, it was quite informative and the facts were accurate. I noticed lots of adults paying attention and Mager does do programs for more sophisticated bird lovers. But if you have a budding birder or someone you want to introduce to the wonders of nature be sure to catch Mager and her friends at the Fines Creek library on Monday June, 28 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. She and E.T., Cara, a 34-year-old crested cara cara, plus a screech owl and an American kestrel, are sure to please.
Much of Mager’s tenure as “eagle lady” is recorded in the book RJ: Tribute to a Golden Eagle published in 1997 by Aquilla Press in Clyde.
Skulker of the tangles
The other morning at 6 o’clock at Hickey Fork in the Pisgah National Forest’s Shelton Laurel Backcountry Area in Madison County, the loud ringing song of a Swainson’s warbler shattered the early morning stillness. The mnemonic for the Swainson’s song is “whee, whee, whee, whip-poor-will, chick.”
I’m not particularly good at hearing mnemonics in birdsong,but the three loud clear introductory notes (I would lengthen them to wheeee, wheeee, wheeee) of the Swainson’s are diagnostic. They are followed by a rapid jumble of notes that ends abruptly and “whip-poor-will, chit” seems as good as anything.
This LBJ (little brown job) is an uncommon skulker of dense rhododendron and mountain laurel tangles generally along creek banks in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I imagine it is initially checked on many birder’s life lists as “heard only.”
Beware if you dive into one of these rhododendron hells in search of a Swainson’s that sounds like it’s “right there.” This little ventriloquist will have you walking in circles as it sings from the ground and/or low in the bushes.
Swainson’s nest across the Southeastern United States and are most often associated with canebrakes. Although Audubon formally described the species in 1834 and named it after English naturalist William Swainson, it wasn’t documented in the Southern Appalachians until the 1930s. The move to the mountains is generally thought to be an extension of the bird’s coastal range with rhododendron slicks substituting for canebrakes.
While the Swainson’s is, indeed, a LBJ, it is a handsome LBJ. It is a warm olive-brown above with a russet cap and a whitish supercilium or eyebrow. It’s breast and belly is cream-colored with immature birds showing a yellowish wash.
In the winter the Swainson’s trades its New World tangles for similar habitat in exotic places like Jamaica, the Yucatan and the West Indies. It has a global conservation ranking of “G4” — “apparently secure.” It is listed as uncommon but not rare. It is state listed as “S3” — vulnerable. This is most likely due to loss and threatened continued loss of habitat.
While it takes patience and perseverance to get good looks at this secretive bird, you can increase your chances by visiting known locations. I heard at least three Swainson’s at Hickey Fork the other morning. We also regularly record Swainson’s at Boone Fork in the Grandfather Ranger District. Jocassee Gorges in South Carolina is said to have one of the densest population of breeding Swainson’s warblers in the region. They may also be found at the newly created Chimney Rock State Park and along Bull Pen road along the Chattooga River near Highlands.