The Naturalist's Corner

Spring in the watershed

The Town of Waynesville’s annual spring pilgrimage to the Waynesville Watershed will be Saturday, April 24. This one will be set up similar to last fall’s event with an early morning birding option. Those who want to look for early Neotropical migrants and lingering winter visitors should meet at the treatment plant at 7 a.m. For directions and details regarding the trip, please go to www.egovlink.com/waynesville/action.asp?actionid=9348.

Spring migrants are arriving across Western North Carolina. Blue-headed vireos have been in my yard for a couple of weeks now. On a quick trip up around Harmon’s Den last week, Bob Olthoff and I heard black-throated green warbler and Louisiana waterthrush, as well as blue-headed vireo. Brown creepers have also been singing in my yard. I hope we at least get to hear a couple on the 24th – it’s a really cool, musical little ditty.

Other reports from across the mountains of Western North Carolina include northern parulas, black-and-white-warblers, black-throated blue warblers and returning broad-winged hawks. By the 24th of April, we should be able to add scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak to the list. And one never knows what the reservoir itself might produce. While it’s nowhere near as productive as Lake Junaluska with regards to migrants, waterfowl do find it occasionally and there is generally a belted kingfisher present. We were treated one spring to a brief flyover by an immature bald eagle.

By 9 a.m. birders will be back at the treatment plant and have the option of joining in the day hike or heading for coffee and beignets (I guess that would be doughnuts in this part of the world, what a shame.) Day hikers will split into two groups. I will lead the ambling, looking, listening and sniffing group. We will keep our eyes and ears open for birds, wildlife and spring ephemerals.

The wildflowers should be poppin.’ I have bloodroot, toothwort, trout lily and various violets blooming in the woods around my house now. Other spring wildflowers we could encounter include trailing arbutus, Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, trillium, bellwort, anemone and showy orchis.

Dr. Pete Bates of Western North Carolina University, who has headed a team of scientists and natural resource managers to create a management plan for the Waynesville watershed, will lead the robo-walkers. Pete, who is much more learned and accomplished than I, actually has the ability to walk and talk at the same time. This is a great hike for those who want to stretch their legs as well as their understanding of the ecology of the watershed.

The worst thing that could happen is that you get the opportunity to enjoy a spring morning outdoors, in the middle of this outstanding natural resource that Waynesville town fathers had the foresight to preserve, protect and enhance in perpetuity.

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

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.

Watershed assessment still underway

The team of experts conducting an ecological assessment of Waynesville’s 8,600-acre watershed has collected so much data that they have had to hunt down a bigger software package that can actually handle the load.

“We cannot fit this on Excel,” said Dr. Peter Bates, the director of Western Carolina University’s natural resource and conservation management program who is heading up the study of the watershed.

One of three creekside stations that collect data on water quality every five minutes has already generated more than half a million data points.

As overwhelming as that sounds, Bates said the data is “good to have” as he updated Waynesville town board members at a meeting last week. Waynesville conserved its giant watershed several years ago, protecting the town’s pristine drinking water supply. The town engaged Bates and his team to develop baseline data that will gauge both water quality and forest health over time.

While the former has been relatively straightforward, the latter has been difficult to define, according to Bates.

“It’s a little more fuzzy than water quality,” Bates said. “It’s ambiguous how you actually quantify in numerical terms what a healthy forest is. What we’re trying to do is create or increase natural diversity.”

Bates said diversity is the key to healthy water, plants and animals.

According to him, cutting down white pine trees would actually help create that natural diversity, since those trees were never native to the watershed anyway. Waynesville residents planted them in the late 1800s and early 1900s to stabilize the soil after they started harvesting the land.

Now, the white pines are more harmful than helpful to the watershed, according to Bates.

“White pines are shading other trees out, keeping them from coming in,” Bates said. White pine themselves are stagnating because they were planted close together and compete for sunshine.

If these trees are cut down, the end result would be more sunlight, moisture and all-around vigor for native plants and the forest floor.

When Waynesville placed the watershed in a conservation agreement several years ago, town leaders reserved the right to cut trees on the property rather than create an untouchable lockbox.

The prospect of future logging has caused controversy in the past, but as leaders promised at the time, it won’t be happening any time soon. Waynesville officials are being deliberate and gathering as much public opinion as well as scientific data as possible before making any decisions.

“The trees aren’t going to be cut for a long time,” Bates said.

Bates said he’d like to see more yellow poplars, oaks and ash trees in the watershed, as well open savannah-like pine forests reestablished along the ridges.

In the meantime, the team studying the watershed will continue working toward a complete forest inventory to keep track of any changes in forest conditions over time.

The team has also observed that some culverts and improperly graded gravel roads were causing impure water to be channeled into the stream. The team has accordingly begun a study of every road-stream intersection in the watershed.

Watershed represents diverse ecosystems

Norm Christensen told the Waynesville Watershed Advisory Board (WAB), representatives from the town and a few interested onlookers that despite heavy logging in the past the forest ecosystems in Waynesville’s 8,600-acre watershed were, “remarkably healthy” and “remarkably intact.” Christensen, founding dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and currently professor of ecology at Duke, spoke to the WAB at its regular meeting Jan. 10.

Watershed logging remains election issue

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

An issue that caused a firestorm of controversy for Waynesville’s current town board is rearing its head in this election cycle — and may prove to be a defining factor in how voters cast their ballots.

A peek at the watershed

One hundred and twenty people or so took advantage of Waynesville’s first Watershed Appreciation Month to see and learn more about the town’s 8,600-acre watershed. The program ran the last three Saturdays in April and included hikes and presentations in the watershed plus programs at town hall.

Mayor wants windfall from watershed invested

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

The Town of Sylva has begun surveying the Fisher Creek watershed in anticipation of receiving a $3.5 million conservation easement to be awarded by the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

The Little River watershed

Nestled in the northern center of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Elkmont was once a thriving logging community that inspired Walt Disney’s screen image of Snow White’s cabin and now serves as a key research site for studying synchronous fireflies.

Watershed decision was right on target

Bryson City leaders avoided the temptation to sell off their watershed land for development, instead opting to follow through with an earlier commitment to conserve the pristine property. It was the right decision and one that will pay a long-term benefit for town residents and all of Swain County.

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