Editor’s note: George Ellison, a renowned naturalist and writer who lived in Bryson City, passed away on Sunday, Feb. 19. Below is a tribute to Ellison by Don Hendershot. Ellison wrote hundreds of columns for The Smoky Mountain News, which can be read by searching our archives at smokymountainnews.com.
I’ve been birding in Western North Carolina since I got here in the late 1980s, in my mid-thirties (yes, I’m that old.)
When I would show up for a birding trip or program, I would be one of the “youngsters.” I kept birding and kept attending events and the constant thing was, we all kept getting older. I have participated in the Balsam Christmas Bird Count since its inception in 2003, and trust me, to see a face under 50 years of age is a novelty.
No one knows what WNC will look like post COVID-19, but these mountains have seen much over their millions of years — ice ages, civil war, pandemics, etc. and they are still here. Spring will come with its ephemerals and migrants; summer will flush green and hot; autumn will descend in a kaleidoscope of color the way autumn does and cold, still winter will follow.
One hears a lot, in these trying times about “social distancing,” “… a term that epidemiologists are using to refer to a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people and hopefully stymie community transmission of the [COVID-19] virus …” according to The Atlantic.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
— John Muir
And if a coalition of local, regional and national businesses, governments and conservation/environmental organizations is successful, one way into the universe will be through the Craggy Wilderness and National Scenic Area (CWNSA) less than 20 miles from downtown Asheville.
Emily Dickinson wrote of that feathered hope in 1861:
“Hope is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all”
The present administration is no friend to the environment.
In a New York Times analysis, which was based on data from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and other sources, the Times reported more than 90 environmental rules and/or regulations had been or were in the process of being rolled back. According to the report, 58 rollbacks had already occurred and 37 were in process.
In a past column regarding snowbirds (“Snowbirds are here”), I wrote, “No, I’m not talking about your Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther from New York City.” But I recently learned snowbirds (dark-eyed juncos) are kinda like your northern relatives — they like to come back to the same spot each winter. It seems many of the snowbirds at your feeders this winter were probably there last winter. And like relatives, we get used to them being around.
This year’s Balsam Christmas Bird Count was record setting — but maybe not in a good way. The 63 species recorded was the lowest total in the count’s 17-year history. Next lowest counts were 65 species (two times) and 66 species once. The average number of species for the count is 70.
The official time of the 2019 winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is 11:19 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Saturday, Dec. 21. That is the time the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer and is directly overhead. That will be the shortest day and longest night of the year. For thousands of years civilizations have celebrated the fact, from this point on days will be getting longer. However, it’s becoming more and more apparent this long “dark” night should be revered as well.
Last Saturday, Dec. 7, had the makings of a very productive day. Girls were going to Asheville shopping and home would be calm and quite. There was no shortage of correspondence to catch up on — trying to nail down the last particulars of our annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count (CBC), try to figure out how to merge my email accounts (geek I’m not) as my old Bellsouth email had been hacked and I switched over to Gmail, plus enough “honey dos” to last the rest of the year.
All birders, backyard feeders and most other people know chickadees. These small, noisy, gregarious black and gray fluff balls are found in nearly any habitat, from the deepest wilderness area to urban parks and streets. There are seven North American species of chickadees, Carolina chickadee, Poecile carolinensis, black-capped chickadee, P. atricapillus, boreal chickadee, P. hudsonicus, chestnut-backed chickadee, P. rufescens, grey-headed chickadee, P. cinctus, mountain chickadee, P. gambeli and Mexican chickadee, P. sclateri.
I recently made a semi-regular sojourn to the northeast Louisiana Delta, a stone’s throw from where I grew up. Friends get together twice a year (spring and fall) for a cookout at a beautiful spot along the Ouachita River. It is hard for me to tear away in the spring so I usually shoot for fall. I don’t make all of them, but I make as many as I can. It’s so good to see old friends and make new ones in such a relaxed atmosphere. This trip provided an extra bonus as I got to share a reading from A Year from the Naturalist’s Corner Volume I at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center. Thanks to Friends of Black Bayou and BBLNWR staff for making that happen.
My wife, daughter Maddie, a friend of hers and I took a short hike out to Pickens Nose last Monday, Oct. 21. Pickens Nose is a rocky ridge in the Southern Nantahala Wilderness and while it is not exceedingly high, its 4,880 feet of elevation towers over some of the steepest terrain in the wilderness, providing outstanding views and a touch-the-sky quality of other higher peaks. There are several promontories along the ridge and one could certainly be considered schnoz-like. The peak is named after Revolutionary War General Andrew Pickens, the proud owner of a rather substantial proboscis.
Blue, white, lavender and purple corymbs, racemes and panicles will glow from shadowy woods and blaze from sunny meadows from now until the first hard, killing frost. Asters comprise a large beautiful complex and challenging group of wildflowers to pin down. More than 20 species of the genus aster have been recorded from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because of considerable variation within species and the tendency of species to hybridize, even competent botanists are sometimes left to a “judgment” call when trying to identify certain individuals.
I was on the Blue Ridge Parkway last weekend scouting for an upcoming Alarka Expeditions trip, “Migration Celebration” which will be on Oct. 4. Monarch butterflies will be one of the migrants we will be celebrating. As I was nosing around at my first stop the other day a couple of monarchs drifted by. I stopped and began to watch — there was a steady stream of monarchs cruising by.
WNC Climate Action Coalition’s screening of David Weintraub’s new documentary “Guardians of our Troubled Waters” is both a history lesson and a call to action.
The film, made in collaboration with the Wilma Dykeman Legacy Foundation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Conserving Carolina, Mountain True, Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee, Friends of the Everglades and Haywood Waterways Association, will be aired at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Lake Junaluska Assembly Terrace Auditorium at 689 North Lakeshore Drive. There will be a panel discussion following the film. The panel will include filmmaker David Weintraub, Eric Romaniszyn of Haywood Waterways, Callie Moore of Mountain True and more.
During our annual summer beach trip to Isle of Palms, I often manage to sneak away one morning to visit Santee Coastal Reserve for an annual red-cockaded woodpecker fix. State and federal agencies have been successfully enhancing the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker population at Santee Coastal for a number of years. It’s a great place to see these noisy little woodpeckers as they nest along the main dirt road through the reserve and all you have to do is drive slowly along until you hear the constant chatter of a colony.
I ran into a fellow at Ingles just the other day. Regrettably, I don’t remember his name, but I run into him occasionally around town and have for years. And I definitely should remember his name because he is a loyal follower of the “Naturalist’s Corner” and he is crazy bout his birds. Every time I see him he has some encouraging words regarding a recent column and/or a recent bird-related anecdote to share.
If you want the opportunity to have knowledge about and input on actions, policies and/or decisions affecting property you own, you need to speak up now. The present administration and the USDA Forest Service announced, in June, plans to “streamline” the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) protocols when it comes to actions receiving federal funding on federal lands, which the public owns.
Robert Frost names that singer in the title of his 1916 sonnet “The Oven Bird.”
The ovenbird is a large (six-inch) ground-dwelling warbler common in closed-canopy deciduous and mixed forests from eastern British Columbia to Newfoundland and throughout the eastern U.S. to northern Arkansas. They are one of the most common woodland warblers of the Southern Appalachians. They winter from south Florida to Mexico and Central America and in the Caribbean islands.
A red-tail by any other name and there are several “named” red-tails. But I dare say for we sons and daughters of the South, simply the word hawk conjures up mental images of Buteo jamaicensis either scanning its surroundings from atop a telephone pole, a high snag or a fence post. And most can remember hearing a piercing scream and turning upward to see this avian god soaring overhead on broad wings with flaming tail trailing.
My bride and I spent a few days in Chicago last week. She was there for a business seminar and I was there for moral support. But, alas, I also had work to do so after walking with her to the 737 Building on N. Michigan Ave. I returned to our room and began recording data from this year’s Forest Service bird points. Our room was on the 26th floor and with the curtains open I had a view of the Chicago skyline. I sat there, entering data and watching it rain. I posted a photo of that rainy day scene on Facebook. Friend and Facebook friend, Janice Irwin, asked if I was looking for peregrines. I said sure and spidermen and went back to my work.
The six weeks from May 1 to June 15 are always a busy time for me. That is the window for my annual Forest Service bird survey. I have more than 200 points spread across the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests from the Hiwassee Dam to Yellow Mountain, to Brevard, to Mt. Mitchell and Roan Mountain and points in between. This year because of all the rain in early May and then the passing of my brother in late May, that window was even more constricted.
I can’t, thinking back now, remember what the two floors below us were at 9 Main Street, in 1999 when this adventure known as The Smoky Mountain News took flight. I can, however, testify those five or six of us stuck around in the nooks and crannies of that third floor, all with electric heaters under our desks during the winter of 1999 were not thinking about where or what The Smoky Mountain News would be in 20 years.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in a June 2001 issue of The Smoky Mountain News
Taksi was a legendary warrior with legs so stout and armor so strong he could withstand mighty blows. Even when he grew old, he retained his armor and stout legs. His magic was so powerful young Cherokee warriors would rub their own legs against Taksi in hopes of acquiring his legendary prowess.
It’s May! That means my 2019 Forest Service bird survey has begun — another six weeks of roaming the wilds of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. It’s clearly a bird-centric six weeks but there is, of course, a lot more to see in our national forests. This past weekend I was fortunate enough to hit a magnolia trifecta. I found all three of the common magnolias — genus Magnolia — (just so you sticklers don’t throw Liriodendron in there) in flower.
It was another great Spring Break along the Gulf Coast of Central Florida. We stayed in Homosassa Springs on the Halls River.
Ran across this little gem of a blurb on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Facebook page:
“Sports men and women are funding $1 billion in conservation projects across the country this year. That means better habitat for moose, elk, turtles, birds, and many other species!
Maybe it’s March Madness, maybe it’s simply madness, but I’m looking at the Lake Junaluska eagles and thinking “they’re gonna pull it off.” I made a quick drive-by the other morning during that last cold snap, March 22 I think, and was happy to see a bird on the nest. I have had “eagle neighbors” report an eagle on the nest almost every time they look up. And there are “eagle neighbors” with binoculars, eagle neighbors with spotting scopes and “eagle neighbors” close enough to just look up and watch.
I am sure I’m not the only one hoping the Lake Junaluska eagles are successful this nesting season. It seems, by all appearances, we should have an answer in just a few short weeks.
St. Croix’s adolescent hormones were coursing through his lean muscular body when the urge to leave the Black Hills of South Dakota became too strong to ignore. He set out, on foot, on an easterly trek in the fall of 2009 with no particular destination in mind.
I believe it was around Jan. 22 of this year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar officially extinct. I’m surprised there’s barely been a ripple regarding the notice and the removal of the eastern cougar from the endangered species list. But I have an idea why — and since I’ve invested no real sleuthing time to date, I assure you I could be wrong. I will try and lay it out in simple terms here and do a bit of that sleuthing before reporting back on Feb. 27.
It appears the eagles that nested unsuccessfully last year at Lake Junaluska are back for another go at it. There have been reports of a pair doing a bit of remodeling at the nest and a pair (presumably the same one) has been seen interacting at the nest and in flight — both good signs of pair bonding.
Jan. 4, 2019 was a dreary day. It was more than that; it was a dreary Balsam Christmas Bird Count day. We have generally, since its inception 17 years ago, scheduled our Balsam CBC during the last count weekend. We did so because we have section leaders and others who also participate in other established area counts. Audubon’s count period ended on Jan. 4 this year so we didn’t really have a weather makeup date, besides most CBCs run rain or shine on the appointed date.
Birding buddy and former subcontractor for my Forest Service point-count survey, Kirk Gardner, was in town for the holidays and managed to cobble together a group of birding buddies for a bit of birding.
I don’t know if our recent ancestors were better weather readers than we, or if they simply knew, by late November, they should be prepared for winter. Nowadays we wait for forecasts from meteorologists, and likely rely on a little intuition as well. But by Thursday (Dec. 6) last week almost everyone was onboard with the idea North Carolina was dead in the sights of a major winter storm.
Those radical environmentalists and their aiding and abetting scientists are finally called out.
After the deadliest wildfire in history — the Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people — our climate-denier-in-chief’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, after declaring that this was not the time for finger pointing went on to tell Brietbart News, “I will lay this on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years. And you know what? This is on them.”
Lake Junaluska is an amazing resource. It is home to the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, the World Methodist Council and Intentional Growth Center and attracts visitors and guests from all around the world. Area residents flock to the wonderful walking trail for a little exercise and/or to simply enjoy the beauty. It is becoming a regular haunt for photographers. And the new boat landing has provided more access for fishermen.
It wasn’t long after we crossed the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, headed west into Louisiana, that we began to see the occasional just-picked field of cotton. We exited I-20 at Rayville, Louisiana, and hit the two-lane highways of my youth into Morehouse Parish where I grew up in the tiny farming village of Mer Rouge. Along the way we saw more recently harvested cotton fields, many with rectangular plastic-wrapped modules of cotton sitting in the turnrows.
The last installment of “The Naturalist’s Corner” began kind of tongue-in-cheek, referring to climate change in Trumpian terms of a global hoax. But climate change is no hoax and it’s not amusing… it is deadly serious. I ended the last column talking about the alarming rate of sea level rise over the last century, “ … global sea level rose nearly 8 inches in the last 100 years or so and the rate of sea level rise has nearly doubled in the last two decades and has been rising every year.”
I’m sure many can remember what President Donald J. Trump, a legend in his own mind, has had to say about climate change, i.e., anthropocentric global warming.
I started out the front door, in the early morning light the other day, to check on the whereabouts of our newest family member Remi, a young part Shar-Pei mix we adopted from the shelter last May. Remi has recently decided when she goes out in the morning part of her doggy-duty is to go down the road to our neighbor’s house and bark, and we’ve been trying to convince her that’s really not necessary. While I was focused on Remi, trying to make sure I caught up with her before she had time to make her morning announcements I couldn’t help but notice the incandescent red glow coming from the dappled woods.
Around 70 percent of the birds that nest in the Eastern U.S. are neotropical migrants — they nest here (U.S. and Canada) and overwinter in Mexico and/or Central and South America. There are around 200 species of neotropical migrants and many make extensive journeys. Shorebirds nesting in the arctic tundra and northern Canada have the longest migration. Species like red knots and white-rumped sandpipers may travel 10,000 miles between nesting and wintering grounds. Long distance migrants that nest in our area include red-eyed vireos, barn swallows, cerulean warblers, scarlet tanagers and more.
Our annual beach and marsh R&R at Wild Dunes on Isle of Palms, South Carolina, is history. Thanks to the generosity of dear friends we have been making the trip for a decade or so. It has become the high point of our summer and it never disappoints — but how could it, with wonderful beach and marsh access.
Studying the red wolf fiasco taking place in eastern North Carolina takes me far away in time and distance — back to northeastern Louisiana in December 1969.
I was 18 years old, sitting in a deer stand on the last day of season. It was a cold morning with a light breeze blowing a wispy fog around. My view would be clear one moment then shrouded in fog the next. It was a melancholy kind of morning as I looked out across a bulldozed clearcut to a small 800-acre patch of woods thinking this patch and a few more like it were all that was left of hundreds of square miles of wilderness that was once Beouf River swamp.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife (F&W) held a public meeting regarding proposed rule changes to its Red Wolf Recovery Plan. According to Defenders of Wildlife’s Ben Prater, this public meeting echoed most of the other polls and/or comment periods regarding the recovery plan.
“Of the 22 people who spoke only two were opposed to the red wolf program,” Prater noted.
On June 27 U.S. Fish and Wildlife (F&W) announced a proposed rule many in the conservation forefront have deemed as basically a death sentence for any wild red wolves residing in eastern North Carolina. This would be the second time in recent history the red wolf has officially been declared extinct in the wild.
This past spring was one of the more trying ones with regard to my annual U.S. Forest Service bird point survey. The survey runs each year from May 1 to June 15. You might have noticed it rained a bit in May. Of course, one can’t count in the rain, but according to protocol if it’s not raining counts may be conducted and this spring there were days I birded just after and just before rains. One thing I thought I noticed — on mornings with heavy cloud cover, especially those mornings where it had rained before dawn, birds were much quieter than normal.
Most readers know the pair of bald eagles that nested at Lake Junaluska this spring were unsuccessful. There is no way to know the reason for nest failure. It could simply be this was a young inexperienced pair — once eagles attain adult plumage there is no visual clue to determine age. It could have been some kind of predator, but this seems unlikely because that would have created quite a ruckus and the eagles’ next-door, human neighbors would have probably noticed.