It was one of those rare winter mornings when Haywood County Schools were on a two-hour delay. Izzy, my second-grader, and I dropped her sister, Maddy, at First Methodist’s outstanding daycare center, blasted by Smoky Mountain Coffee Roasters, grabbed a cuppa joe for me and a cuppa jack (hot chocolate) for her and struck out for Walker in the Hills and the nether reaches of Old Fiddle Road to feed Thomas the cat.
It was mostly clear and sunny, a few high clouds here and there and cold, around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Looking up from The Great Smoky Mountains Expressway, the trees on the mountaintops looked like they had been flocked. They were just gleaming white. I thought it was rime.
But as we ascended Old Fiddle Road we began to notice little twinkling in the air like fairy dust in a Disney movie. By the time we reached the end of state maintenance on Old Fiddle, the twinkling had turned to sparkling flakes, slowly falling through the air, reflecting the sunlight like tiny mirrors.
I hesitated to call the flakes snow because they were clear (at least translucent). But they were large and definitely crystalline. The ones touching down on the windshield when we stopped at Thomas’ house were one-fourth to one-half inch in diameter. These crystals were flocking the trees and the mountaintops.
I don’t know who exclaimed, “Wow! Cool!” first, Izzy or me. But Izzy had the best description. She said it was like we were trapped in a snow globe and someone was shaking it.
The flakes bugged me because all the snow I had ever seen was white. So I did an Internet search and found “diamond dust.”
The best description I found – though a little technical and some European spelling was from “The Weather Doctor” at http://www.islandnet.com/~see/weather/elements/ddust.htm.
Here are some excerpts:
“... At very cold temperatures, 40 degrees below zero (C or F) and colder, snow can actually fall out of the cleanest, clearest blue sky without intervening clouds. Temperatures need not be so cold if there is dust, or other minute particles, in the air on which the water vapour may deposit. When condensation nuclei are present, diamond dust may form at temperatures just below minus 20 degrees C (0 degrees Fahrenheit). At such temperatures, the water vapour in the air spontaneously forms ice crystals which slowly settle earthward. When these falling crystals are caught in the light, they sparkle like gemstones, a weather condition known appropriately enough as diamond dust.
“... At such low temperature, ice crystals form as irregular hexagonal plates, or as unbranched ice needles or ice columns directly from water vapour in the air. The formation of hexagonal-plate crystals is favoured at air temperatures from minus 10 degrees C to minus 20 degrees C (14 degrees F to minus 4 degrees F). Ice plates resemble dinner plates with a hexagonal pattern in their long dimension and are thin relative to their width. Ice columns, on the other hand, look like minute stubby pencils. Columns typically form in temperatures below minus 25 degrees C (minus 13 degrees F). They are long in comparison to their hexagonal cross-section. Larger column crystals fall with their long axis paralleling the ground, but at times, the falling columns may rotate like slow, miniature helicopter blades.”
It was definitely the hexagonal-plate crystal that Izzy and I observed at Thomas’ house the other morning.
Another great Web site for looking at snow crystals is Mark Cassino’s Snowflake gallery at http://www.markcassino.com/newsite/portfolios/snow/index.htm.
Happy winter-weather watching!
Birrrrrding the big chill
The annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count was scheduled for last Saturday (Jan. 2). However, scary weather conditions — snow, high winds and temperatures in the low teens — especially in the northern count area, caused the count to be canceled.
My birding partner, Bobby Wood, had already made the trip over from Stecoah and I had been up for a couple of hours trying to rouse some owls before we received the news. The truck was loaded and we were in birding mode so we decided to enjoy Mother Nature’s cool offering and kick around the count circle for a while on our own.
We decided to start our morning at Lake Junaluska. The closer we got to the lake, the harder the snow was falling. The roads had a light dusting that rose and swirled at the beckoning of the north wind.
We glassed the back of the lake from the pull-off along U.S. 19. A few coots were present along with some Lake J mallards, a couple of ruddy ducks, some of the feral Canada geese and some hooded mergansers. We flushed a great blue heron from the tall grasses along the wetlands, at our second stop. We watched through our binoculars as the big blue-gray bird launched with deliberate wing beats and cut a swath through the falling snow as it lumbered across the lake.
The lake was productive, as usual, providing 14 species of gulls and waterfowl. The best finds were a lone canvasback that’s been hanging out at the lake for a while, a horned grebe and a pair of lesser scaup. Of course the colorful hooded mergansers and dapper buffleheads are always a treat to see. Plus it seemed uniquely apropos to watch ducks bobbing in the snow on a Christmas count.
We left Lake Junaluska for the Waynesville watershed. The windswept reservoir was the antithesis of Lake J, not a bird to be seen. We cruised the roads around the watershed where we found hermit thrush, white-crowned sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet, hairy woodpecker and red-breasted nuthatch among others. The winter wonderland mystique was reinforced in the watershed as we stood in a small clearing, drenched in sunlight, looking past the occasional snowflake at the dazzling white peaks above us.
We made a few other stops before wrapping up between 1:30 and 2 p.m. We wound up with a respectable winter’s morn birding total of 44 species.
While the official count was canceled this year, I want to thank the town of Waynesville and local farmer Jim Francis for once again supporting the Christmas Bird Count by allowing access to their properties. We’ll see you guys again next year.
2010-to be continued
Will 150-foot long fiberglass wands magically spin electricity from mountaintop zephyrs across Western North Carolina in the near future? The issue of industrial-sized wind turbines along the ridgetops of Western North Carolina is sure to blow up again when the General Assembly reconvenes in May.
District 57 Rep. Pricey Harrison has vowed to reintroduce legislation promoting the pursuit of large-scale wind power production along the ridgetops of WNC after Senate Bill 1068, amended to discourage such production, passed the Senate and House last August. Sen. Joe Sam Queen, newly elected President Pro Tem Martin Nesbitt, and other mountain senators appear committed to the bill in its new form and dedicated to preserving what they feel is the intent and language of North Carolina’s Mountain Ridge Protection Act.
Opponents of industrial-sized wind farms across the mountains of Southern Appalachia may have a new bat in their arsenal. On Dec. 9, 2009, U.S. District Judge Roger Titus granted an injunction stopping construction of a wind farm in West Virginia, noting that the developer, Beech Ridge Energy LLC, should have sought an Incidental Take Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because their project was likely to kill federally endangered Indiana bats.
And speaking of bats, biologists and scientists across the Smokies fear the winter of 2009-2010 will be the winter white-nose syndrome shows up in the Smokies. White-nose syndrome, named for the white fungus that appears around the muzzle of infected animals, was first documented from Schoharie Cavern, near Albany, N.Y., in 2007. The disease has spread rapidly and is moving south. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Virginia have been added to the list of states reporting white-nose syndrome bringing the total to nine states. More than a million bats, including 25,000 endangered Indiana bats have succumbed to white-nose syndrome and biologists believe the jump from Virginia to Tennessee and/or North Carolina is inevitable.
It’s been a long and winding road from “nowhere” to a cash settlement. But does a paltry $12.8 million settle anything. The money, buried deep in this year’s omnibus spending bill was secured by former Swain County resident Congressman Heath Shuler. Swain County residents seeking a cash settlement had arrived at a more substantial $52 million settlement figure. Shuler calls the $12.8 million a “down payment” and promises to keep working for a more equitable settlement. In a county basically bereft of property tax revenue (over 85 percent of the land in the county is federally owned), it seems only fair the Feds should pony up a little more. I hope Shuler shows the same kind of conviction and courage he did standing behind Mike Ditka’s porous offensive line for the New Orleans Saints.
Everything old is new again – happy (old) new year!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.