Don Hendershot

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Avid birder and burgeoning cyclist Lena Gallitano has come up with an ambitious plan to combine two of her passions. Gallitano will take part in Cycle North Carolina’s annual fall ride. This year’s trek will be a modest 500-mile affair from Elkin, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Outer Bank’s Corolla.

Now I don’t know if it was a lack of oxygen to the brain from all that pedaling or an endorphin induced “biker’s high” moment of revelation, but according to Gallitano the idea came to her during one of her training rides this past spring. “On the greenways in Raleigh this spring, I did a lot of birding by ear while riding my bike which made me think … is there a way I can turn this challenging adventure into something more worthwhile? The birds made my training rides more pleasurable and I’ve been a member of Audubon for many years so that’s when it clicked: I could make the ride a fundraiser called Bike for Birds,” recounted Gallitano.

Of course, for those who know Lena it comes as no surprise that birds were in her ears, on her mind and in her heart as she was cycling Raleigh’s greenways. The North Carolina native has a long history of working on behalf of her feathered friends. Gallitano is a long-time member and past president of Wake Audubon Society. She has served on the boards of Audubon North Carolina and the Carolina bird Club. As soon as she retired from North Carolina State University, where she worked for the Cooperative Extension Service, Gallitano focused much of her time and energy working on environmental, educational and conservation projects that benefit birds and other North Carolina wildlife by protecting and enhancing the wild places they need to survive and thrive.

That hard work was recognized in 2004, when she not only won Audubon North Carolina’s 2004 Volunteer of the Year award for her grassroots efforts in opposing the U.S. Navy’s plan for locating an outlying landing field adjacent to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, but was also awarded the Governor’s Award as Wildlife Volunteer of the Year by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation for her work in helping to make the North Carolina Birding Trail a reality.

Did I say combining two of her passions? I meant combining three of her passions. Gallitano has also served on the board of N.C. Beautiful whose mission statement is: “To foster environmental stewardship through education and outreach to perpetuate the natural beauty of North Carolina.”

And there will be no shortage of natural beauty on this year’s Cycle N.C.’s fall ride. The tour will start in Elkin, where 1,000 or so riders will hit North Carolina’s scenic backroads for their trip to the coast. There will be stops at Autumn Creek Vineyards plus other venues in communities such as Mebane, Henderson, Rocky Mount, Manteo and Corolla. After all, there’s no rule that says you can’t have fun performing a good deed but remember, even through beautiful scenery 500 miles is still 500 miles.

If you want to support Lena, North Carolina’s varied bird life and/or Audubon North Carolina please contribute to her Bike for Birds fundraiser. You can mail your tax deductible donation to Audubon North Carolina, 123 Kingston Drive, Suite 206 Chapel Hill, NC 27514 please make your check out to Bike for Birds. There is also an online giving page at Audubon North Carolina member and Bike for Birds supporter, Bon Parker has announced that she will match every $20 donation with her own $20 donation up to $1,000, so $20 will get you $40 – there’s a deal!

All donations will directly support the work of Audubon North Carolina, supporting its vital work of managing 19 coastal sanctuaries, monitoring 96 Important Bird Areas, protecting imperiled species like golden-winged warblers, cerulean warblers and the largest colony of beach-nesting least tern in North Carolina. Hope is a thing with wheels.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Migration is at full tilt across the region right now. In the passerine (songbird) department thrushes, grosbeaks and tanagers are joining in making those fallouts and mixed flocks even more exciting. And while the night skies have been busy for the last month (passerines migrate at night) some of the more notable diurnal migrants are beginning to show up across the region.

The most common diurnal migrant in the East is the broad-winged hawk. Nearly two million broad-wingeds nest in North America and overwinter in Central and South America. These chunky, crow-sized raptors and other larger-bodied birds such as eagles, ospreys, wood storks, cranes and pelicans utilize thermals and updrafts to aid them in their southerly journey. Hawk Watches along the broad-winged’s migration path, many of them setup and maintained by volunteers, help scientist monitor this species.

Caesar’s Head State Park, located on U.S. 276 in South Carolina, just south of Brevard, is probably the most notable Hawk Watch in the area. Nearly 10,000 broad-wings are reported annually from Caesar’s Head from mid-September till early October. As of Sept. 17 only 46 broad-wings had been recorded at Caesar’s Head, so if you have some free time between now and the first of October there are lots of birds still left to come through. The close-knit group of volunteers who keep a tab on broad-wings at Caesar’s Head call themselves the Wing Nuts. Wing Nuts are always happy to share with fellow birders and/or interested onlookers.

The mountain passes accessible along the Blue Ridge Parkway offer a myriad of opportunities to find migrating songbirds. While migrants may be found almost anywhere along the Parkway during migration there are some time-tested spots. Ridge Junction Overlook at the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park at milepost 355.5 is one of those spots. This is a great place to spend a morning from now through the middle of October, and it’s easy migrant chasing – just bring a lawn chair and setup shop – the migrants will come to you. Some other notable spots to catch migrants on the Parkway include Craggy Gardens, Craggy Pinnacle, Walker Knob Overlook, Heintooga Ridge Road and Big Witch Gap.

A short trip to Rankin Bottoms in Cocke County, Tennessee, can provide some fine shorebird watching in the mountains. Shorebirding at Rankin Bottoms depends on the water level in Lake Douglas and each fall the Tennessee Valley Authority begins to draw down the lake leaving acres of exposed mudflats attracting weary migrants looking for a place to rest and refuel.

Some recent finds at Rankin bottoms include short-billed dowitcher, lesser yellowlegs, sanderlings, least, western, stilt and semipalmated sandpipers plus shovelers and blue-winged teal. To get to Rankin Bottoms from Waynesville, take I-40 west to exit 432 B. That will put you on U.S. 25/70. Follow U.S. 25 east out of Newport to Rankin Hill Road (I would estimate about five miles, but I have never measured it). Follow Rankin Hill Road to the railroad crossing. At the crossing take Hill Road to the left and follow it to the bottoms.

But even if you can’t sneak away to the Parkway or Caesar’s Head or Ranking Bottoms, you can find migrants by just being aware. As I sat down today (Sun. 9/18) to write this column, I noticed some movement in one of the dogwood trees out my window. I went outside to find a small flock of thrushes stuffing themselves with the bright red berries. In about half an hour from my deck and back yard I counted more than 20 species of birds. There were three different thrushes in the yard – Swainson’s, wood and gray-cheeked. I saw six different species of warblers — black-and-white, magnolia, worm-eating, hooded, black-throated blue and Tennessee. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds and year-round residents like Carolina chickadee and tufted titmouse rounded out the list. Migration will soon be over till spring, but right now, there’s still time.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Yesterday’s (9/11) wonderful late summer weather — mostly clear mid 70s — enticed my family up to Black Balsam for a walk on top. Black Balsam is an easy way to explore unique high elevation balds because you can drive to the top and much of the hiking is easy to moderate over mostly flat terrain.

We left the house around 1 p.m. and started up the Blue Ridge Parkway. The drive up the Parkway was nice and as goldenrod, stiff gentian and other wildflowers began to catch my eye, I decided to make a quick stop at Wolf Mountain Overlook (milepost 424.8) to check out one of my favorite areas for wildflowers — the large rock seepage area there.

We weren’t disappointed. Grass of Parnassus was in bloom all over the rock face. We also found bottle gentian, turtlehead, the small, carnivorous sundew, goldenrod, snakeroot and a little bit of hypericum in bloom. Salamanders were also present on the wet rock face.

After our brief stop at Wolf Mountain OL we headed on north on the Parkway to Black Balsam Road (Forest Service road 816) around milepost 420.2. The parking area at the end of Black Balsam Road was full, as one might suspect on such a beautiful Sunday afternoon. But we were out for an enjoyable family stroll — Izzy, Maddie, Sophie (the dog), Denise and I — and meeting a few people on the trail was no big deal.

Ivestor Gap Trail is an old roadbed — I believe it used to run all the way to Canton — and is flat and a pretty easy hike, it starts at the end of the parking area at Black Balsam. We tried it earlier this year on bikes but it is way too rocky to be a comfortable bike ride, especially for kids. Ivestor gap skirts the edge of Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain and the edge falls away quickly to panoramic mountain views. Ivestor Gap and the Art Loeb Trail meet up at about 3.7 miles and Art Loeb takes you into the Shinning Rock Wilderness Area, but we weren’t going that far. We hiked out Ivestor Gap, probably a little over a mile, to the point where it makes a right turn.

I have bird points along Ivestor Gap and the Art Loeb Trail that I survey for the Forest Service every spring so I knew that from where we were on Ivestor Gap it was only a short bushwhack (or weed whack, as Maddie called it) up to the Art Loeb Trail. While it’s short, it’s dense. The bald at that point is basically a heath bald, meaning it is covered with a dense growth of ericaceous plants — blueberry, mountain laurel and rhododendron primarily. Izzy, Sophie and I went first and Mom and Maddie followed. The blueberries and mountain laurel were so high that we couldn’t see Maddie at all, but the tops of the bushes moving let us know where she was.

Even though it was a short bushwhack, it had Mom wondering what she had let herself in for until, suddenly, we hit the single-track Art Loeb Trail. After a short hike through more heath bald we hit more open grassy bald habitat and could see the top of the 6,214-foot Black Balsam Knob.

When we got to the summit we found a raven circling only 50 feet or so up in the air. It was giving all the hikers a good once over. I don’t know if it was looking for scraps or what, but it sure stuck around quite close. Just a little pass the summit we picked up the Art Loeb spur for a quick, but somewhat steep descent back to the Black Balsam parking area. The hike was about two-and-a-half hours and the scenery was gorgeous — we may try it again this fall when the leaves start to turn.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Friday, Sept. 23, is the autumn solstice. The solstice is about balance and harmony — the day and night are equal. Here in the Smokies, we wave goodbye to summer as Joe-pye and goldenrod fade, apples and pumpkins brighten and leaves begin to turn. We turn our focus to fall and that short spate of time when the mountains will dance in a kaleidoscope of colors while we gather the harvest and make provision for winter. Nature’s own rhythmic cycles are evident as the night skies fill with migrants, squirrels gather mast and bears and other hibernators prepare for their long winter’s sleep. Those are the primordial rhythms of this place (Southern Appalachia) we call home. And what better time than the autumn solstice to join in celebration of this place?

Voices from the American Land along with local partners Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, The Wilderness Society, Tuckasegee Reader, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South, Canary Coalition, Mad Batter Café, Tuckasegee Alliance, New Native Press and City Lights bookstore present Every Breath Sings Mountains, a chapbook of poetry celebrating the Great Smoky Mountains and this place we call home. The celebration will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23, in the community room of the Jackson County Public Library Complex on Main Street in downtown Sylva.

Every Breath Sings a Mountain is a compilation of poems from three local authors with deep and abiding connections to this place:

• Thomas Rain Crowe is an award winning author, poet an essayist. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment for 2006. Crowe’s literary archives have been purchased by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He is a respected, outspoken advocate for the conservation and protection of the Southern Appalachian landscape, her people and her culture. Crowe lives on a small farm along the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Barbara R. Duncan is education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which she co-authored with Brett Riggs, received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Her book Living Stories of the Cherokee received a Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and World Storytelling Award. The singer-songwriter has also written a poetry chapbook, Crossing Cowee Mountain. Duncan lives on a tributary of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society. Martin is a recipient of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s James S. Dockery Environmental Leadership Award. Martin has published two collections of poetry, Poems from Snow Hill and A Shout in the Woods. Martin’s poems and essays have appeared in Pisgah Review, North Carolina Literary Review, New Southerner, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. Martin lives in the Cowee community.

Every Breath Sings a Mountain is illustrated by Celo community resident Robert Johnson. Johnson’s work, which focuses on our vanishing natural environment has been exhibited and collected in galleries and museums across the Southeast from Washington, D.C. to Georgia.

Helping these poets celebrate our special place will be Western Carolina University historian George Frizzell, Jackson County farmer and former commissioner William Shelton, and Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe. There will also be “a conversation with authors” featuring authors Charles Frazier, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, George Ellison and Keith Flynn. The Ian Moore Song & Dance Bluegrass Ensemble will provide music. There will also be a meet-the-authors book-signing reception catered by the Mad Batter Café. And all audience members will receive a free copy of the chapbook.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


On Aug. 24 Chinquapin soared into the dangerous northeast quadrant of then category 3 Hurricane Irene. The Lockheed Martin C-130 – Hercules, a behemoth of an airplane originally designed for the military to transport troops and equipment like utility helicopters and armored vehicles is the preferred means for crashing through the wall of a hurricane.

Chinquapin, on the other hand, is about 18 inches long and weighs about a pound. Chinquapin is a whimbrel – a sandy-brown shorebird with dark scallops on its wings and back, fine brown streaking on its breast and long decurved bill. Chinquapin is part of a collaborative long-term study sponsored by The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences to study the migration of whimbrels.

Whimbrels are known long-distance migrants, often covering nearly 5,000 miles between their nesting grounds in Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada and wintering grounds in Central and South America. However, little was known about the details of this migration. Researchers alarmed by steep declines in whimbrel populations and buoyed by new technology that allows these long distance migrants to be outfitted with tiny (1/3-ounce) geolocators began capturing whimbrels and outfitting them with the tiny tracking devices to monitor their migration paths.

According to Bryan Watts, director of the CCB, the monitoring is part of an integrated investigation into whimbrel migration. Researchers are learning a great deal about this traveler’s migration habits. Watts said the study is showing the tremendous importance of relatively small areas the birds use for staging and refueling during migration, nesting and overwintering. According to Watts, “Connecting the dots throughout an entire life cycle is something that’s new and just coming over the horizon in the study of migratory birds — the connectivity of places that are separated by such great distances.”

Chinquapin, named after the creek on Little Egg Island Bar, along the coast of Georgia where he was captured in May 2010, already has one amazing migration documented. Chinquapin left Georgia on May 27, 2010, and headed north, possibly breeding in Canada’s Northwest Territories. After the breeding season, Chinquapin meandered over to Coates Island in the northern Hudson Bay where he hung around for 24 days. Then in the early morning hours of Aug. 5, 2010, he was airborne. He flew down the length of James Bay, over Quebec, over Maine and into the open Atlantic. Around Aug. 8, Chinquapin encountered the edge of Tropical Storm Colin and took a 300-mile detour around Bermuda. Chinquapin set down on Playa de Isabela in Puerto Rico on Aug. 10, after five days of non-stop flight covering roughly 3,500 miles.

This year, Chinquapin left Southampton Island in the upper Hudson Bay on Aug. 20 and encountered Irene on Wednesday Aug. 24 after four days of non-stop flight. According to flight data, it looks like Chinquapin made it through most of Irene before taking a hard right and backtracking just a bit to make landfall on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.

Researchers were amazed at the bird’s ability to find a tiny island in the middle of the ocean in the middle of a hurricane. “They seem to have this amazing ability to know exactly where they are at any time. We’ve had birds go 1,000 to 1,500 miles offshore of Bermuda and still be able to navigate effectively,” Watts said. Signals from Chinquapin’s geolocator on Sunday, Aug. 28, suggest Chinquapin is well and foraging on the island. Researches expect he will rest and recharge for a number of days on the island before making the last leg of his flight to Brazil.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


I just wanted to shout an amen to brother George Ellison’s Aug. 10 Back Then column, “Late summer is an awesome time to botanize.” I am a big fan of a couple of those late summer beauties – cardinal flower and ironweed.

When it comes to red, few plants can match the intense, rich, velvet-red of the cardinal flower. Lobelia cardinalis was named after the Belgian botanist Mathias de L’Obel who often used the “Latinized” form of his name — Lobelius. The species name, cardinalis was inspired by the red of the Roman Catholic Cardinals’ robes. It was officially named from specimen collected in Canada in the mid 1620s.

Cardinal flower grows from 2- to 4-feet tall. The flowering spike that tops the plant can reach two feet or more in length. The crimson blossoms open from the bottom up, and blooms can continue for weeks. The petals are united to create a two-lipped corolla.

The Cherokee and other Indian tribes used cardinal flower both medicinally and for ceremonies. One of the common names for the plant is Indian tobacco. While it does have medicinal qualities it can also be quite toxic. Extracts from the leaves and fruits of cardinal flower can cause sweating, vomiting, severe pain and even death. So, unless you know what you’re doing, it’s probably best to just enjoy the beauty of this wild jewel.

Cardinal flowers make great additions to hummingbird and/or butterfly gardens. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are one of the primary pollinators of cardinal flower.

I have had my eye on a small stand of cardinal flower growing at the edge of the woods on the road to my home for several years. When I first noticed it years ago, there were two or three plants. It would occasionally double in size but then return to just a couple of stalks. But this year the size of the stand has more than doubled and there are a dozen or more of the rich velvet-red spikes glowing from the forest shadows.

Cardinal flower is often marketed as a perennial, but it isn’t. Individual plants may live for a number of years but they eventually die. However, new shoots generally grow, from the axils of the lower-most leaves and usually put down roots before the original plant dies. It is, of course, also propagated by seeds.

Another favorite of mine that George mentioned in his column, New York ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, is also found in a couple of spots along the shoulder of the road to my house, but it is much more common in meadows, open fields or waste areas, especially those that are moist. New York ironweed can grow 6- to 10-feet tall and instead of a spike, its flowers are found in a kind of round, flat-topped inflorescence called a corymb. The flowers at the outside of the corymb open first and then blooming progresses to the center. New York ironweed, like cardinal flower blooms for a long period. The flowers are most often a deep rich purple but, occasionally, can lean to the bluish-lavender side. Ironweed is also a great plant for butterfly gardens.

A great place to see cardinal flower and ironweed together with some Joe-pye and goldenrod thrown in as lagniappe is at the intersection of Bethel Road (U.S. 276) and Raccoon Road just outside of Waynesville.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


I can always count on Rankin Bottoms Wildlife Refuge when I need a Loosiana Delta fix. This musky backwater with its willow groves, bald cypress, cottonwoods and buttonbush is the antithesis of the cool clear, swift mountain streams common to the Western Carolina mountains.

Situated at the confluence of the Nolichucky and French Broad Rivers at the eastern end of Lake Douglas just north of Newport, Tenn., in Cocke County, Rankin Bottom swells in the summertime behind the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Douglas Dam to flood most of the 1,255-acre Rankin Wildlife Management Area.

The flooded willow groves of Rankin Bottoms are great places to explore by canoe or kayak from late spring through Labor Day, while TVA keeps the water level up (992 feet target level) during summer. The wet and wild habitat is home to prothonotary warblers, willow flycatchers, Baltimore and orchard orioles, eastern kingbirds, yellow-throated vireos, osprey, common egrets, wood ducks plus a large colony of cliff swallows under the bridge across the French Broad at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s boat launch and many, many more.

TVA begins to lower Lake Douglas around Labor Day and as the water recedes exposing mudflats, Rankin Bottoms becomes a hotspot for migrating shorebirds, waders and waterfowl. Various species of sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, yellowlegs and others can be seen in fall and spring migration. I have also seen white pelicans and tundra swans at Rankin. Different species of terns and gulls are also commonly found at Rankin Bottoms from fall through spring.

My birding buddy, Bob Olthoff, and I took a trip up to Rankin Bottoms recently (Aug. 7). It not only looked like Louisiana, it felt like Louisiana. It was around 77 degrees Fahrenheit when we got there at about 8 a.m. and it just got hotter and muggier.

The water was still high. There was a bit of exposed shoreline but we didn’t find any shorebirds.

It was still a great day. We must have seen a couple of hundred common egrets. There were lots of great blue and green herons around also. And ospreys were hanging around on a couple of nests. There is quite an impressive nest on an old railroad trestle just up the French Broad a few hundred yards from the bridge. It looks like it has been refurbished continuously for a number of years. It’s at least 3-feet high and 3-feet across.

We stood along side the railroad track at one point, overlooking the bottom and recorded about 20 species. These included a good cross section of water birds and passerines like common egret, great blue heron, green heron, wood duck, double-crested cormorant, eastern kingbird, prothonotary warbler, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, red-eyed vireo, Baltimore oriole and others.

We also encountered my first of the year, monarch butterfly and a beautiful fresh male black swallowtail nectaring on buttonbush. Bob and I have found zebra swallowtails at Rankin bottoms in the past.

To get to Rankin Bottoms from Waynesville, take I-40 west to exit 432 B. That will put you on U.S. 25/70. Follow U.S. 25 east out of Newport to Rankin Hill Road (I would estimate about five miles, but I have never measured it). Follow Rankin Hill Road to the railroad crossing. At the crossing take Hill Road to the left and follow it to the bottoms.

If you go looking for shorebirds as the water recedes this fall, you may want to go in the late afternoon. Most of the mudflats are east of the road and it can be a difficult sun field in the morning. Shorebird viewing is best when Douglas Lake is between 980 and 990 feet. When the level drops below 975 feet all of Rankin bottoms is exposed and shorebirds begin to move downriver. To get reservoir elevation call 800.238.2264, Douglas Reservoir is #07.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


I was all set to write about the annual summer fireworks displayed every August on that really big screen above our heads, brought to us free of charge by the comet Swift-Tuttle and sponsored by your universe.

Then I looked at a lunar table — arrrggghh, not much dampens a meteor shower like light. And a big ole full moon is going to be with us from before sunset on August 13 — supposedly the peak of this year’s Perseid meteor shower — till after sunrise August 14. And to make matters worse, some Internet sleuthing discerned that the best time to peek at Perseids this year would likely come just before dawn, today, August 10, before this week’s edition of the Smoky Mountain News hits the streets.

But, wait, there’s still hope. There will be a decent viewing window Thursday morning, since the full moon will set around 4:30 a.m. but sunrise isn’t until around 6:45 a.m.

Friday morning will offer the same type of scenario but with only about an hour of decent viewing time.

But remember, as we approach the peak of the Perseids, there could be 20 or more meteors or “falling stars” in a single hour. Also remember that August 13th is the peak, the Perseids will continue, though in smaller numbers, through the end of the month and that pesky ole moon will be down to a sliver by August 21.

Between midnight and dawn are the best times to search for Perseids, even on moonless nights as they radiate from the constellation Perseus the Hero, which rises into the northeastern sky around 11 p.m. in August.


Ins and outs of viewing a meteor shower

Think of the earth as your sleek sports coupe and the night sky is your windshield. Between midnight and dawn you’re screaming down the Autobahn pointed at Perseus, and the Perseids are like love bugs on a Florida interstate headed straight for your windshield. When these tiny bugs — usually pea-sized bits of cosmic comet debris — strike your windshield (the Earth’s atmosphere) at thousands of miles per hour the friction ignites them like flares. The friction is so great it actually breaks the molecules, both of the meteoroid and the molecules of the atmosphere. These glowing, ionized particles then recombine, releasing light energy, behind the meteoroid, which is traveling at 40 miles per second so the tail can stretch behind for miles.

Now some astronomers like to take their coupe for a cruise earlier in the evening. At this time, the radiant is lower on the horizon and instead of striking your windshield head on, the cosmic bugs will slide by, past your side windows.

Astronomers call these glancing meteors “Earthgrazers” and they can produce exceptionally long and colorful tails.

And if you’re determined to watch for Perseids during their peak on August 13th, in the glow of the full Green Corn Moon, the EarthSky website offers this advice:

“Sprawl out in a moon shadow. The best viewing on any date is from about 2 a.m. until dawn. As seen from mid-northern latitudes, the moon will be shining low in the south to southwest sky on the peak nights. That means the moon will be casting looooong shadows. Find a moon shadow somewhere that still provides a wide expanse of sky. A plateau area with high-standing mountains to the south and southwest would work just fine. If you can’t do that, find a hedgerow of trees bordering a great big hay field somewhere (though obtain permission, if it’s private land). Or simply sit in the shadow of a barn. Ensconced within a moon shadow and far from the glow of city lights, the night all of a sudden darkens while the meteors brighten.”

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


That’s probably not the exact scenario but a recent article in Current Biology claims that most, if not all, of today’s living polar bears are descended from one Scottish brown bear. Mama bear lived in Ireland near the peak of the last Ice Age 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. Increasing Arctic ice flows likely brought the polar suitors into contact with the brown bears. As the ice receded, the polar bears drifted back to their icy Arctic island, but with a little going away present from their lovely brown sweethearts — a neatly wrapped package of mitochondrial DNA, DNA passed exclusively from mother to offspring.

It has definitely piqued the researchers’ curiosities.  One of the researchers, Mark Thomas of University College London said the study shows that species may not be as fixed and tidy as we would like.

Nor is hybridization necessarily a death knell for a species, but could actually help its survival and coping during times of stress. He pointed to recent studies by Stanford’s Peter Parham that shows Europeans gained genes that helped in battling northern diseases from interbreeding with Neanderthals.

Biologists and researchers have long been aware of the polar bear/brown bear dalliance but it was thought these trysts originated on the Alaskan “ABC” Islands (Admiralty, Baranof and Chicagof) around 14,000 years ago. However, new international research spearheaded in part by Beth Shapiro, assistant professor of biology at Penn State found DNA evidence in the skeletons of 17 brown bears from eight different cave sites in Ireland that predates the Alaskan peccadilloes by 10,000 years or more.

Dr. Ceiridwen Edwards of Oxford University, the Current Biology paper’s head author noted that the DNA from the older brown bear remains (38,000 to 43,000 years ago) had basically the same DNA structure as today’s European brown bears. But the DNA from younger specimen (10,000 to 38,000 years ago) more closely resembles that of modern day polar bears.

Researchers further studied the matrilines (line of descent from mother to offspring) of 242 polar and brown bears, including living bears and fossil records through 120,000 years and across their present and past geographic ranges. Results strongly suggest that all of today’s living polar bears carry that little mtDNA package of brown bear genes from Ireland.

Shapiro finds this scenario especially intriguing because studies of nuclear DNA show that brown bears and polar bears diverged from a common ancestor around a million years ago. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Shapiro said that the last Ice Age brought the two species back into contact, and that after interbreeding the ice retreated to once again separate the species.

It’s unclear what caused the fixation of this particular brown bear’s genome in the matriline of today’s polar bears. That will surely be fodder for more molecular biological research. The summary from the Current Biology article simply leaves it at:

“The reconstructed matrilineal history of brown and polar bears has two striking features. First, it is punctuated by dramatic and discrete climate-driven dispersal events. Second, opportunistic mating between these two species as their ranges overlapped has left a strong genetic imprint. In particular, a likely genetic exchange with extinct Irish brown bears forms the origin of the modern polar bear matriline. This suggests that interspecific hybridization not only may be more common than previously considered but may be a mechanism by which species deal with marginal habitats during periods of environmental deterioration.”

Today polar bears and brown bears (Kodiaks and grizzlies) are once again coming into contact. This time, however, it’s the shrinking Arctic ice cap and the encroachment of the terra firma bound browns into former polar bear habitat that is precipitating this contact. But the results are the same: interbreeding. The resultant hybrids are known as pizzly bears or grolar bears.

According to Shapiro, “Scientists should reconsider conservation efforts focused not just on polar bears, but also on hybrids, since hybrids may play an underappreciated role in the survival of certain species.”

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Snowbirds are here

No, I’m not talking about your Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther from New York City. I’m talking about our feathered friends.

The snowbirds that have returned en masse to feeders all across the country are dark-eyed juncos. These little, mostly gray and white sparrows (family Emberizidae) commonly converge in flocks around feeders as winter settles in, thus the name snowbird.

Up until 1973 there were six species of juncos. But in 1973 the American Ornithologist’s Union grouped the five common North American juncos — slate-colored, Oregon, pink-sided, gray-headed and white-winged all under the moniker dark-eyed junco. That leaves two species of juncos in North America — the dark-eyed referenced above and the yellow-eyed junco, a predominantly Mexican species that barely reaches southern New Mexico and southern Arizona.

The dark-eyed junco is a widespread and abundant species. With an estimated population of 280 million, the dark-eyed junco is the second (behind the American robin) most common bird in the U.S. The dark-eyed junco breeds across most of Alaska and Canada to northern California and New England and down the Appalachians to northern Georgia. It winters from southern Canada to northern Mexico.

The southern Appalachians are home to their own resident race of dark-eyed juncos, Junco hyemalis carolinensis. Carolinensis is a vertical migrant, nesting at higher elevations in the mountains and retreating to lower elevations in the winter. The southern Appalachian race of junco can be distinguished at your feeder by bill color. Its bill has a bluish cast to it rather than the pink bill common in the other races of juncos. Even if the bill is light, it has a bluish-white, rather than pinkish-white tint, aptly described by friend and naturalist, George Ellison as “bone white.” Carolinensis also has shorter wings than its longer-migrating cousins but this feature isn’t very useful in the field.

As a general rule, males of migrant dark-eyed juncos winter farther north than females. Younger males winter farther north than older males. It is believed males stay nearer breeding grounds in order to get a jump on establishing nesting territory. It is believed that nearly 70 percent of juncos overwintering in the southern U.S. are females.

Dark-eyed juncos have an average of 30 percent more feathers (as measured by weight) during winter than during nesting season. This adds valuable insulation and helps them cope with cold weather.

Juncos commonly return to the same area, even the same feeders winter after winter. I have one carolinensis with a white tuft on the side of its head that is here for its third winter.

Take a peek at the snowbirds at your feeder this winter and see if you can distinguish between our resident carolinensis and their migrant cousins.

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


According to old Appalachian tradition, you don’t have to be named Doolittle to hear the animals. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. The right place would be a field or perhaps a barnyard. The right time would be Old Christmas Eve. And Old Christmas Eve would be Jan. 5.

At midnight on Old Christmas Eve the animals of the fields and barnyards are said to begin lowing, bellowing, baaing or making whatever sound is common to them — but in a peculiar way, as if they were praying.

According to tradition, our Appalachian ancestors celebrated Old Christmas on the Epiphany — the day Christ was revealed to the Magi, in the stable in Bethlehem, in the presence of the animals.

Another Old Christmas tradition continues on the Outer Banks. Rodanthe in Dare County is said to have the largest Old Christmas party in the Old Home State.

While the date (Jan. 6) of Rodanthe’s Old Christmas certainly coincides with the Epiphany, the limited sleuthing I did points to logistics, communication (or lack of) and the independent streak of early colonists as the primary factors for the January 6 date.

The old Julian calendar was replaced throughout Catholic Europe in the late 1500s by the Gregorian calendar. Protestant countries like England did not follow suit – the Pope was not their boss. However by the middle 1700s England finally came around. By this time, they were 11 days behind the rest of Europe and the Julian calendar.

Well, to quote that famous Carolina philosopher James Taylor, “... the thing about time is, time isn’t really real...” So, England just tossed 11 days, moving Christmas back to Dec, 25.

Now remember, this was before Al Gore invented the Internet, even before NASA launched all those communication satellites, so the word didn’t reach the colonies right away and Christmas kept coming around Jan. 6. By the time word reached the colonies, most were fed up with England telling them what to do and just as England had snubbed the Pope back in the 1500s, many colonists decided that January 6 was a fine day for Christmas.

Rodanthe certainly celebrates December 25 but they just keep the celebration going and on the Saturday, nearest Jan. 6, they celebrate Old Christmas.

Animals play an integral role in Rodanthe’s Old Christmas too, but in a little different way. According to island legend, Old Buck was a wild bull that made life scary for villagers till a hunter did him in. Now Old Buck’s ghost joins the celebration each year.

No matter your religion, no matter if you celebrate Old Christmas “new” Christmas or both, Christmas is a celebration of love, compassion and Grace. If there is a thing called Grace it certainly includes the animals and all of this wonderful creation.

Whether it is midnight or mid day, if you can find a quite place to sit and watch and listen, you can, indeed, hear the animals pray.

Merry Christmas!

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


Gun-toting tourist deters smarter than average bear

Setting: A campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nightfall, Jan. 13, 2009.

911: Hello, 911, what’s the nature of your emergency?

Caller: Hey, hey, hey, it’s an emergency in nature!

911: Just stay calm sir.

Caller: That’s easy for you to say — there’s not a gun pointed your way.

911: I recognize that voice! It’s Yogi Bear. Did you say gun, Yogi?

Yogi: I didn’t say bun, although a bun is what I was looking for.

Voice in the background: Step away from the picnic basket.

911: I’m sorry Yogi, but you must be mistaken about the gun. The GPS signal from your phone says you’re in a national park.

Yogi: Did you hear that Boo-Boo? It’s been so long since I ate, I’m starting to hallucinate.

Voice: I said get away from the picnic basket!

Yogi: Hey, hey, hey, Boo-Boo, you talk to the hallucination, I’m gonna eat some bacon.

Boo-Boo: I don’t know Yogi, he looks real to me.

Yogi: That’s because you’re an average bear and you know me — I’m smarter — Wait! What?

Gunshots in the background

911: Yogi, Yogi, are you still there? Are you OK?

Yogi: Hey, hey, hey, if you call dodging bullets OK, then I’m better than the average bear. I think I’ll just leave that pic-a-nic basket right there.

More gunshots

Voices from tent one: What was that?


Quick, get your gun, someone’s shooting at us!

911: Oops, I was wrong. It’s now legal for tourists with conceal and carry permits to tote loaded guns in the park.

More gunshots

Boo-Boo: Duck, Yogi!

911: Right, lame duck president George W. Bush rescinded former neo-con god Ronald Reagan’s 1980s ruling that states firearms in national parks and refuges must be, “... rendered temporarily inoperable or are packed, cased or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use.”

Tent two: Somebody’s shooting at us from that other tent, get your gun!

It’s right here, in my sleeping bag, locked and loaded.

Fire at will!

Which one’s Will?

Just shoot!

Yogi: Duck or no duck, that’s a pretty lame ruling – what gives?

911: Well, there’s a saying in politics, “you gotta dance with the one that brung ya,” and the NRA’s been lobbying hard to get that rule changed. Besides it’s a way for Dubbya to stick a thumb in Obama and the Dem’s eye – a parting shot.

Tent three: Yo’ mama? I’ll show you yo’ mama! (pulls his gun and starts firing through the flap.)

Yogi: Hey, hey, hey the shots are parting this way. Pardon me, while I run away.

The campground has erupted into a full-blown firefight as two shadowy figures (one large, one small) slip away through the darkening woods.

Boo-Boo: Yogi, what was that all about? Why were all those people shooting at us and everything?

Yogi: Hey, hey, hey it’s just the way our departing compassionate conservative has decided to make our national parks and refuges safer.

Boo-Boo: But how does allowing people to carry immediately accessible loaded guns make things safer — especially for animals like us or mountain lions or endangered timber rattlesnakes or other animals that people think of as scary or dangerous?

Yogi: Ah, Boo-Boo, you’re just a baby bear. No one expects you to understand the workings of great, humanitarian minds.

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


Bees do it and die

Honeybees are not native to the States. But these prolific pollinators arrived with the earliest settlers. With the changing agricultural landscape, i.e., thousands of acres of monoculture crops and the decimation of native pollinators through habitat loss, rampant pesticide application and direct competition with this European immigrant, the honeybee has been crowned king of pollinators across the U.S.

The national honeybee industry is a $15 billion a year business. And it’s more than just honey and bee balm. One report suggests that honeybees are responsible for 30 percent of all food sold in today’s grocery stores.

So with all our pollen in one hive, so to speak, it makes it really scary when beekeepers (apiarists) across the country start reporting a mysterious disappearance of from 30 to 90 percent of their hives. According to researchers at North Carolina State University beekeepers have, in the past and still today, occasionally suffer dramatic hive losses. These losses have been known as autumn collapse, spring dwindle, fall dwindle disease, May disease and various other names. But these incidents have never appeared as widespread, systematic or similar in appearance as the 2006 event.

That event was so striking that a new sexy name was invented to describe it — Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. Symptoms of CCD include an insufficient number of bees left in the hive to maintain the brood in the colony; a workforce devoid of older bees; the presence of a queen; the colony’s reluctance to consume food supplied by the apiarist; few or no dead bees around the hives and the presence of capped brood. The colony of older worker bees has simply disappeared.

Any beekeeper can tell you that honeybees already suffer from a litany of lethal threats including different kinds of mites, viruses and fungal infections. But beekeepers and scientists across the country and around the globe are pointing fingers at a new suspect.

The alleged culprit is a synthetic nicotine known as imidacloprid used in a plethora of pesticides around the world. Imidacloprid has been patented since 1988 but only gained widespread use in the past few years when pesticides containing diazinon were banned and pulled off the shelves. Bayer the original patent holder markets imidacloprid through many trade names but the pesticide Merit is the most common. Other products that contain imidacloprid include Admire, Premise, Muralla, Leverage, Trimax and many more.

While Bayer denies any of its products cause CCD, according to a recent story in the High Country Press by Sam Calhoun, the company has paid out $70 million to beekeepers in France and at least 16 European countries have banned imidacloprid. Another neo-nicotinoid, clothianidin, has also been implicated in CCD and was recently banned in Germany.

One of the things that makes it so difficult to point to a causal factor regarding CCD is that there are no dead bees at the hive. But this, in itself, is anecdotal evidence of neo-nicotinoids. Low doses of neo-nicotinoids may not kill bees and other insects outright but it disorients them and causes abnormal behavior. Beekeepers say bees forget where the hive is. They also say the chemicals affect the bees’ ability to “dance.” The bee dance is how bees communicate where to find nectar. When the dance is corrupted bees don’t know where to go.

A study on wasps by entomologist Dr. Richard McDonald found that wasps exposed to imidacloprid became so disoriented that they spent the rest of their lives grooming themselves. Bayer even notes on its termite pesticide containing imidacloprid that insects that survive the initial treatment will be killed when the product, “confuses and distresses the colony to cause them to be killed through other diseases.”

Studies also show that imidacloprid, in the landscape, is long lived and disperses quickly especially when used for foliar spraying and/or soil drenching. This may be of special concern in the Southern Appalachians and other areas in the east where Merit is recommended for combating the Hemlock wooly adelgid.

British researcher David Buffin notes that imidacloprid is also deleterious to birds, fish, freshwater crustaceans and a host of beneficial insects.

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


When we headed for the car after a glorious Thanksgiving dinner, the skies above Jonathan Creek were dark and clear, and the blue stars seemed close enough to touch. I could see Orion and the Pleiades and a couple of the brighter stars of Gemini, plus the big and little dippers. Of course there was much more to see, but without a star chart that was about as far as I could go.

However, looking up at the heavens in the crisp, late November evening reminded me that it wouldn’t be long till the Geminid meteor shower. The Geminids are probably the most reliable and showiest of the regular meteor showers. At its peak, the Geminid shower is blasting more than a fireball a minute through the firmament. This year’s Geminids start on Dec. 6 and go through Dec. 18, with peak being the late night and pre-dawn morning of Dec. 13 and 14.

Ah, I can picture it now. Some lawn chairs and blankets, a secluded area away from light pollution, a nice dark night — wait, what’s this? It’s like daylight. It’s a full moon. It’s not just a full moon. It’s the biggest, baddest full moon in 15 years, dashing the best laid plans of mice and men and amateur astronomers.

Any full moon puts a definite damper on meteor watching. But the full moon of Friday, Dec. 12 is not just any full moon. This full moon coincides with the moon’s perigee — the point in the moon’s orbit when it is closest to earth. On Dec. 12 the moon will be less than 222,000 miles away — just a cosmic fingertip.

The fact the moon will be full at its perigee brings it closer. When the moon is full, the moon, earth and sun are in line in space, and the tug from the sun’s gravitational field stretches the moon’s orbit a bit, bringing it closer to earth. It will be eight years before the moon passes this close again. And, on that day — Nov. 14, 2016 — the moon will once again be full.

It’s no accident that these close encounters of the lunar kind occur from late fall through early winter. The earth and sun are always closest around New Year’s Day. So any time the perigee and full moon occur simultaneously near the end or beginning of the year, the proximity of the sun draws Luna nearer.

This biggest baddest moon will bring with it this year’s biggest baddest tide. The closest perigee of the year, which this will be, is called the proxigee. The associated tide is known as the proxigean tide. The proxigean is the highest of high tides.

So it might not be a great night for looking at meteors, but it should be a great night for moon gazing — just don’t set up camp too near the ocean.

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


A recently published study in Proceedings, an online medical journal of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that regular aerobic exercise like walking or hiking can improve the brain’s memory function and perhaps lessen the risk of dementia. As humans age, the hippocampus — the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing, and storing — tends to shrink, leading to impaired memory and increased risk of dementia.

The study published in Proceedings took 120 older adults with no dementia and separated them into two groups of 60. One group participated in a stretching program and one group participated in an aerobic exercise program for a year. Magnetic resonance images were collected at the beginning of the program, at the six-month point and at the end of the program. Those images showed that the stretching group demonstrated a loss in volume of the left and right hippocampus of 1.40 percent and 1.43 percent respectively. The group that participated in regular aerobic exercise, on the other hand, showed an increase in the left and right hippocampus of 2.12 percent and 1.97 percent respectively. According to the study, “… we found that, in the aerobic exercise group, increased hippocampal volume was directly related to improvements in memory performance.”

The study goes on to state — “In sum, we found that the hippocampus remains plastic in late adulthood and that 1 y [year] of aerobic exercise was sufficient for enhancing volume. Increased hippocampal volume translates to improved memory function and higher serum BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor that helps support the survival of existing neurons and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses]. We also demonstrate that higher fitness levels are protective against loss of hippocampal volume. These results clearly indicate that aerobic exercise is neuroprotective and that starting an exercise regimen later in life is not futile for either enhancing cognition or augmenting brain volume.”


Need more reasons to take a hike?

A scientific study from the university of Rochester noted a 20 percent increase in energy for people who spent a minimum of 20 minutes a day outdoors as opposed to individuals who exercised indoors. The brain generates natural mood enhancers like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine when stimulated by aerobic exercise like hiking.

The study in Proceedings can be added to a long list of reports and research that point out how beneficial outdoor recreation is, in general to our physical, mental and spiritual well being. But this study concerning the reversal of memory loss may have special significance to many of us. Just think, a regular routine of walking/hiking 30 minutes or so, three times a week and soon we will no longer need to take that GPS with us so we can find our way back to the car.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Unless you are of a philosophical bent, you might want to skip this last installment of the spotted owl trilogy.

I have been intrigued by the dichotomy of man vs. nature for a long time. I can’t remember exactly what I saw while researching the spotted owl dilemma — the need to kill barred owls in order to save endangered spotted owls — that brought this man vs. nature dualism back into focus once again. It may have simply been the implication that man was, somehow, this omnipotent arbiter sitting outside that out-of-balance ecosystem with the knowledge and power to bring it back into balance by simply manipulating one small aspect — the number of barred owls — with only a cursory mention that, oh, by the way, it was human activities like the logging of million of acres of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest coupled with the human-induced expansion of forests across the northern plains and southern Canada in the 1800s that brought these two owls into proximity in the first place.

The strange thing about this man vs. nature dualism is that proponents and opponents of the anthropocentric exploitation of natural resources often find themselves supporting this idea of dualism if it appears to advance their particular agenda. You have logging companies, mining companies, real estate developers and others and their constituents who realize a livelihood and a lifestyle from clearing forests or extracting natural resources or manipulating them in a certain way that makes them more manageable or more profitable. And you have some environmental advocates who have gone so far as to posit that there should be large expanses of natural landscape with no type of human footprint at all.

In my, obviously, rather simple-minded observations, what you have is the opposite sides of the same coin. You can no more separate man from the environment than you can take fish from the water. Man is part and parcel of the environment and everything/anything man (you or I) does down to the breath he takes impacts the environment in some way.

It should be apparent that all natural resources aren’t renewable and/or reusable and that even some that might be, over time can’t be renewed at the rate we are using them up. And it should be just as obvious that there will never be a wilderness beyond the footprint of man. Vast expanses of sparsely inhabited wilderness greeted Europeans when they arrived in America only a few hundred years ago — and you see what’s left now.

And I am simple enough to believe in the theory of evolution and natural selection and I have little doubt that while a cave may have been inhabitable that those individuals that learned to use natural resources to create their own habitation in areas that had more readily available or better resources certainly had a leg up. And that ever sinse we crawled out of those caves and began to learn how to utilize the natural resources that we encountered, it’s always been those who were either more adept at utilizing those resources or those who were strong enough to amass the most resources who had the upper hand when it came to survival and advancing the species.

As Homo sapiens have evolved, one can only hope that the depth and breadth of his wisdom and compassion have evolved to the point where he realizes, as Pogo succinctly put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

No one, least of all I, wants to crawl back into the cave. And no one believes that the polio or smallpox virus should not be eradicated. But we are fouling our nest like no other species in history and we are not only fouling the physical aspects that provide sustenance for our bodies we are fouling the spiritual aspects that sustain our spirit and give us the capacity for awe and wonder and love and the lost of that awe and wonder and love will be what brings about Armageddon.

“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” said Thomas Berry.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


I mentioned in last week’s Naturalist’s Corner that I found the decision by U.S. Fish & Wildlife to kill barred owls in an effort to save spotted owls intriguing on many levels. I will use this week’s and next week’s columns to outline a couple of those intrigues.

It’s no secret that the Endangered Species Act has become the lynchpin of conservation. Critical habitat designation has been used to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres and sometimes, as in the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, just the perceived presence of some iconic creature can prove pivotal in raising money and/or support for land acquisition.

I don’t fault environmentalists and/or environmental organizations for using whatever means they have to protect sensitive environmental areas. And I realize that preserving habitat has become a high-stakes legal enterprise requiring legal underpinnings like critical habitat designation that comes with the Endangered Species Act.

But I often think that we, as environmentalists, have the cart before the horse. To paraphrase James Carville’s succinct advice to then presidential candidate Bill Clinton – when it comes to protecting species – it’s the habitat, stupid. Protect the habitat and you’ve de facto protected all the organisms that call said habitat home. Perhaps habitat is too ambiguous or too amorphous for people to connect with, while a spotted owl or an ivory-billed woodpecker is more tangible.

Or perhaps it’s just so intuitive that we don’t consciously focus on it. I mean, if you’re a photographer and you want to get some good butterfly shots, where do you go? You go where there are lots of blooms – why – because it’s the right habitat. If you’re a hunter or a fisherman or a birder or a biologist you can simply look around you and you can list a suite of species that you would expect to encounter at that location.

If you take a spotted owl out of old growth forest, or take an ivory-billed woodpecker out of bottomland hardwoods they won’t survive. Now, I’m not saying you couldn’t raise them in captivity. I’m saying they are part of a larger whole. They are part of an ecosystem – a habitat and they have evolved with that habitat and they depend on it for their existence. And there are any number of other organisms that depend on that habitat, some we’ve probably never even heard of.

The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory has turned up more than 900 species new to science in a habitat that is largely second growth and sees millions of visitors a year. What might be discovered if thousands of acres of old growth and/or bottomland hardwoods were afforded the same kind of scrutiny?

At this late date of plunder of natural ecosystems in this country and around the world, we can’t afford to take our eye off any tool that gives us leverage to halt it. But we need to redouble our efforts to focus on a larger, more holistic, more sustainable picture.

Aldo Leopold, often called the father of conservation, once stated, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. ...” Yet here we are, destroying entire ecosystems and we don’t even have a parts list. We have no idea of what we are destroying. We need to put the horse back in front of the cart.

There must be a way. I mean if the Supreme Court can give corporations individual rights, why can’t we list endangered habitats?

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


The Migratory Bird Act makes it illegal to kill barred owls, Strix varia. It is a crime that is punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and can include jail time. That is unless you are working for the federal government and you are killing barred owls in Western old growth forests in an attempt to save the endangered spotted owl, Strix occidentalis caurina. The just-released federal recovery plan for the northern spotted owl calls for killing hundreds, maybe thousands of healthy barred owls. This issue is contentious and intriguing on many levels.

The northern spotted owl, a shy, retiring resident of Pacific Northwest old growth forests, was catapulted into the limelight a couple of decades ago when it was listed on the Federal Endangered Species List and made the poster child for the efforts to curtail logging in those old growth forests. The debate was loud and long and rancorous. There was the spiking of timber (driving steel spikes into standing timber) by anti logging activists creating danger for loggers with chainsaws and sawmill operators. Loggers and their supporters countered with demonstrations that included caravans of log trucks and other timbering equipment. Expensive and time consuming suits and countersuits were filed by both sides. And the federal government, depending on the current (at the time) administration’s environmental proclivities, either supported and, perhaps, strengthened regulations protecting old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest or eased said regulations.  

Meanwhile, in the midst of pitched battles between the opposing sides, the northern spotted owl’s eastern cousin, the barred owl, began flexing its feathered muscles. The larger, more aggressive barred owl arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1960s and early 1970s and began flexing its feathered muscles. Barred owls out-compete and sometimes even attack northern spotted owls, usurping nesting habitat and displacing their smaller, western cousins.

Despite years of greatly curtailed logging, the northern spotted owl shows little sign of recovery. Focus is being shifted to the interactions between the barred and spotted owls. Robyn Thorson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Pacific Northwest’s director, called the barred owl, “… the biggest threat spotted owls are facing,” and, reluctantly, supports the culling of barred owls.

Now if barred owls were “exotic” — that is, if they had not reached the Pacific Northwest of their own volition — obliterating them with shoguns might be a lot easier to swallow. Surely, a lot of human-influenced factors like fire suppression and tree planting across the northern plains paved the way for barred owls, but still, they got there under their own power and for many, it’s just a question of natural selection.

In a scenario like this there is little doubt what the outcome would be. The barred owl is a generalist. It has a varied diet and nests successfully throughout a number of different habitats. The northern spotted owl, on the other hand is very selective regarding diet and nesting habitat. Add its aggressive nature – and it’s pretty easy to see that without help the spotted owl’s days are numbered.

When you throw politics into the mix, it becomes a real circus. Timbering proponents are ecstatic. They are pointing fingers and saying – “see, it wasn’t us, it was the barred owl all along, now let us go and cut trees again” never mind that the cutting decimated 60 to 80 percent of the northern spotted owl’s habitat already, severely restricting them while enhancing barred owl habitat. And there are a lot of people and organizations with a lot of vested time and monies tied up in the rescue of the spotted owl willing to try anything to keep their poster child from fading into the sunset.

I will admit to being somewhat ambivalent, but when I simply look at the biology — killing barred owls will never work unless you plan on killing large numbers of them for the better part of a century or longer, until enough old growth is created to give the northern spotted owl some sort of buffer.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


The eighth annual Mountain Wildlife Days is scheduled for July 15 and 16 at the Sapphire Valley Community Center. The event is sponsored by Wild South along with partners Sapphire Valley Resort and Cashiers Travel & Tourism.

The program — organized in large part by Wild South volunteer John Edwards of Cashiers and designed to entertain and educate the public regarding the beauty, diversity and issues facing the wild things and wild places here in Western North Carolina and beyond — has been enthusiastically received across the region.

There will be new presenters this year including Freeman Owle, beloved historian and storyteller from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Owle will talk about how the Cherokee have valued and still value the creatures and mountains that have sustained them for centuries.

Kate Marshall, award-winning cinematographer, will share close-up videos of black bears and cubs. Marshall, who recently presented at the Black Bear Festival in Umatilla, Fla., will focus on human-black bear interactions, which ties in with the “bear smart” initiative sponsored by the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance (JMCA).

One long-time and much-loved Mountain Wildlife Days presenter, Rob Gudger and his show-stopping wolves, will be presenting a brand new program this year. The new program is designed to promote a better understanding of wolves and their place in the natural environment.

To help you better understand how these wonderful creatures tolerate Rob – the domestic dog is the wolf’s closest relative – their DNA differs by only about 0.2 percent. The wolf and its closest wild relative the coyote differ by about 4 percent. That chihuahua in your pocket and/or that newfoundland on the sofa get their intelligence and social skills from their amazing wild ancestors.

From fur to feathers: The Eagle Lady, Doris Mager, will be present with her collection of feathered friends including owls, falcons and a crested caracara. Cynthia Strain of the JMCA and the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society will lead a bird-walk Friday morning.

A couple of other free hikes will also be offered Friday morning. Guided hikes in Panthertown Valley and on Whitesides Mountain are offered — but there is a cut-off for participants. If you wish to participate in one of these hikes you should call the Sapphire Valley Community Center at 828.743.7663.

If flying and/or furry are not your cup of tea, how about scaly and slithery? Steve O’Neil, “Wildlife Warrior,” will present, along with a few furry mammals, a number of reptiles and amphibians with the message that salamanders are animals too.

The focus on Friday evening will be “seeing God in everything.” It will be a musical celebration performed by the newly created “Creation Singers” with messages from pastors Steve Kerhoulas of Christ Church of the Valley and Randy Harry of Cashier United Methodist Church. There will also be music by Judy Felts, Lee Porter and acclaimed wildlife photographer Bill Lea. Relax, folks, this is not a “Creationist” celebration but a celebration of nature as part and parcel of the creation we all enjoy.

For tickets and more information visit the Sapphire Valley Community Center or call 828.743.7663.  For a detailed schedule of activities, visit and click on 2011 Mountain Wildlife Days.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Too many birders hang their binoculars up and put their field guides back on the shelf after May, fearing the “dog” days of summer. But the summer months offer a great opportunity to get to know your local nesters. While it’s true that rising thermometers, incubation and chick-rearing duties quiet and/or shorten the morning chorus, early morning still offers a great deal of avian activity. And here in Western North Carolina  we’re fortunate to have the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cherohala Skyway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other avenues to race those rising temperatures up the mountains and prolong those good birding opportunities.

Last Saturday (June 18) I had the pleasure of leading a field trip for the Great Smoky Mountains Audubon Chapter to look for local nesters. The disparate elevations across WNC not only allow you to chase cooler temperatures they also provide different birding opportunities.

We started out last Saturday at Kituwah along the Tuckasegee River in Swain County. The area, formerly known as Ferguson’s Field, is home to the Kituwah mound and revered by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as the “mother town.” The EBCI purchased the mound and 309 surrounding acres in 1996 to preserve the site. Tribal members farm small plots on the site. Kituwah is open to the public from sunup to sundown and birders are welcome. Kituwah’s open areas and brushy fence row habitat offers a chance to view different birds than one would encounter along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The purple martin colony, near the entrance to Kituwah was busy when we arrived Saturday morning. Tree swallows, barn swallows and chimney swifts joined the martins in the sky chasing insects. We also got a brief glimpse of a blue grosbeak along the railroad track near the entrance.

We started out along the railroad tracks and were shortly greeted by the “fitz bew” of a willow flycatcher. The wet brushy habitat at Kituwah is ideal for these little flycatchers. A pair of noisy, curious blue-gray gnatcatchers also greeted us along the tracks.

We were observing eastern bluebirds and listening to yellow-breasted chats and common yellowthroats near an old barn along the tracks when the sky suddenly filled with barn swallows.

A glance up showed the reason for all the excitement as the swallows escorted a male Cooper’s hawk out of their territory.

We never did get looks at a chat, although we heard at least three. Another noisy brush-denizen that sang and sang for us while remaining hidden was a white-eyed vireo.

We did, however, luck out on another Kituwah resident. We were skirting a cornfield along a turn row, when a short burst of song stopped us. An orchard oriole popped up into the top of a small tree and gave us great looks – singing all the time.

We were beginning to work up a sweat at Kituwah so we abandoned the lowlands for the coolness of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a little after 11 a.m. when we stopped at the Big Witch Overlook for lunch. As we were sitting in the cool shade, first a black-throated blue warbler, then a chestnut-sided warbler came over to check us out. At Jenkins Ridge we were serenaded by a brown creeper but never got looks at the little tree hugger. We did get great views of a Canada Warbler and a pair of common ravens, though.

Darkening skies spurred us on along the Parkway to Heintooga Ridge Road. We picked up a ruffed grouse with at least one fledgling and a pair of hen turkeys with a whole herd of polts along Heintooga. At the Balsam picnic area, at the end of Heintooga road we heard golden-crowned kinglets and saw red-breasted nuthatches.

The rain overtook us and we headed back to Waynesville with around 60 species. Not bad for the “dog” days of summer.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


The first 2011 sojourn into the Town of Waynesville’s 8,000-plus acre watershed occurred last Saturday (June 11). The town has been sponsoring and coordinating a couple of guided hikes into the watershed each year since 2007. It’s a way for residents and other interested parties to see this wonderful resource that has been placed in a conservation easement to ensure the town has an ample supply of high-quality drinking water for generations to come.

For those of you just awakening from a seven-year coma, there was a bit of a stir back then regarding some of the attributes of the easement. Some areas of the watershed are in a “forever wild” easement — which basically means hands off. However, a large portion of the watershed is in a “working forest” easement — which gives the town the authority (and perhaps even the directive) to actively manage the forest. And “active” forest management includes logging — a term that, justifiably, sends shivers up and down the spine of many environmentalists/conservationists.

There was an immediate hue and cry (some perhaps politically prompted) regarding the motivation for and the consequences of logging in the watershed back in 2004. While emotions fer and agin logging the watershed ran rampant at coffee shops and in “letters to the editor,” the town proceeded in a rational way by creating a public oversight committee and commissioning a study of the condition of the watershed and the creation of a management plan for the watershed. I believe it was during this laborious process of studying the watershed and hashing out the details of a management plan that the idea of hikes into the watershed, where citizens could get a first-hand look, germinated.

The hikes have been well received and this year’s first hike was no exception. Alison Melnikova, assistant town manager and watershed hike coordinator extraordinaire, had to halt registration at 65 for this hike. Forty-nine of those registered showed up!

I must say we were quaking in our boots a bit concerning the logistics of providing a quality experience for 65 hikers. But a big shout out to Dan Callaghan, Forest Stewards’ Americorps apprentice forester; Ed Kelley, photographer/naturalist; and Michael Skinner, executive director at Balsam Mountain Trust for answering the frantic pleas for help and volunteering their time to help create a quality outing for participants.

Dr. Pete Bates, professor of natural resources at Western Carolina University, president of the board of directors of Forest Stewards and lead researcher of Waynesville’s Watershed Management plan, has always been one of the leaders for the watershed hikes. In the early years Bates’ groups never got in much of a hike due to all the Q and A regarding the management plan. But Bates is a stalwart and convincing supporter of the plan and the science used to create it and is always happy to discuss the merits and objectives of the watershed management plan.

This year ,Bates got to stretch his legs and obviously had a good hike: “Overall I thought the hike went well. I had about 20 in my group, and we did about an eight-mile, out and back from the water treatment plant.  We saw a variety of forest communities ranging from white pine plantations to rich coves to northern hardwoods at about 4,700-feet elevation. For those in my group, it was a great opportunity to see the watershed and learn more about the town’s efforts to care for its forests.”

We took advantage of Ed Kelley’s photographic skills by offering a last-minute opportunity for those interested in nature photography and had about a half-dozen takers. According to Kelley, “…we did a lot of close-ups and exercises in observation, looking for subject matter, addressed some creative things you can do with your camera when there’s not a lot of great photo subjects, and I answered some technical questions about photography, as well as tried to get them to thinking about using what they saw along the way to plan future photo outings (i.e. a remembering the location of a group of staghorn sumac that will be blazing orange-red in the fall.)”

Michael Skinner kind of floated between groups. Fortunately, he was with my group, with his bird-app, when we had blackburnian warblers overhead. He was able to play the song, coaxing the blackburnian down where most people got good looks. Skinner noted, “I had a few in the group suggest we do this more often.”

As for me, I was doing my usual grand job of spreading misinformation. We encountered some yellow mandarin (not in flower) and I was trying to think of the other common name for it when “cucumber root” jumped out of my mouth. I have no idea why. The plants look nothing alike. There is some similarity in the flowers but even that’s a stretch. I guess I’ll write it off as a senior moment. The other common name for yellow mandarin is fairybells — sounds a lot like cucumber root doesn’t it.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Dead snakes are certainly interesting and can pique a child’s curiosity. Izzy (9) and Maddie (5) found just such a specimen next to the garage door last Saturday. We couldn’t tell for sure the cause of death but guessed the dogs must have done it in.

The small (15 inch) gray-brown reptile was an immature black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta. Immature black rat snakes don’t live up to the “black” moniker. They have dark brownish patches on a gray-brown background. There is a superficial resemblance to copperheads. The differences are evident but for some reason many people don’t see snakes through a rational perspective. If you’re calm enough to look and note features here’s what you will see:

Copperheads get their common name honestly – there is a rusty, copper-colored patch on the top of its head. The top of a young black rat snake’s head won’t have this rusty patch. The head of an immature black rat snake is basically patterned like the rest of the snake’s dorsal (back) – that is dark splotches on a lighter background.

The copperhead is a pit viper. It has a broad, triangular or wedge-shaped head. There is an actual pit between the eye and the nostril but this feature may not be obvious with just a cursory look. However, the triangular head and elliptic pupil are quick giveaways. The rat snake has an oval shaped head and large, round pupils.

There is another difference regarding the head that’s pretty easy to see once you learn to look for it. The copperhead and other pit vipers have a small smooth, shiny plate over the nose that extends back just pass the eyes. The rest of the triangular head is rough or scaled. On rat snakes and other non-venomous snakes, this shiny plate covers the entire head.

And while both have dark patches over a light background there is a distinct difference in the pattern. The dark splotches on the dorsal of the young rat snake are square looking. They are broader on the top of the back and narrower on the sides. The copperhead’s copper-colored blotches are narrower on top and broader on the sides. They’ve been described as hourglasses draped over the back.

And there should be no problem distinguishing immature copperheads. They have bright, yellow-tipped tails. The splotchy pattern continues on the tail of the young rat snake.

For some reason North Carolina leads the nation in copperhead bites. It may be because there are few poisonous snakes in North Carolina and people don’t take time to look or because copperheads are, in fact, pretty common and like sheds and woodpiles and the fact that prey like mice are attracted to human habitation, so they are often found in proximity to people.

But if you learn how to recognize copperheads (and other poisonous snakes) and give them their space there should be no conflicts. Snakes can basically only strike with authority within a distance of just over half their total body length.

So learn to recognize snakes, teach your children to recognize snakes and adhere to two simple caveats – 1) never try to touch or capture any snake you can’t positively identify and 2) always give poisonous snakes and/or the ones you can’t identify a wide berth – and enjoy your serpentine summer.

Of course, there’s no mistaking the guy in the photo. But when we looked closely at this four-foot plus black rat snake, we could still see the faint splotchy pattern on its back. It must have been a young adult.

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


Soccer balls litter the yard, my wife is auditioning for NASCAR on the lawn mower and I am following the tiller through a soft, loamy sea of rich smelling earth in the garden. In the evening, fireflies are dancing in the dark outside our windows like some kind of organic neon sign flashing SUMMER TIME – SUMMER TIME – SUMMER TIME. Bathing suits are all folded with care, stuffed in the pool bag — knowing a “swim date” soon will be there.

In the Old South, we would become more crepuscular in the summer. The heavy lifting would be reserved for early morning and late afternoon. Routine chores, maintenance and preparations would be undertaken under the fiery glare of the midday sun, often on some kind of crude table under the shade of a giant water oak with a glass of southern iced tea — you know the kind with enough sugar to leave a residue on the bottom of the glass — just an arm’s length away.

I remember a summer job I had during college — checking cotton. We would hike through endless oceans of cotton, pulling the “squares” to check for boll weevils. We would record the percentage of weevils we found so the farmer could determine if it was time to call in the crop dusters. Every afternoon we would watch the thunderheads gather and try to keep track of their direction. We usually had enough fields to check that we could avoid the heavier downpours and keep working. Often, at dusk, as we headed home across those green seas of cotton, heat lightning would light up the distant sky with surreal blue-green flashes.

I remember scents too. It would start in spring with jasmine. Then it would gradually grow into a sweet, sticky blend of Japanese honeysuckle and wisteria.

And no down home southern summer would be complete without the roar of cicadas. Cicadas were so common that you didn’t hear them until they quit — then the silence would be startling. These were annual cicadas — not periodic –—so they were there every year. Another common sound was the “rain crow.” Rain crow was the colloquial name for the yellow-billed cuckoo. It was given this name because of its propensity for calling on cloudy days or especially before rain events.

Annual cicadas are not too common here at higher elevations, but I encounter them occasionally at lower elevations. I recently heard some periodic (13-year) cicadas near Hot Springs. I understand there is a brood of 13-year cicadas hatching in some spots across Western North Carolina this year, but they’re not nearly as widespread as that emergence of 17-year cicadas we had a couple of years ago.

The periodic cicada is certainly loud and during a pronounced emergence they can be deafening. But their call is an otherworldly ebbing and flowing “whirrrrrrrrrrrrrr – uuuurrrrrrrrrrrr” not the buzzy drone of the annual cicada.

Rain crows I have. And every summer I look forward to hearing their muted “crow” when those storm clouds start to gather.

I guess it’s because the days are so long, but we often think of summer as a long drawn out affair. But, trust me, those luminescent explosion will disappear from the night sky before you’re ready and katydids will be calling to alert you to the approach of autumn. So don’t delay – get out and sweat some!

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


I have had the opportunity to make several trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the vicinity of Devils Courthouse and Black Balsam this month. The first was on May 7 with Birding for the Arts. Then I had a private birding tour on May 12, and I was up Saturday and Sunday this past weekend doing bird point surveys for the U.S. Forest Service.

Birding was, of course, the primary objective of these trips and the birds didn’t disappoint. However, we beat most of the migrants up to Black Balsam on the May 7 Birding for the Arts trip. I believe common yellowthroat was the only migrant we turned up at that site. Everyone had made it back by this past weekend though. I had alder and least flycatchers, veery and hermit thrush, gray catbird, chestnut-sided and Canada warblers had joined the common yellowthroats, northern bobwhite was present and I was somewhat surprised to find brown thrashers at one of the sites up on a bald along the Art Loeb Trail.

But the repeated trips up the Parkway also gave me the opportunity to follow the bloom cycle of the endangered pinkshell azalea, Rhododendron vaseyi. This native azalea has wowed me since I first came to Western North Carolina back in 1986. It was one of the harbingers of spring I looked for on Whitesides Mountain when I was living in Highlands. I have written about the pinkshell before and it seems like every time I research it, its distribution has grown a bit. In the late 1990s most of the literature I read said it was known from three counties in WNC. I’m pretty sure it’s been documented in at least five counties of WNC, and one source that I read — Will Cook, research associate in Duke University’s department of biology — noted, “…it may also grow in adjacent areas of South Carolina or Georgia.”

The Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas notes that Rhododendron vaseyi is an interesting species because its 5 to 7 stamens are, “…intermediate between the Rhododendrons with 10 stamens and the Azaleas with 5.” It’s also distinguished from other native azaleas by its short (2-5 mm) corolla tubes. Most native azaleas have long narrow corollas reminiscent of honeysuckle.

George Vasey, first director of the U.S. National Herbarium, discovered pinkshell azalea in 1878. And while the majority of pinkshells are, indeed, pink, blossoms can range from almost pure white to deep purplish-pink.

In early May, not many pinkshells were in bloom, but the buds (which may actually be darker pink) were glowing from the rock ledges along the shoulder of the Parkway, where the shrubs cling.

By mid-May the buds began to burst, bathing the parkway in pastel pink. They are probably beginning to wane now, but there should be good viewing this weekend.

You begin to pick them up as you pass the Richland Balsam Overlook headed towards Asheville. They are common all the way to Mt. Pisgah. Going south on the parkway from Waynesville, you can find pinkshells just before and just beyond Waterrock Knob. And as I mentioned earlier, they can be found on Whitesides.

Grandfather Mountain claims to be home to the world’s largest population, and I’m sure there are other pockets at high elevations along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in other locales.

You owe it to yourself to keep an eye out for this shrub — it is, indeed, pretty in pink.

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


Last Saturday morning I was racing around in the woods of the Tusquitee Ranger District on the other side of Murphy, surveying some of the outlaying bird points, trying to finish up that district. I don’t know why it is, but every district I survey has a few of those points.

Bird count protocol calls for ending each day by 10 a.m. As the day heats up the birds quiet down – not singing as much. Most of the points are in groupings – there will be four or five along a route then a few miles away will be another cluster of four or five. When they are grouped like this it is pretty easy to get eight or 10 points in a morning.

But then there are the outlayers. Points, sometimes just one, but usually two, maybe three, set out miles away from any other points and often hard to access, along abandoned or rarely used roads. I had five points left to wrap up Tusquitee.

I got an early start and was at my first point at 6:45 a.m. Surveyors spend 10 minutes at each point. So, doing the math – five points; 10 minutes at each point – that’s only 50 minutes of actually surveying and I’ve got nearly three hours – I’m thinking this should be a pretty easy morning. But when you start adding up all the incidentals – opening and closing Forest Service gates, which means removing the wasp nest(s) first – then it’s six miles as the crow flies – at least a 20-minute drive – between the first two points and the third and another three miles between the third point and the last two. By the time I arrived at my last point it was 9:55 a.m.

Thankfully it was overcast and only 57 degrees Fahrenheit as I approached that last point. And the birds were singing. In fact the birds were singing and chipping and chattering. They were about as raucous as birds can get.

Survey protocol asks you to estimate the distance the birds are from the physical point. You are to estimate what species are within 25 meters of the point, what species are between 25 and 50 meters from the point and what species are greater than 50 meters from the point. You are also asked to designate what birds you hear during the first three minutes of the survey; what birds you hear from minutes four through six and what birds from minutes seven through 10.

It was easy enough, right away to tell some of the species within 25 meters of that last point. When I arrived there were at least eight or nine birds, representing three species, all within 50 feet of the point. There were three male hooded warblers singing away.

There was a pair of indigo buntings. The male was singing a part of his song, plus chipping (indigos have a loud, sharp chip note) and scolding. The female was also chipping and scolding away. I assume there was a nest nearby.

If that wasn’t enough commotion, there was also a mamma pine warbler with fledglings. She was chipping and scolding me while the babies were all clamoring for a mid-morning snack.

The noise was intense. It was like being at the symphony and having somebody in the next row blasting Snoop Dogg from a boom box. I actually had to change seats – moving 25 meters or so from the point – so I could hear the rest of the symphony.

Some of the other performers included black-throated green warbler, Kentucky warbler, ovenbird, pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, mourning dove and Carolina wren.

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


This past Saturday, May 7, was (I believe) the 12th-annual “Birding for the Arts” fundraiser for the Haywood County Arts Council. I can’t remember exactly how many Saturdays we’ve done it, but I do know it’s become one of my favorite Saturdays.

Joe Sam and Kate Queen are always the most gracious and enthusiastic hosts, and there is always a mix of first-timers and returnees. And I had a more visceral connection to the Arts Council and some of their wonderful community work this year because Director Kay Miller assisted Central Elementary’s PTO in securing grants to bring two cool educational performing arts programs to Central this year.

We began, as always, at the Performing Arts Center on Pigeon Street, but this time we had a little competition for space. The place was bustling, as vendors for Haywood’s Farmers Market were busy setting up and displaying their wares. Native plants, artisan breads and handmade arts and crafts were impossible to ignore as we did a quick turn around the parking area looking for birds.

We started out at the Performing Arts Center with a Mimidae trifecta. All three of our eastern mimics – northern mocking bird, gray catbird and brown thrasher – were present and loosening up their vocal chords.

Our next stop was Lake Junaluska. We began our tour of the lake at the newly enhanced wetlands behind the cafeteria. A spotted sandpiper was there enjoying the banks of Suzy’s Branch where it has been released from an underground culvert and allowed to meander across the wetlands. Two green herons were at home, on their nests, along the narrow, brushy island between the wetlands and the lake. Yellow-rumped warblers, who winter with us but are now preparing to depart for their northern nesting grounds, were common in the larger trees around the wetlands. Also present, singing loudly and persistently but somehow managing to stay hidden in the foliage, was a blackpoll warbler. We did, however, get great views of a yellow warbler at the edge of the wetlands.

After the wetlands we made a quick stop at the large parking lot on the lake near Stuart Auditorium. There we got good  (comparative) looks at tree swallows, northern rough-winged swallows, barn swallows and purple martins.

We proceeded to the cross where, after minutes and minutes of searching, a loudly singing Cape May warbler finally popped out of the deep cover of a spruce and provided great looks. We were teased again by singing blackpolls in the large oaks near the cross and a couple of people got quick glances, but we never got good looks. We also found a couple of lingering waterfowl – a ruddy duck and a female lesser scaup – to go with the dwindling population of American coots.

We headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway from the lake, which turned out, to our chagrin, to be quite windy. Despite the wind, we got great looks at chestnut-sided warblers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks.

It was also a great day for raptors and other soaring birds. A sharp-shinned hawk, carrying breakfast in its talons, buzzed us at one overlook and we got great looks at a red-tailed hawk that stooped at 100 mph from a gazillion feet up into the woods across the parkway from us to chase an apparent interloper out of its territory. We also saw ravens, turkey vultures and broad-winged hawks riding the bumpy thermals.

And what better way to end an all-day birding quest than standing at the edge of a wetlands in Bethel, out of the wind, and watching three Baltimore orioles within 50 feet of each other. We wound up with 74 species seen or heard for the day.

Whether you’re an arts aficionado looking for a cool and fun way to support the Haywood County Arts Council, a beginning birder looking for tips, an experienced birder willing to share tips and promote your hobby, or a community member who enjoys the outdoors and enjoys communing with like-minded souls, “Birding for the Arts” is an event you should attend. See ya next year!

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


I spoke with Blair Ogburn, senior naturalist at Balsam Mountain Trust, the other day and she related a perplexing incident. She said she was leading a group on a nature hike when she heard a blue-winged warbler. Now, blue-winged warblers have a really distinctive song. The Peterson field guide describes it as “... a buzzy beeeee-bzzz as if inhaled and exhaled.” But with a little spit, it would be a perfect Bronx cheer.

Blair, who was without binoculars, borrowed some from one of the hikers and scoured the brushy field where the song was coming from. She couldn’t find a blue-winged warbler anywhere. She did, however, find a golden-winged warbler – and that was the songster.

Ron Davis, assistant natural resources professor at Western Carolina University, and I had a meeting at Balsam Mountain Preserve last Friday and took a little timeout to search for the bird. We found it again still singing the blue-winged song but with an occasional alternate song that was more like a golden-winged. This is the second time in the past few years that I have observed this phenomenon. Bob Olthoff and I ran into a golden-winged singing the blue-winged song along Max Patch Road – it seems like it was in 2006 or 2007.

The golden-winged warbler, Vermivora chrysoptera, and the blue-winged warbler, Vermivora pinus, are so closely related and hybridize so freely that some biologist think of them and their various hybrids as a “superspecies.”

The typical first generation cross between a golden-winged and a blue-winged is known as a Brewster’s warbler. The Brewster’s was first thought to be a separate species. One of the common backcrosses is the Lawrence’s warbler. Each species and all the hybrids are capable of singing the common blue-winged song, the common golden-winged song and/or a number of variations of the two. And hybrids are likely to mate with either of the original species.

As early as the middle of the last century, the two warblers had fairly distinct ranges with little overlap. The blue-winged was found across the central-Midwest (Missouri, southern Illinois, southern Iowa, southern Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.) The golden-winged resided in the eastern U.S., New England and into Canada plus down the Appalachians to north Georgia and North Carolina.

Both species use early-successional habitat and as land uses began to change with more small eastern and New England farms reverting to scrub and woodland, blue-winged warblers began to expand their habitat eastward and northward and this march appears to be extirpating golden-winged warblers from these regions. Golden-winged populations are declining rapidly and hybridization is thought to be one of the causes.

The blue-voiced golden-winged was still with us as of last Saturday when the small group from the Great Smoky Mountains Audubon Chapter (GSMA) that I was leading stopped by. We got some pretty good looks and maybe he will stay through next Saturday (May 7) so our “Birding for the Arts” group will also get good looks.

The GSMA group also got good looks at scarlet tanager, northern parula, wood thrush and American redstart in the vicinity of the golden-winged. We also had good luck around Lake Junaluska with views of a couple of green herons on nests at the new wetlands. We got distinguishing looks at all the common swifts and swallows – chimney swift, tree swallow, northern rough-winged swallow, barn swallow and purple martin. Warblers encountered at the lake included yellow warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, palm warbler and blackpoll. It’s looking like we should have a really good trip for next Saturday’s “Birding with the Arts.”

This annual Haywood County Arts Council fundraiser is a great excuse to get out on a spring day, enjoy the mountains, see some really cool “performers” and help support all the great Arts Council programs. Space is limited so call the arts council at 828.452.0593 to sign up. Hosts Joe Sam and Kate Queen and I look forward to seeing you there.

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


I believe all of my feathered friends that nest and raise families in my yard and in the woods surrounding my yard are once again setting up housekeeping. That includes the year round residents like downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, yellow-shafted flicker, Carolina chickadee, American robin, tufted titmouse, song sparrow, northern cardinal, Carolina wren, eastern towhee, brown creeper and eastern phoebe.

Neotropical migrants that have returned include hooded warbler, northern parula – which nested for the first time last year and is back this year – blue-headed and red-eyed vireo, ovenbird, wood thrush, black-and-white warbler, scarlet tanager and red-breasted grosbeak.

I have had broad-winged hawk flyovers and assume they will once again nest in the woods around the house as they have for the last several years. And new to the mix this year is a pair of barred owls.

We have always heard the occasional barred owl in the distance. But about a month or so ago we had a pair really near the house. You could tell it was a pair because the male’s voice is lower pitched than the female. It became apparent after a couple of weeks that these two had taken up residence, and we hear them almost daily now.

The variety of vocalization is truly amazing. The standard barred owl call is an eight-note “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all” which frequently has a gurgled or slurred “you-all” at the end. When a pair decides to establish a territory and set up housekeeping there is a cacophony of calls. A lot of the territorial and/or challenge calls are a series of one-note “whos” followed by a “you-all” at the end. This call is predominantly the domain of the male but the female joins in from time to time.

When a pair engages in a round of simultaneous calling it can really get raucous with eight-note and one-note calls mixed together, occasionally joined by a series of caws and some plain crazy sounds. It is neither a duet nor a call and response kind of event. It is more like Joe Cocker and Aretha Franklin simultaneously singing different songs and trying to out do each other.

Some calls are more commonly associated with one or the other sex, for example males are more likely to perform the “series” call while the one-note call and whistles are more commonly performed by the female. However, either sex is capable of emitting any of the calls. The male (noted by the lower pitched call) of the pair in our woods was heard repeatedly this past weekend giving the one-note call.

This auditory performance will, hopefully, be enhanced in a few weeks by the screeching begging calls of juveniles. To get an earful of barred owl calls check out

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


Pilgrims from across the country and around the globe are on the move. They are headed to the Mecca of biodiversity – the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – to join in celebrating the 61st annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, April 26-May 1.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park – International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site – is home to more than 1,600 different species of flowering plants. Ephemeral jewels kick off a yearlong parade of color each spring as they plough through winter’s leaf litter splashing color, Jackson Pollock-like, across the gray-brown forest floor.

Dr. A.J. Sharp, former head of the University of Tennessee’s Botany Department, coordinated the first Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in 1951. More than 400 participants attended that first pilgrimage. More than 1,600 pilgrims will participate in this year’s event.

Spring ephemerals such as white-fringed phacelia, trout lily, crested dwarf iris, bloodroot, trillium, violets, anemone, yellow mandarin and on and on are, as always, the stars of the Pilgrimage but if you get tired of bending and stooping, take a bird walk and lift your head and binoculars upwards to see and hear Neotropical migrants like blackburnian warblers, scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Or learn about medicinal plants on a “Native People – Medicinal Walk.”

Whatever you do, don’t expect to be bored. There are 141 guided hikes, programs and/or presentations at this year’s Pilgrimage. There will be salamander walks, bat walks, butterfly walks and old growth walks, just to name a few. Some of the programs include “Why Bartram Matters” by actor J.D. Sutton, “Flora and Fauna of the Civil War” by author and former U.S. Fish & Wildlife refuge manager Kelby Ouchley, both at the Mills Conference Center in Gatlinbur, and “Return of the Elk in Cataloochee Valley,” onsite in Haywood County plus many more at venues like the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. There will also be a gallery of exhibitors, artists, native plant vendors and merchants located in Mills Conference Center.

If you’ve never been to the Pilgrimage, you owe it to yourself to go. You can get detailed information regarding this year’s hikes and/or programs at No matter your skill level or interest, you are sure to find a program or programs and leaders that fit the bill.

I know it’s easy to overlook. It’s in our own backyard and there’s the tendency to think, “I can go in the Park any time.” And while that may be true – you can’t go into the Park anytime with guides and mentors like the ones at the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.

I have to give a shout out to a couple of old Louisiana connections. Dr. R. Dale Thomas, retired professor of botany from ULM (University of Louisiana Monroe – Northeast Louisiana University back in the day) was my plant taxonomy instructor, and if anything matched his field expertise it was his enthusiasm for being in the field. Thomas will be leading a trip along Chestnut Top Trail on Thursday, April 28, and a tree and shrub hike on Friday. One of my classmates in Thomas’ class, now  Patricia Cox, a professor of botany at the University of Tennessee for 13 years and now a senior botanist for the Tennessee Valley Authority, is a fern freak. Cox will be leading four or five hikes but said her favorite was the fern walk on the Little River Trail. “You can see more than 20 species of ferns within a half-mile,” Cox said.

WCU’s own Dan Pittillo, retired botany professor, is another perennial trip leader as well as Hal and Laura Mahan, owners of The Compleat Naturalist in Asheville.

You can also call the W.L. Mills Conference Center for more Pilgrimage information at 800.568.4748.

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


I wrote a few weeks back about my kayak adventure with my daughters to Sister Island (The Naturalist’s Corner Mar. 16, 2011) on a recent trip to Isle of Palms. Well, the kayak trip was only the beginning of an even deeper, more visceral immersion into the primordial ooze that is tidal marsh.

Low tide followed us back to the dock after our kayak adventure. The marsh grass that had swayed gently, pushed then pulled by the incoming, then ebbing tide, now jutted out of a grey-black ooze alive with fiddler crabs dancing sideways across the surface and disappearing into muddy bubbles that covered the entrance of their tunnels. If there are two things my girls can’t resist – well actually, there are a myriad of things my girls can’t resist, but two of them are skittering critters and mud.

The retreating tide had gently lowered the floating landing that holds the kayak till it was resting on the glistening gunk. It was one short jump for kids but one giant exuberant jump for kidkind. The girls plopped, or maybe pluffed, knee deep into the muck amidst giggles and whoops of excitement.

We’re not talking about some bare earth that got rained on and is now squishy – we’re talking boot sucking, boat sticking, livestock eating mud.

This mud is the mother of all mud. And it rolls into the marsh on the back of every river, bayou, creek, slough and ditch seeking to become one with the ocean. The Lowcountry locals have a name for this fecund jello – it is called “pluff mud.” And it is referenced throughout the Lowcountry from Pluff Mud Alley in Mount Pleasant to Pluff Mud Field Airport in Charleston to Pluff Mud Art Gallery in Bluffton – there is even an online Pluff Mud magazine, and dinner in Charleston wouldn’t be complete without pluff mud pie for dessert.

The distinct pluff mud aroma emitted as anaerobic bacteria, at home in the dense muck, devour organic matter, releasing hydrogen sulfide mixes with the salt air and the bouquet tugs at the soul and psyche of Lowcountry natives and “marsh rats” everywhere. The etymology of pluff mud is not nearly so obvious as its attributes.

Some Internet sleuthing revealed that the term was also spelled plough mud, though pronounced “pluff” not “plow.” Pluff was the colonial English pronunciation of the word plough at the time the country was settled. Lowcountry natives apparently adopted the phonetic spelling of the English plough “pluff.” But why plough mud? I could not find a simple explanation – perhaps some reader might know. I imagine it has to do with the vast agricultural resources that the Lowcountry was noted for – the endless acres of cotton and rice produced from the fertile black earth.

I did find one colorful colouqualization for the term offered by the Myrtle Beach Convention Center’s webmaster: “Pluff’ is actually the sound you hear when your truck keys fall out of your shorts pocket, while you’re climbing over the side to drag the boat out of the aforementioned pluff mud.”

I tend to think of it as the sound made by little hands trying frantically to scoop skittering fiddler crabs from the shiny surface before they disappear.

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


The planets must have been in alignment when Buddy Young, director of residential services at Lake Junaluska, and Candace Stimson, Low Impact Development (LID) student at Haywood Community College, became acquainted. Stimson and her LID 112 class began working with Lake Junaluska on streambank enhancement, stormwater runoff and erosion problems last fall.

Stimson was looking for a capstone project for her associate’s degree in LID and Young and Lake Junaluska were looking for assistance in some steam mitigation to help them fulfill their requirements pertaining to a North Carolina Water Resources grant they were awarded last September to help them deal with sediment removal at the lake. According to Young, “Candace was the answer to our prayers.”

To fulfill her capstone project and become one of HCC’s first LID graduates, Stimson designed, coordinated and implemented the enhancement of Suzy’s Branch on the grounds of Lake Junaluska at the new wetlands site behind Jones cafeteria. According to Young, Suzy’s Branch had been piped, underground, through culverts to the lake. Stimson’s project removed 75 to 100 feet of culvert and created a course for the stream to flow through the wetlands.

Stimson worked with Dave McKay of RCF Construction to complete the needed excavation and grading. She worked with Southeastern Native Plants of Candler to come up with a native plant list for the wetlands, including wetland plants like fothergilla, arrowhead, blueflag irises, dogwood, muskingum sedge and others. Stimson said she was glad to find the muskingum sedge because it is endangered in Tennessee and old range maps list it as native in east Tennessee. She said plants don’t really know where east Tennessee stops and Western North Carolina starts.

Stimson said this new design and new wetlands has many environmental benefits.

“The wetlands will act like a filter to help keep sediment and other pollutants from reaching the lake. It will also provide new habitat and increase the diversity of wildlife,” she said.

Tamara Graham, natural resources LID instructor at HCC, said that Stimson’s project at Lake Junaluska embodies both the principles of HCC’s LID curriculum and the principles of HCC’s capstone program. Graham said HCC’s LID curriculum grew out of the Mountain Landscape Initiative and focuses on site-specific practices that can have far-reaching effects. In other words if everyone controlled and/or mitigated erosion and pollution problems on their own property the cumulative effect would be much less. And student’s capstone projects are designed to be real on-the-ground examples of how low impact development benefits the community and the larger landscape in general. She said that Stimson’s project met both of those criteria.

Stimson, who had worked in the nursing field for ten years, said that the LID curriculum at HCC was a godsend. “I’ve always cared about the environment. I love plants and working outdoors. The LID program at HCC brought it all together, I can follow my heart and work to heal the earth at the same time,” Stimson said.

A LID classmate of Simpson’s, Vicki Eastland, focused her capstone project on rescuing native plants from the construction site of a new creative arts building on the HCC campus and introducing them into appropriate habitat on campus.

It does this old hippie heart good to see people who care enough to change their backyard. When all our backyards are perfect, the world will be perfect.

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


Through some kind of mix up in the mail, I received a nomination from Wild South’s Roosevelt-Ashe Society for “Outstanding Journalist in Conservation” and an invitation to their 2011 “Green Tie Gala” held last Friday night (March 25) in Asheville.

I knew there was a mix up when I looked at the nominees in my category – Susan Andrew (Mountain Xpress), Pat Byington (Bama Environmental News), Bill Finch (The Nature Conservancy), Silas House and Jason Howard (authors of the book, Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal) and John Wathen (Friends of Hurricane Creek in Alabama, who uses his time and resources to document the effects of BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico).

“These are the kinds of people I write about,” I thought. But hey, the invitation promised free, local food and select beer and wine. Besides, I actually own a green tie – one with birds on it, believe it or not.

There was one awkward moment at the ceremony, when I took my hand out of my pocket to congratulate John Wathen, the outstanding journalist award winner, and my four-page impromptu acceptance speech fell on the floor. I quickly put my foot on it and casually commented, “Oh, that’s nothing – a little piece I’m working on for National Geographic Adventure about circumnavigating the globe in my sea kayak, the Mad Bella.”

OK, OK, in the “truth is stranger than fiction” department, I was quite surprised and humbled to find that my colleagues at The Smoky Mountain News had nominated me for the Roosevelt-Ashe journalism award. I knew the bottle of Pyrat rum (office Christmas gift) I dropped off would, one day, pay dividends.

I wasn’t kidding about what I thought my chances of winning were based on the list of nominees. I am a writer/columnist, not an activist, and the Roosevelt-Ashe nominees are, indeed, the people whose stories I tell. Still, it was an honor to be nominated and a pleasure to attend.

Wild South is a regional nonprofit that works to protect the wild things and wild places across the southern landscape. According to Wild South’s website the Roosevelt-Ashe Society is “a select group of individuals and businesses committed to sustaining the protection of the Southeast’s wild places. They uphold the legacies of President Theodore Roosevelt and Mr. W.W. Ashe by making personally significant contributions to support Wild South programs.”

The gala was held at Handmade in America’s Design Lab Space on Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville and there was an ample supply of promised local food and select adult beverages. There were more than a dozen sponsors for the event, regrettably too many to mention in this short column space but refreshments were wonderful and service was excellent.

Wild South started the award ceremony with two in-house recognitions – Susan Stone of Stone Digital Media and volunteer and Mountain Wildlife Days organizer John Edwards. The rest of the awards, selected by an independent awards committee, were: Alex Varner (Higher Ground Roasters) – Outstanding Business; Jay Leutze (Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy) – Outstanding Volunteer-Advocate; Philip Blumenthal – Outstanding Philanthropist; John Wathen (Friends of Hurricane Creek) – Outstanding Journalist; Hilary Hargrove (Riverdale High School, Tenn.) – Outstanding Educator; Cole Rasenberger (Davidson Elementary) – Outstanding Youth; and Brad Wyche (Upstate Forever) – Outstanding Conservationist.

It was a real treat to be there and see old friends like Kevin Fitzpatrick, whom I knew from Highlands. Kevin is an outstanding photographer and videographer now living in Asheville, where he owns All Species Photography and Sound. Dr. Pete Bates, natural resource professor at WCU and a deserving nominee for outstanding educator, was also there. And it was great to meet new friends like Wild South’s Alabama Program Director, Mark Kolinski.

People out there in the environmental/conservation trenches (including agency personnel like North Carolina Natural Resources Commission, U.S Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife) spend most of their working time being pigeonholed, dissed and/or vilified. Events like the Green Tie Gala, where they can let their hair and shields down and simply enjoy the company of other like-minded individuals, provide much needed R&R for these dedicated souls. A place where they can re-energize and prepare to get back out there and make more of the kinds of stories I write.

I thank my colleagues at Smoky Mountain News for the nomination and I thank Wild South and the Roosevelt-Ashe Society for the wonderful event and their recognition of their foot soldiers.

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


The U.S. Forest Service will hold a public meeting at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville at 100 Frederick Law Olmstead Way from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on April 4 to explain its brand new proposed draft Planning Rule.

This is not a meeting for public comment. According to the Forest Service, “The forum will not be a platform to accept public comment, rather an opportunity for interested stakeholders to ask questions to better inform the formal comments they submit during the public comment period, which closes May 16, 2011.”

What started going around in 2000 is now coming around again in 2011. I don’t know how many of you, like I, participated in the public meeting back then at UNCA where the Forest Service was asking for comments and/or suggestions regarding their proposed changes to the 1982 Forest Management Plan. It was an all-day affair. There were comments from many people and groups regarding how they thought our national forests should be managed. There were “breakouts” where the crowd would be broken up into groups and asked to brainstorm. I think at the end of the day a lot of people were feeling good about their efforts, feeling like they had been heard.

Turned out the Forest Service didn’t like the 2000 rule and decided they would, more or less in-house, develop a new Forest Service Planning Rule.

In 2005 the Forest Service published the shiny new 2005 Planning Rule in the Federal Register, then in 2008 issued the 2008 Planning Rule and environmental impact statement. Conservation and environmental organizations took exception at not being consulted and sued. In 2009 a district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs stating that the 2008 rule was in violation of both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. So here we are in 2011 managing our national forests under the 1982 rule – everything old is new again.

Now there may be some out there who think the 1982 rule is cool and we should move on to other things. But I think most – no matter where you fall on issues like timbering, mining, wildlife conservation etc. – would agree that we face a whole new slate of environmental issues and concerns like hemlock woolly adelgid, increased pressure on public water supplies, dwindling wildlife (game and non-game) populations, the possibility of climate change, increased competing interests, etc. that all cry out for more responsive and more effective management of our publicly-owned national forests.

So regardless if you’re a bird watcher, bear hunter, fisherman, photographer, hiker, biker, horse rider, etc., you should familiarize yourself with the new proposed rule and comment. Of course, if your comment is “all the forests should be bulldozed for more golf courses,” or “all national forest should be padlocked and no humans allowed,” I’m sure they will be filed accordingly. However, if you are truly concerned about the state of our national forests and what they will look like 100 years from now and you are honest and sincere in your comments and (could be a critical “and”) the Forest Service listens with an open mind maybe, just maybe, we could end up with a Planning Rule that bear hunters, bird watchers, old growth advocates and loggers could all live with.

I have to admit, I haven’t read the proposed rule but I’ve seen talking points and seen some movements, like stewardship contracting, that I find promising. But I’ve also seen reports from groups like Defenders of Wildlife and the Pew Environment Group that find the rule lacking in concrete environmental protection language. Like I said, the devil is in the details – or maybe the lack thereof.

If you can’t make the Asheville meeting on April 4, you can find the full text of the proposed rule at or you can call 404.347.4984 for more information. Public comment is open till May 16.

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


Anyone who reads this column regularly knows I am a fan of backyard bird feeding. The constant feathered activity just a few feet from the kitchen window is a constant reminder of the incredible diversity that spins around the sun with us on our big blue marble.

Whether it is the almost constant back and forth of chickadees and titmice or the raucous inverted antics of nuthatches, hardly a minute passes without some type of activity at the feeders. The middle of April means it’s time to get the hummingbird feeders up. And if we’ve procrastinated the hum of wings and squeaks at the windows will remind us. Once the hummers are here, it’s not long before the freshly plumaged brightly colored rose-breasted grosbeak will appear at the black oil sunflower seeds. It is not uncommon, in migration, to have groups of four or five grosbeaks at the feeders together. As spring rolls on and territories are carved out grosbeak numbers will dwindle down to one or two pair that will nest in the woods around my house. And throughout the summer a flash of color will announce when one of the pairs has dropped in for the buffet.

The flocks of juncos and morning doves that fed all winter on the ground beneath the feeders will also dwindle in number as spring rolls on till only nesting pairs are left. White-throated sparrows will disappear but song sparrows will remain along with nesting cardinals and towhees.

When autumn rolls around there will be an explosion of hummingbirds as nesters and their offspring battle with migrants over nectar-rights. Cardinals, towhees, titmice and all tired of bill-feeding hungry fledglings will bring them to the feeders and teach them the ropes.

Spring and fall migrations are generally the best time to keep an eye out for some not so common visitors. Last March I was surprised to have a pine warbler show up, nibbling at my peanut butter mixture. I usually get fox sparrows passing through both spring and fall.

Winter means finches — purple and house come and go sporadically and in varying numbers. Goldfinches in good numbers are common most of the winter. But the little buggers that will eat you out of house and home are the pine siskins. And while we’ve not had one in quite some time, there are those winter irruptions that can bring evening grosbeaks and their apparently unending appetites.

I feed birds for the same reason most people do — my enjoyment. I love having these beautiful wild creatures at arm’s length. I’m sure they are more than capable of fending for themselves. And there is research that shows that even birds that frequent your feeders on a daily basis get as much as 70 to 80 percent of their nourishment from wild foods.

But presently there is a fly in the ointment. The price of birdseed, especially popular birdseed like black oil sunflower and nyjer or niger thistle has doubled. I don’t know how many of my fellow bird feeders out there are on a budget these days, but for me $16 for a 25-pound bag of sunflower seed is pushing it, especially in the winter when I can go through a bag in a couple of weeks.

During the next couple of weeks I am going to experiment, in a completely capricious and subjective manner, on ways to maintain numbers and diversity of bird species while slashing my birdseed budget. If any of you out there have done this and would like to share your results please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I will post my results in the Naturalist’s Corner in a couple of weeks.

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


It’s late January and it’s 15 degrees outside, snow is flying, the Alberta Clipper has the huge yellow buckeye swaying like the mast of a sailing ship but inside that yellow buckeye, a good 50 feet above ground in a cramped clawed out leaf-lined den, life will not be denied. A black bear is giving birth to two tiny, sightless, hairless cubs weighing maybe 10 ounces each. The cubs will be shifted quickly to their mother’s breast where their small round mouths will find teats and warm rich milk.

Black bear are found throughout North America, in suitable habitat, from Canada to Florida and from coast to coast. Most black bears hibernate for a period of time during winter. That time could range from seven months in Alaska and Canada to three to four months in the Southern Appalachians to zero months in Florida.

Pregnant females are generally the earliest hibernators followed by barren females and females with yearlings and lastly males. Black bears usually give birth from late December through February, with most cubs being born from mid- to late January. Even in southern states like Louisiana and Florida where bears can be active year round, pregnant females “den up” to give birth.

A den can be anything from a pile of leaves and sticks in a rhododendron slick for a bear in the Appalachians to a rock crevice in Maine to a cave in the Rockies to the roots of an upturned spruce in Canada. Pregnant females tend to select the most secure and protected dens and it is common in the Appalachians for these dens to be in cavities in large, mature hardwoods.

The debate, “Are black bears ‘true’ hibernators?” is still out there but it seems most wildlife biologists are expanding their definition and/or concept of hibernation to include black bears. One of the main sticking points is the fact that the bear’s body temperature does not drop as dramatically as that of other hibernators.

While the bear’s heart rate in hibernation may drop from between 45 to 70 beats per minute to between eight and 12 its temperature may only drop from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to between 86 and 96 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s this relatively high body temperature that allows the mother bear to be alert enough to care for her young. And that can be a demanding task. Newborns will nurse every 10 minutes or so. As they get older the intervals between feedings will grow giving the mom time to nap while the cubs nap.

It is also the bear’s body temperature that keeps the cubs warm. There is often little difference between outside temperatures and the temperature in the den. The mom turns her thickly furred back to the cold and curls up in a ball bringing the cubs close to her breast. Her body heat and warm breath help keep the cups warm. By the time the cubs are six weeks old they are also covered with a dense fur.

The bear’s milk is metabolized directly from body fat and is nearly twice as high in calories as human milk and/or cow’s milk. The bear may lose as much as half a pound a day in weight as it converts its body fat into milk. The mother bear may produce as much as 50 pounds of milk before the winter is over.

Female black bears become sexually mature at around four years old. They typically have one cub their first pregnancy. Since they care for their cubs for a year or so, sexually mature bears generally give birth every other year. Litters can range from one to four with two being the average here in the Southern Appalachians.

As the cubs grow they become more and more active in the den and if the den is at ground level, they may actually venture outside occasionally by early March. Most bear families are out of the den by late April. The cubs will weigh between nine and 12 pounds and it will be time for mom to find some food and show them the ropes.

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


Happy new ivory-billed search in 2009

May old woodpeckers be forgot and never photoshopped.

A $50,000 reward has been offered for a definitive photo of an ivory-billed woodpecker. I’m thinking that photo might be worth a buck or two more.

Should old woodpeckers be forgot and left to auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear

Forauld lang syne

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet

For old ivory-bills

Documenting the “Lord God” bird has proved as vexing for the apostles from the Cathedral of Birding, a.k.a., the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as documenting papal infallibility has for the Vatican. And this year there is a hint of resignation coming from Cornell.

After the flush of its announcement of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Cornell had this to say in its 2004-2005 report, “The bird captured on video is clearly an Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” said John Fitzpatrick, the Science article’s lead author, and director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. “Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives.”

The 2005-2006 summary was a little more guarded, “In summary, the visual and acoustic evidence collected during 2005–06 gives us some hope that a small number of IBWOs may persist in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas.”

Then came the 2006-2007 season. “The Lab and its partners concluded the 2006–07 field season in Arkansas at the end of April with no additional definitive evidence of ivory-bills to complement the data gathered in 2004 and 2005.”

The 2007-2008 season was summed up — “Searchers documented more possible sightings and possible ivory-bill double knocks heard, but the definitive photograph, like the bird itself, remained elusive.”

And as Cornell takes to the woods this season — “If no birds are confirmed, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will not send an organized team into the field next year.”

And surely you’ll have your double knock

And surely I’ll have my kent

And there’ll be some keen cavities

For old ivory-bills

I guess Cornell has grown weary of those Arkansas winters and this year is going to sacrifice by concentrating on sunny Florida — “Up till now, we’ve concentrated on bottomland hardwood swamps and forests,” says Ron Rohrbaugh, director of the Lab’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project. “But there’s a huge area of pristine mangrove forest in southern Florida that could support ivory-bills. In fact, the historical record shows the birds did live there and that collectors took specimens from the area. Although there haven’t been any confirmed sightings there recently, the great habitat certainly warrants a closer look.”

And with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners searches will take place in eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, southern Illinois, the Florida panhandle, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and east Texas.

And individuals, like Mike Collins in the Pearl River, will continue their personal quests to morph the romantic, enigmatic grail-bird into a lucid, palpable creature that flies not only through our imagination but through remnants of wilderness that remind them of a long-ago home.

But for me:

I’ll buy me my pint cup

And gladly buy you, yours

And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet

For old ivory-bills

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


Like ships that collide in the middle of the night, “midnight rules” and their undoing perpetuate and reinforce philosophical and ideological divisions in this country while enhancing partisanship and strengthening the hold and influence politicians and power brokers have over OUR economy, OUR liberties and OUR environment.

Midnight rules or regulations are federal regulations that can be enacted through the administration and executive agencies without congressional oversight. It’s a political game played by both parties. The term midnight rules or midnight regulations actually came into vogue at the end of Democrat Jimmy Carter’s last term when his administration set a record for midnight rules by producing more than 10,000 pages of new rules between Election Day 1980 and the January 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan. The term is in reference to the “midnight judges” appointed by John Adams as he departed the White House.

As would be expected, the volume of midnight rules rises exponentially when the incoming president is from a different party than the outgoing. Bush Sr. left a load for Bill Clinton, Clinton rolled up “midnight” honors with more than 26,000 pages of rules, and now G.W. Bush is passing on the favor to president-elect Obama.

We become complicit in the game when we start lauding midnight rules that are in line with our philosophies while decrying those rules we find objectionable. I am certainly included in the above “we.”

When I look at some of the midnight rules this lame-duck president has signed, I surely hope Obama has the will to address them:

• The rule that would allow federal land-use managers to approve highway, mining and logging projects without consulting with federal and/or biological experts on the effects of such projects.

• The rule that allows mountaintop mining to dump sediment nearer to streams than is currently allowed.

• The rule that allows factory farms to dump wastes in waterways without permits

• The rule that gives factory farms exemptions from reporting noxious emissions.

• The rule that would ease restrictions on power plants near national parks.

• The weakening of New Source Review regulations making it easier for industry to skirt requirements for better pollution control.

The list goes on.

And I was one who applauded Clinton’s midnight efforts to create rules that provided more environmental protection. But the truth is, the whole concept and protocol that allows midnight rules is odious.

The fact that any administration can, at the stroke of midnight, implement regulations that have profound effects on its constituents, without its constituents having any oversight, is an anathema.

Rules and regulations that affect OUR economy, OUR liberties and OUR environment demand to be vetted in daylight under full public scrutiny — not passed at midnight.

Now, pardon me while I put my soapbox back behind the curtain — for now.

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


On a recent trip to Isle of Palms, South Carolina, we had access to a sea kayak and decided to take advantage. There’s a pretty dramatic tide at Isle of Palms with currents to match so you have to plan your trip accordingly. We weren’t heading anywhere in particular so we just waited for high tide and spent a couple of hours exploring the nearby marsh.

There was a small island in the marsh between where we were staying and the Intracoastal Waterway – it looked to be about .2 of a mile away. I pulled a coastal map up online and saw that the channel from the end of our pier passed right by the island. So the girls (Izzy, age 9 and Maddie, age 5) and I decided we would go island exploring.

We launched during slack tide after the high tide had come in. It was a nice, easy paddle to the island and we found a good spot to beach our kayak. We strode ashore the island, which was maybe 150 yards long and 15 yards across at the widest point.

It seems “possession” must be hard-wired in the human psyche. We hadn’t been on the island five minutes when the first order of business became naming “our” island. After about five minutes of heated sibling debate, we declared the island Sister Island. But as long as we were naming things, it became apparent that the sea-worthy vessel that brought us to Sister Island also required a name. After another five-minute debate between Isabella and Madelyn, our vessel was christened Mad Bella. Now we were set to explore.

Believe it or not, there was a lot to explore on that 150-yard spit of terra firma and the only thing shorter than attention spans was the distance to the next discovery. I think that palmetto tree may have finally been acknowledged and substituted for palm tree. However, I’m pretty sure that “Krumholz effect” blew in one ear and out the other faster than the prevailing wind that shaped all the woody vegetation on Sister Island.

Izzy did discover deer tracks but I’m not sure she believed her dad when he told her the dog poop with the bits of shell in it was actually from otters. There were small depressions – maybe 2 1/2 feet in diameter – at both ends of the island that were apparently otter “haul-out” sites and/or bedding sites. You could see faint tracks. They didn’t appear really fresh but that could have been because of the compacted soil above high tide. There were a few empty crab shells scattered around – evidence of an otter picnic – that made great “treasures.”

Of course there was also evidence of pirate activity. But the girls couldn’t come up with an explanation for how Blackbeard’s crew came by Bud Light in a can.

There were enough broken off “tree statues” for climbing and enough treasures to be found that our loop around Sister Island took up the larger part of an hour.

By the time we got back to Mad Bella and launched her for our voyage home the tide was ebbing. Fortunately, it was just beginning to ebb and Izzy was a much stronger paddler than I expected. We cruised back home easily against the tide. Mad Bella was overflowing from all the loot from Sister Island and Maddy, who was a little reluctant at the beginning of the trip looked back and said, “Dad, I’m glad I came kayaking.”

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


Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to put the last nail in the coffin of the eastern cougar by declaring it extinct. The cougar (catamount, panther, puma, painter, mountain lion) will surely not go quietly. This legendary gris-gris of boreal forests, eastern mountains and southeastern swamps will continue to haunt wild places on the ground and wild places in the heart for decades to come.

There also are some scientific taxonomy issues that need to be addressed regarding the eastern cougar. Fish and Wildlife adheres to taxonomy established in 1946 by S.P. Young and E.A. Goldman that lists at least 15 subspecies of cougar in North America. One of those was Felis concolor couguar – the eastern cougar. Since then, a change in the genus name from Felis to Puma has been widely accepted and the eastern cougar has been referred to as Puma concolor couguar. However, a 2000 study by M. Culver et al., which studied the DNA of 186 individuals from the 15 previously named sub-species, concluded that the entire North American population of cougars was/is one subspecies that they called Puma concolor couguar.

This lack of scientific consensus surely opens a large can of worms and wiggly intrigue. The Fish and Wildlife considers the Florida panther a distinct subspecies, Puma concolor coryi, and it was listed as endangered in 1967. Six years later the eastern subspecies (according to Fish and Wildlife), Puma c. couguar was also listed as federally endangered. A lot of money and resources have been expended in Florida to help rescue the Florida panther from extinction. However, if the eastern cougar is declared extinct there can be no “Recovery Plan” and there can be no “Critical Habitat” designation – the two primary avenues Fish and Wildlife uses to try and reestablish endangered species.

I must admit that I don’t know if there are different established policies and/or guidelines for reestablishing animal populations to their former range depending on whether they are listed as endangered, extinct or extirpated. I know that the eastern subspecies of elk was declared extinct in the late 1800s and that different subspecies have been used to reintroduce the elk in the East. And western subspecies of bald eagles and peregrine falcons have been used to reestablish populations of both species in the East.

It has become apparent to most biologists that there is no self-sustaining population of cougar in the East other than 150 or so animals in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp in Florida. The last documented cougars in North Carolina were reportedly killed in 1886, one near Highlands and one in Craven County. The last reported cougar from the Smokies was dispatched in 1920.

The Fish and Wildlife recognizes that cougars have occasionally been seen in the East but according to Martin Miller, northeast region chief of endangered species, “…we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar.”

Reestablishing an apex predator like the cougar is, sadly, not as easy as reestablishing cool birds or potential game animals. Despite the documented ecological and environmental benefits of reintroducing wolves (another apex predator) in Yellowstone National Park, there is a rousing clamor out West to de-list the wolf and open season on them once again. It seems that when it comes to apex predators, the general public has a love-hate relationship – that is, they love to hate ‘em.

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


Different people have different ideas of camping. Some people like to carry their camp on their back as they hike for untold miles, eating freeze-dried beans and drinking purified water from the streams. Some people’s idea of the camp is where you go to mix cocktails and sit in the hot tub and watch the big game on the 60-inch plasma TV.

Both of these “opposite ends of the spectrum” have their associated perks and pitfalls and both can be wonderful experiences. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy both aspects but I can tell you I’ve spent more time in a tent than a hot tub. The average camping experience usually falls somewhere in between, like a small tent at a backcountry campsite, a pop-up or RV at a front-country site, the hunting camp or the fishing camp, etc.

On my recent trip to Louisiana to count birds at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge, near Monroe, I had the pleasure of camping for two nights along the Ouachita River with an old Mer Rouge chum, Gil White. Gil is the proud owner of a small one-room camp literally feet away from the edge of the high bank of the river, near Moon Lake, just minutes from Monroe.

The camp is, in fact, a little too close to the riverbank, and one of Gil’s projects for the summer will be moving it back a 100 feet or so. It seems the unusually high water last year caused the river to undercut a huge water oak standing just in front of the camp. If the tree goes, the camp, where it is now, would follow, and I don’t think it would make a good houseboat in its present form.

The camp is definitely one of those “tweeners” from above. No electricity and no running water, but dry with a wood stove and small covered deck for river watching. I’m guessing the total inside area is about 12 by 12 or so, maybe a tad larger and the deck extends out another 6 to 8 feet. Plenty of potable water in different sized containers, propane cookstoves, battery and gas lanterns, ice chests and a port-o-potty just down the trail insures all basic needs are met. And the best part – you don’t have to pack all that gear in.

Now this is not wilderness camping. The camp is barely 10 minutes outside of Monroe and probably less than a mile from Moon Lake campground sitting in an open field/pecan orchard with a gravel road just outside the gate, a few hundred yards away. But once you’re there and sit back and prop your feet up you’re instantly transported.

The sun is sliding west, disappearing through the woods beyond the river. Wood ducks, dark silhouettes in the dusk, are plopping in one pothole then splashing and squealing and rising up to circle the clearing and try another pothole, seeking that perfect spot to settle in for the night. Spring peepers, American toads, cricket frogs and others call loudly and lustily from slough and road ditch and swale while a huge moon crawls into the sky above the levee to peak at us between the clouds.

With bellies full of tasty camp grub that Gil cooked up on a small propane grill, a nice fire in the fire pit and a cool adult beverage, we decided to see if there were any owls in the neighborhood. I walked over to my truck and played a CD of great horned owls. By the time I made it back to my spot by the fire a pair were in the big water oaks above us quietly hooting and carrying on as if talking to themselves about where the interloper might be. The moon was so bright we saw the duo as they left the oak headed for another nearby post where they, once again, began calling as if challenging the intruder.

As bedtime approached a tug passed by headed upriver with two empty barges. Gil had a tent sent up on a mat outside and I retired to the camp. It was a pleasant, warmish February evening. All the windows in the camp were open. The frogs were serenading as loudly as ever, and the owls were still calling in the distance as I crawled into my sleeping bag.

The dawn will be our alarm clock. Black Bayou is only minutes away and the coffee pot is ready to go. Life is good.

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


An old friend from Mer Rouge, La., George Bowe, was passing through a couple of weeks ago so we decided to take a ride down to Cataloochee and see if the elk were out. We got down to the valley around 3 p.m. and before we got to the Palmer Chapel we spotted elk, grazing and generally lounging around in the fields. It was apparent that the large bulls had already dropped their massive antlers but the young bulls with spikes and small 4-point racks still had antlers.

The elk were brought to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in two groups in early 2001. The first batch of 25 elk from Land Between the Lakes on the Tennessee-Kentucky border was released in 2001. In 2002, another 27 elk from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada were released into the valley. Original reintroduction plans called for a third release, but North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission decided that was too risky (they feared chronic wasting and/or other diseases might be transferred to local deer and/or cattle populations) and the Park Service nixed the last release.

Biologists in neighboring states don’t appear gripped by the same fears. Kentucky estimates its elk population at nearly 10,000 now. About 1,500 elk were released in Kentucky between 1997 and 2002. Tennessee has seen its 200 reintroduced elk (between 2000 and 2008) double in population and Virginia has plans to release hundreds of elk into the southwestern corner of the state this year.

The original reintroduction in the Smokies was billed as a 5-year experimental release during which time the impacts “on” the elk and “of” the elk would be studied and a determination would be made regarding the herd’s status. Because of the inability to release more elk, the study period was extended for three years. The Park Service changed the status of the elk in Cataloochee, early in 2010, from experimental to an official reintroduction. The herd has grown to between 130 and 140 animals at this point.

I was fortunate enough to get to go to Land Between the Lakes back in 2000 when the original elk were rounded up for the trip to the Park. Kim Delozier and his crew were quite professional and the capture went smoothly. However, it was apparent that these elk that lived in a 700-acre fenced-in enclosure were not the wild and wily beasts of the forests and prairies of the West, alert to every movement and/or scent that came their way; prepared to bolt for safety at a moment’s notice.

And the elk George and I found the other day at Cataloochee appeared to have a healthy dose of those genes. After we passed the Palmer Chapel we saw elk again in the front yard of the old Caldwell house. We drove on down to the end of the road and upon seeing no more elk in the fields, we returned to the Caldwell house.

There were a couple of elk (looked like a cow and calf) still grazing in the yard. We got out to get some photos and more elk came from behind the house.

I wanted to show George the old house so we started across the footbridge figuring the elk would mosey on. Well, they moseyed — only toward us, not away, so we returned to the road. Then about four young bulls came out of the woods and into the yard. A couple decided to practice their sparring moves.

Next, the whole group waded into the stream for a drink. And a really curious cow and calf started towards us. We didn’t want to run afoul of any of the Park’s elk protocol, so we retreated to the truck. The cow and calf came right up and started nosing the back hatch of my white Montero. Made me wonder if the Park Service had done any supplemental feeding during the snow and nasty weather this winter from white, Park Service vehicles or if maybe unthinking visitors have actually been feeding them.

Whatever the reason, it’s certainly not good to have 1,000-pound animals that acclimated to humans — they could present a danger to unsuspecting visitors. But more sadly, fed elk can be just as dead as fed bears.

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


Environmentalism across the U.S. and around the world was spawned from the sludge of greed, industrialization and indifference. Some of the earliest environmental writings in the world date back at least to the 10th century and the Arab Agricultural Revolution. Arab “conservationists” were concerned about air and water contamination and the mishandling of animal waste. In 1272 King Edward I of England banned the burning of sea-coal because of air pollution. Benjamin Franklin led other concerned Philadelphia citizens to petition the Pennsylvania Assembly to remove tanneries from and stop waste dumping in Philadelphia’s commercial district.

And environmentalists in the U.S. continued to react to events such as the extirpation of the passenger pigeon and the near loss of the American Bison. Three-Mile Island, Love Canal and other environmental catastrophes have helped galvanize the image of American environmental groups as those champions who go around righting wrongs.

And, trust me, there have been; there are; and there will be enough “wrongs” to validate this “watchdog” mentality among environmental organizations. But there is also a great opportunity for a different pro-active mindset.

I wrote about the U.S. Forest Service’s stewardship contracts for The Smoky Mountain News on Jan. 19:

The article points out many of the differences between stewardship contracting and traditional timber bids. Here are some of the main ones. The focus of the project is forest restoration not dollars for board feet. The money received for timber harvested pays for the restoration. Plus, most of the money stays in the region rather than going to the U.S. Treasury and can be used for other restoration projects across the forest.

Another difference, according to Dale Remington, sales forester for the National Forests in North Carolina, is that stewardship contracting is a collaborative effort from the start, bringing together loggers, environmental groups, the public and other interested parties at the beginning of the process to try and shape the goals and outcomes of the project.

Stewardship contracting also allows the forest service to enter into Master Stewardship Agreements with nonprofits and/or other agencies giving those organizations or agencies the responsibility of overseeing the project on the ground and ensuring that stewardship goals are met.

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission just signed a Master Stewardship Agreement with the forest service in North Carolina, making it the first state agency in the nation to do so. According to Mallory Martin, deputy director of NCWRC, “This agreement will allow our two agencies to collaborate early on to explore the best possible use of funds to benefit North Carolina’s wildlife resources.” Other groups the Forest Service has worked with in North Carolina include the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Ruffed Grouse Society and Quail Unlimited. When I saw NCWRC added to this list, I thought, “Is this forest management or game management?”

So I called Remington to ask him how the forest service felt about stewardship contracting with environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club.

“Actually, I’m meeting with David Ray of The Nature Conservancy [in North Carolina], Thursday [2/17],” Remington said. He said the forest service welcomed all partners with the resources and expertise to help administer stewardship contracts.

“I would love to be the first to sit down and hash out a stewardship agreement with an organization like, say, Wild South,” Remington said.

Now, for those watchdog groups out there, stewardship contracting doesn’t bypass the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process and all the old avenues are still open if there is something untoward going on. But for those groups with the vision, the resources and the will to restore and help shape America’s forested landscape, now’s the time to shift gears.

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


The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) and partners are literally moving the earth over in Flat Rock to help restore the Ochlawaha bog.

Excavators are stripping about a foot of fill dirt from an old tomato field in hopes of exposing the natural wetland soils that lie beneath. Next, they will encourage the channeled Mud Creek, which borders one side of the old field, to meander through the wetlands the way infrared imaging shows it used to. Ochlawaha is a Native American name meaning “slowly moving muddy waters” and was once applied to the creek itself.

CMLC and the N.C. Plant Conservation Program obtained a small forested area of the bog in 1998. With the help of the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, they are now working to restore at least 30 acres of bog habitat.

Southern Appalachian mountain bogs are one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet. Biologists estimate that only 500 acres or so of bog remain. Many scientists believe the area around Ochlawaha bog, fed by Mud Creek, could have contained the largest expanse of wetlands in the Southern Appalachians. Volunteers have worked planting native trees and the Western North Carolina Alliance has assisted with invasive exotic plant control.

Unfortunately for bogs and the critters and plants that call them home, they occupy/occupied what, in today’s market would be classified as “prime real estate.” So for settlers looking for a place to build a home, grow a crop or pasture domestic animals – flat was good. And while it was labor intensive, early settlers were pretty adept at draining wetlands. Then with the industrial revolution and ever-increasing mechanical capabilities, draining wetlands became easy and, even, filling depressions was just another day at work.

The vast majority of Southern Appalachian bogs are now homes, farms, subdivisions, strip malls, football fields, etc. And the vast majority of endemic Southern Appalachian bog flora and fauna is extinct, endangered and or threatened. At least 90 mountain wetland species in North Carolina are considered rare, threatened or endangered. They include the bog turtle, mountain sweet pitcher plant, swamp pink, Gray’s lily, green pitcher plant and bunched arrowhead.

The endangered bunch arrowhead, Sagittaria fasciculata, is known from only about a dozen sites, all in either Henderson County or Greenville County, S.C. It has been recorded from the area of Ochlawaha bog and CMLC and U.S. Fish & Wildlife and partners hope that by enhancing the site it will provide the opportunity to re-establish bunched arrowhead plus create habitat for other wetland plants and animals.

Mountain bogs not only produce habitat for wetland flora and fauna, they also assist in flood control by slowing floodwaters down and allowing them to soak into the ground. Bogs also work as great water filters taking sediment and contaminants out of the water.

Some other notable wetland-preservation efforts around Western North Carolina include the Rough Creek watershed in Canton, Flat Laurel Creek and Tallulah Bog.

I believe CMLC is on the right track — just build it and they will come, they being the bunched arrowhead and other endemic bog species.

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


Don’t put this book on your bookshelf, mounted there like some hunter’s head of a deer, to prove you can read. Don’t put this book on the coffee table, turned slightly askance — to be noticeable, so people will know you read poetry. Don’t even take this book to your reading chair where you riffle through Crichton, Frazier or Rash when you can steal a moment. No, take this book outside.

Crack Light is Thomas Rain Crowe’s newest book of poetry, just published by Wind Publishers. Crowe, who lives on John’s Creek in Jackson County in a home that he helped build, is a poet, a translator of poetry, an author of at least 30 books of original and translated works, an editor and publisher (New Native Press) and, more importantly with regards to Crack Light, one who lives in nature. One who admires and respects the natural world and understands the thread that runs through rock and dirt, through trunk and limb, to leaf and sky – through our very essence and connects us all as the umbilical connects the unborn to life.

Take this book to Judaculla Rock or any other petroglyph site and read from “The First Poem:”


“And after the voice of God stopped shouting and began to

sing, words became colors as a form of light —

blue, green, white — even the energy in matter cut loose and

ran for the woods that no one ever went near for fear  

of speaking His name and forever being banished from  

innocence and awe uttered in praise.  

‘Why would anyone want to be a bard?’  

And after he had asked, he went to the woods and  

wrote on the backs of trees and on the heads of rocks  

every shape he knew and could carve with his knife  

now that he had invented words that with his own voice

could sing!”


Take this book to Elkmont in the Smokies on an early June night and read “Fireflies:”


“Like eyes at the edge of the woods:  

the fireflies dance.

Like lonely cabin lamps  

on a ship at sea  

they ride the tide of night  

’round our old mountain homes  

near sleep.  

Who are these little lighthouses in  

the alleys of night?

They are tipis of fire on torches  

where faeries feast and sing.  

Wandering the wood.  

Where wili is Queen.  

Darkness the Fool.  

And moon the mystic King.”


Take this book to Black Balsam Knob at sunrise and read from “Dawn” (for Thomas Berry):


“Even in the evening she dreams of morning  

in her sleep. Of that quiet moment before love  

when creation paused  

at the thought of dawn flooding his face.

When hands become legs and  

bodies become the moving water of sheets  

covering the darkness before the birth of stars.  

Before even the breath of truth  

became flames dancing from the dream  

on fire in a poet’s heart.  

And there was light.”


Crowe collaborated with photographer Simone Lipscome to create Crack Light and her images sing in harmony with the poet’s voice. The poems span decades but, according to Crowe, they all have one thing in common — they’re about place. They’re about this place — the Southern Appalachians, her beauty; her culture; her customs; her people; her poetry.

This book is a must take.


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


Pandemonium had engulfed Shoal Creek by the time authorities arrived. One fisherman sat, dazed, on a boulder, rocking back and forth, his head in his hands, mumbling, “It was big as a horse – and those pinchers, oh, those pinchers …” as rescue personnel and officers with automatic weapons splashed through the creek to a huge rock where a group of fishermen were splashing and shouting and apparently trying to move the rock.

“What’s going on here?” shouted the officer in charge.

“It’s Frank, here!” cried one of the fishermen, holding another man who was obviously in pain, both legs under the rock, nearly up to his waist. “That thing just grabbed him and started dragging him under the rock.”

Just then a van from Breaux Bridge, La., screeched to a stop along Shoal Creek Road. A group of drooling Cajuns jumped out and pulled a turkey fryer and huge pot out of the back. “Somebody done said dere was one big crawfish here, cher?” asked the driver, a dazed look in his eyes.

OK, OK, I’m exaggerating a little. It may not have been pandemonium but I bet hearts were thumping when University of Illinois biologist, Chris Taylor and Eastern Kentucky University biologist, Guenter Schuster turned over a large rock in Shoal Creek in southern Tennessee and discovered a crayfish twice the size of anything ever seen in the region before.

Serendipity wasn’t what brought Taylor and Schuster to Shoal Creek. Schuster had seen photos of the Shoal Creek monster in 2009. Schuster recognized the critter as a member of the genus Barbicambarus – thought, at the time, to be a monotypic genus – and forwarded the photos to Taylor, whom he had worked with before. A little investigation led them to a specimen that had been collected in Shoal Creek near where the photo had come from, by TVA scientist Jeffery Simmons.


Oh, for the expedition!

Taylor and Schuster thought they were looking for a wayward bottlebrush crayfish, Barbicambarus cornutus. The rare bottlebrush crayfish discovered in 1884, was known from an area in Kentucky, 134 miles away. The biologists figured the crayfish had likely made the trip in some fisherman’s bait bucket or had been moved by someone interested in commercially raising crayfish.

“That’s been going on for 50 years in the U.S., moving species around, so it would not be a surprise if that was the case,” Shuster said.

On the day of the find, Taylor, Schuster and two other biologists had been turning rocks and kicking mud for at least two hours, to no avail and had decided to pack it in when they spied a large flat rock under a bridge. They decided to flip one last rock – and the rest is the beginning of one new chapter in crayfish history.

When they got their new prize back to the lab, they began to notice differences between it and the bottlebrush crayfish. They did DNA sampling and discovered they had an entirely new species of Barbicambarus. They named the crayfish Barbicambarus simmonsi in recognition of TVA scientist Jeffery Simmons, the first person to preserve a specimen of the new species.

The five-inch long B. simmonsi clearly dwarfs the other species of crayfish in Shoals Creek but it, itself, is dwarfed by the almost-lobster sized, nine-inch B. cornutus. Still, B. simmonsi is a creature that would have demanded a second look.

“This isn’t a crayfish that someone would have picked up and just said, ‘Oh, it’s another crayfish,’ and put it back. If you were an aquatic biologist and you had seen this thing, because of the size and the setae [hair-like bristles] on the antennae, you would have recognized it as something really, really different and you would have saved it.”

A sentiment we can empathize with Schuster noted, “We spend millions of dollars every year on federal grants to send biologists to the Amazon, to Southeast Asia – all over the world looking for and studying the biodiversity of those regions. But the irony is that there’s very little money that is actually spent in our own country to do the same thing. And there are still lots of areas right here in the U.S. that need to be explored.”

We here in Western North Carolina need only look to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) to understand what Schuster is saying. It’s getting harder and harder for scientists to get grant money to do studies in the park, despite the fact that scientist have discovered 6,582 species new to the Park and 907 species new to science – 26 of those new to science are crustaceans including crayfish.

I’ve said it before: “With our ‘Star Trek’ mentality we are poised to go ‘where no man has ever gone.’ We think we are set to probe the nooks and crannies of space.

“Examining shovels full of mud from the GSMNP [or turning stones in Shoal Creek] may not sound as glamorous as going ‘boldly where no man has gone before,’ but the knowledge we stand to gain if the ATBI process is expanded worldwide may have a much more profound effect on human kind.”

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


Crawl out of your igloo and take a look around. We had kind of assumed a “snow” mentality here at the Hendershot household. A little sledding, a little snow play, then back into the house for hot chocolate, snacks and movies — wet snow clothes draped over a rack near the back door to hopefully dry before they’re donned again for another sortie outside.

We didn’t have it nearly as bad as some of our friends with steep drives on north-facing slopes and no four-wheel drive. We’re close to the four-lane, our road gets plowed and we have four-wheel drive so we were never really housebound.

But there’s something about when the snow starts piling up that turns your attention to the cave. Chores, like making sure the wood box is full, shoveling the sidewalk and shoveling a path to the birdfeeders on the deck take precedence. The veil of falling snow has a way of turning your thoughts inward – but hey, the world is still out there. The beautiful mountains, forests and streams that so many of us cherish are sparkling in their winter finery and the roads are cleared, so gear up and take a look. You’ll definitely want waterproof boots and dress in light but warm layers. A little slogging through the snow can heat you up quickly, but when you stop it’s still chilly out there.

We opted out of cave mode last Sunday for a trip down to DuPont State Forest, between Hendersonville and Brevard. It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since the rancorous eminent domain battle that transferred the 2,223-acre heart of DuPont State Forest with its dozen or so waterfalls to public lands.

There are several spectacular waterfalls in the area that can be accessed along well-kept trails just minutes from large parking areas along Staton Road. We chose Triple Falls for our destination. Triple Falls can be accessed, even in the snow, with kids, in about 10 minutes from the Hooker Falls parking area. There are convenient steps that take you right to the base of the falls on Little River. There are three distinct cascades with a total vertical drop of 120 feet. The falls, in the snow complete with icicles and 30 feet of spray at the bottom, were stunning. The kids slid on ice, inspected icicles and basically romped in the snow at the bottom of the falls.

The steeper parts of the trail were a bit slippery and that, depending on your perspective (nimble, caution-to-the-wind kid’s or cautious, too-old-to-slide-20-feet-on-your-butt adult’s) was either the coolest thing ever or pause for concern. Dad didn’t have a choice on the descent, in tow by Maddie (5) as she raced her 9-year-old sister, Izzy, down, we “slip-slided” all the way. Mom preferred the tried and true “crab-on-a-tightrope” descent; short, often sideways steps with arms in a graceful arc for balance.

The cool air and exercise put everyone in a restful mood, and while I had company for a while as we traveled U.S. 276 back through the winter wonderland that was the Pisgah National Forest, it wasn’t long after we crested the Blue Ridge Parkway and started our decent to Bethel that I was left alone with my thoughts and three sleeping girls. All in all, it was a great afternoon.

Another debate regarding DuPont is steeping as North Carolina ponders putting the 2,000 or so acres and waterfalls added in 2000 under the jurisdiction of N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation while the remaining acreage will continues under the oversight of the N.C. Division of Forest Resources.


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


Logging in national forests might take on a radically different look in coming years.

The forest service might be moving away from the old-school timber sale, where stands of trees were auctioned to the highest bidder and then left to the loggers to harvest. Instead, the forest service is looking to private foresters or organizations to be long-range partners — not merely extracting timber but also managing the forest for its overall health.

Called stewardship contracts, the forest service has been testing this new way of doing business with a handful of pilot projects in recent years.

“Basically we were allowed to go out and try different things to see what works and what doesn’t,” said Dale Remington, sales forester for the National Forests in North Carolina.

The new approach means the forest service can award bids based on the “best contract” rather than the most money, Remington said. The contract could go to a timber company, but could likewise be awarded to an environmental group or hunting club.

Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service could lay out the goals and objectives and let the contractor tell them how they planned to achieve those goals, he said. And unlike the traditional timber sale, those goals could even include wildlife diversity and protecting old growth stands.

Stewardship contracts differ greatly from the old timber sale bids.

“There are many differences,” Remington said. “To begin with it’s a collaborative effort from the start.”

He said the Forest Service tries to get its partners, the public, interested non-profits, prospective contractors and other interested parties involved from the outset shaping the goals and defining the concerns for forest tracts.

“In my 30-year career, I’ve seen the service at odds with any number of groups and now we’re talking with them,” said Remington. “We won’t agree on everything, but we try and come up with a plan that everyone can live with.”

Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South, said his organization has been involved in some of the pilot programs and believes stewardship contracting is the wave of the future.

“It’s a new way of doing business and if done right, it’s a great tool,” Prater said.

Prater believes that the openness and upfront collaboration incorporated by the stewardship model may help ease the litigious relationship many environmental groups had with the Forest Service. “Under the old timber-driven contracts, the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process was basically the only way the public could have any input — and that usually meant lawsuits,” he said.

“It’s a different business, it’s a different time and everybody has to adapt. I like the stewardship contract because it allows us to step back and look at the bigger picture,” he said.

Stewardship contracts can also be spread over a larger area than conventional timber sales. Most conventional timber sales are confined to only the specific area the logging will be done. Most of them impact around 150 to 250 acres. Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service designates the stewardship area and it can range from a simple stream corridor to an entire basin encompassing 2,000 or more acres.

Contractors may be asked, as part of the contract, to create wildlife openings, to treat exotic invasives or to reduce forest fire hazards, for example.


Putting the plan on the ground

Stewardship contracts not only have fans among environmental groups, but also hunting advocacy organizations.

Dave Wilson, director of stewardship with the National Wild Turkey Federation, believes stewardship contracts provide a holistic approach to managing forests — one that could be good for game species like turkeys.

The NWTF was one of the earliest groups to be awarded stewardship agreements with the Forest Service. It has worked on projects across the country, including North Carolina. It is currently working on the Mulberry/Globe stewardship project in the Grandfather District.

Wilson said he believes stewardship contracts offer a better understanding of “outcomes value.”

“It allows us or whoever the contractor is to utilize the value of the timber sold to do much needed restoration work,” said Wilson.

Putting the plan on the ground puts local companies to work. And the fact that stewardship contracts can have a 10-year lifespan means they can keep people working for a while. It might require a new mindset and some new skill sets, but Wilson said most timber companies don’t mind the learning curve.

“We have timber contractors willing to stay after they’ve cut the marketable timber and create wildlife openings or do other types of restoration work,” said Wilson. “The bottom line for us is that increasing and improving habitat improves the forests, and thus improves the habitat for wild turkeys as well as other wildlife.”


Spreading the word

Stewardship contracts first became an option for the forest service in 1999, thanks to some fine print tucked into the Congressional budget bill that year. Congress gave the forest service authority “to enter into stewardship projects … to perform services to achieve land management goals for the National Forests or public lands that meet local and rural community needs.”

North Carolina has seen a couple of pilot stewardship contracts since then. Remington said the projects were well received, and as a result the Forest Service was given the authority to continue using stewardship contracts to manage National Forests through 2013.

“And I believe it will be extended beyond that deadline because it’s been so successful,” Remington said.

The Smoky Mountain News will go to print before the Pisgah Chapter of the Society of American Foresters meets on Tuesday night (Jan. 18), but Dale Remington will be talking to the chapter about stewardship contracting and the opportunities for regional natural resource professionals and organizations.

Rob Lamb, chair of the Pisgah Chapter and executive director of Forest Stewards, a nonprofit connected with Western Carolina University to promote and implement forest stewardship in the Appalachians, said he would be wearing both of his hats to the meeting Tuesday. Lamb said it would be interesting to find out what kind of roles registered foresters might play in stewardship plans and what kinds of roles might be available to Forest Stewards.

“I’m especially pleased to see the bigger landscape approach and learn about all the new opportunities that could result from stewardship contracting,” Lamb said.


If there was any lingering doubt that the apocalypse was, indeed, scheduled for 2012, it has been erased. The totally unprecedented death of thousands of birds, tens of thousand (or more) fish and tens of thousands of crabs has been universally accepted — at least by a few bloggers on the Internet — as a sign that now is the time to go ahead and run up those credit card debts.

In fact, while I was waiting for the train from Waynesville to Asheville (man I’ve been waiting a long time) I overheard one guy say that his cousin heard someone say that Pat Robertson said it was evident that the mixed flock of birds falling from the sky in Arkansas was a message from above and that it was an abomination to find mixed species actually roosting together.

Of course, if religious explanations don’t work for you there’s always the gummint. Some enlightened bloggers attribute the deaths to:

“Just go do some research on HAARP [The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program]. Might be the explanation for the bird and fish deaths reported in Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Maryland. Also I read reports that Arkansas experienced tremors before the bird and fish deaths. Which supposedly is another side effect of the HAARP project. Also do some looking into Tesla and his death ray somewhat similar to the HAARP project.”

Or maybe: “There is also the possibility that recent volcanic activity around the globe may have been spewing harsh chemicals into the air that these birds breathed in and died from.”

The list goes on to chemical weapons, aliens and even terrorists:

“After all, we are supposedly at war, and our enemy has made it clear their intent to use biological and chemical weapons. If that is indeed a legitimate threat, doesn’t it make sense to know the truth before shrugging the events off to natural happenstance?” wrote Doug Hagmann in the Canada Free Press.

But if, like me, you’re just gonna stick your head in the sand and believe what scientists and biologists are saying this is all you’re left with.

In Beebe, Ark., on New Year’s Eve blackbirds began falling out of the sky, perhaps as many as 3,000 were found dead. The culprit: Loud explosions, likely associated with New Year’s Eve celebrations disturbed a mega roost of blackbirds and starlings. The birds took to the air, in the dark, where they collided with buildings, power lines, etc. and fell from the sky. All necropsies tested negative for poisons and trauma was the cause of death.

A similar situation occurred in Louisiana a couple of days later — blackbirds rousted from a roost in the dark and flew into structures — trauma was the cause of death.

In Sweden, a couple of days later — dead jackdaws were found in the street. Was it a sign from God? Not unless he drives a lorry (bus), because a lorry driver admitted to driving through a large flock of birds. They were in the road eating the salt and grit from the snowmelt.

Freshwater drum in the Arkansas River likely died from some type of pathogen because no other species of fish was affected. The fish die-offs in the Chesapeake Bay and the crabs in England were due to extremely cold temperatures.

Sadly it happens all the time for a myriad of reasons. Some human induced, some natural causes like when migrating Lapland Longspurs got caught in a storm in Minnesota in 1904 and more than 750,000 died.

I, personally, blame Al Gore for this debacle. If he hadn’t invented the Internet people would have never known about these disparate events.

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


The twin banes of birding, wind and rain, combined to help set a new record low for the eighth annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The soggy but undaunted cadre of birders sloshed and slogged their way around Lake Logan, Lake Junaluska and the Waynesville watershed; mucked through the mud at the Test Farm and fields of Jonathan Creek; foraged the forests of Balsam Mountain Preserve and braved the brambles at Barber’s Orchard to eke out 65 species of birds. The previous low for the Balsam CBC was 69 species recorded each of the first two years – 2003 and 2004. The high count for the circle is 77 species, which has been achieved twice, and the average is around 73 species.

Woodland birds were especially hard to find this year. Notable misses included red-breasted nuthatch and winter wren. I’m sure these birds were hunkered down somewhere trying to stay dry, and with last Saturday’s conditions if you didn’t stumble right upon birds you weren’t about to hear or see them through the woods, at a distance.

The Lake Junaluska and Lake Logan sections produced the highest species counts in the circle with about 46 each. Lake Logan was essentially still iced, but I believe ring-necked ducks were found there. Only about seven species of waterfowl were recorded at Lake Junaluska. Canvasbacks were probably the best find at Lake J. The snow goose that had hung around for weeks departed just a couple of weeks before the count. A lone Bonaparte’s gull joined a group of ring-billed gulls at the lake late Saturday evening to add another tick on the species list. The Waynesville reservoir was totally devoid of waterfowl.

Doug Johnston of Leicester, who oversees maintenance and construction at the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Chapter’s Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary in Asheville, suffered through the soggy day with me in my section of the Balsam CBC circle.

My section runs from the Old Asheville Highway (east) to Balsam Mountain Preserve (west) and from the Waynesville watershed (south) to Mt. Lynn Lowry (north). The average number of species for my section is low to mid-40s. We turned up (barely) 37 species this year.

At the end of the day, Saturday, we were still missing house sparrow, so we took a turn through most of the fast food restaurants and the Wal-Mart parking lot on the way back to Doug’s vehicle – nothing, zip, nada. We were left with 36 species. Then, as I rounded the corner to the entrance at Bocelli’s, where we gathered for the count tally, I was greeted by a cacophony of house sparrow chirps and whistles emanating from the English ivy along the walls of the little patio there.

No new species were discovered for the circle this year. But we had high-count numbers for robins and probably cedar waxwings, two species we dipped on in 2007. Other notable misses besides red-breasted nuthatch and winter wren included blackbirds and common grackle.

The warm, cozy and dry confines of Bocelli’s were the antithesis of the cold, wet and uninviting conditions encountered in the field. And with warm food, cool libations and resuscitated brethren to commiserate with the after-count glow transcended the gloomy count-day blues.

The Balsam CBC whishes to thank all the die-hard participants as well as the staff and management at Bocelli’s, the Town of Waynesville, for access to the watershed, and Jim Francis and Glen Tolar for access to their private property.


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


Doug McFalls spent last winter as caretaker at LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The lodge is near the 6,593-foot summit of Mt. LeConte, the third highest peak in the Smokies.

“I came away with a better understanding of myself,” McFalls said. “I spent the vast majority of my time with me.”

Allyson Virden, who along with her husband Chris manages the lodge during the season, noted on the “High on Leconte” blog “I like to call those of us who love working up top a ‘special breed.’ I can say that because I am one. Many of the crew come to the mountain to enjoy a simpler life and have time to enjoy nature.”

McFalls, an avid reader and budding photographer, fit that bill.

“I’ve worked in the hospitality industry most of my life, but I’m OK alone,” McFalls said. “One can really step away up there and enjoy the peace and serenity.”


A day in the life

There is certainly solitude and time for relaxing pastimes like reading, but sleeping in isn’t one of them.

“We’re asked to check the weather station every morning at 7 a.m. and report the conditions to dispatch at the National Park Service,” said McFalls. The National Weather Service station at LeConte records minimum and maximum temperatures plus precipitation totals.

McFalls said wind conditions weren’t recorded at LeConte because conditions are too harsh and too remote for an anemometer to work properly (they can ice up) and be maintained and calibrated regularly.

McFalls said breakfast was usually in order after a trip to the weather station and then, if power was good, he would update his website and perhaps post some new photos. Next he would walk the grounds and check on all the cabins and buildings. One day after a wind event he discovered a cabin with a missing door and a broken window.

McFalls said he also kept an eye on the backcountry shelter that’s just under a mile from the lodge.

“There are more winter hiking enthusiasts in the park than most people would think,” he said. “Most of them are experienced hikers, knowledgeable and well prepared, but occasionally you run across someone who isn’t prepared.”

LeConte caretakers and all seasonal staff are trained in Wilderness First-Aid and all are CPR certified. The Park Service depends on LeConte’s caretakers to assist in any emergencies and/or rescues around the lodge.

McFalls said he always greeted hikers he met on the trails near the lodge and invited them in to warm up and re-hydrate. According to McFalls, dehydration can slip up on winter hikers.

“It’s so cold, you don’t realize you’re thirsty,” he said.

McFalls said that most of the hikers he encountered during his stay as caretaker were in good shape and just happy to have a warm dry place to sit and relax for a while. But one hiker from Indiana wasn’t so lucky.

“When he left Gatlinburg it was in the low 30s and misty,” McFalls said, “but by the time he had made it up here it was between 8 and 10 degrees and snowing. He was dehydrated and suffering from mild hypothermia.”

McFalls cared for the hiker at the lodge until a park ranger and medic made it up the mountain.

“The weather was so bad it took the ranger and medic a day to make it up here,” McFalls said.

The hiker required about a day and a half of care before he was strong enough to hike back down with the ranger and medic.

Often the day-to-day living on LeConte during winther months harkens back to earlier times. Solar panels provide the only electricity and the cloudy, short days of winter with their accompanying snowfall can make electricity a scarce commodity. McFalls said there was running water until it gets really cold, then the caretaker is left to haul water up from the spring. The caretaker uses propane to heat with and it has to be flown in by helicopter. And there’s that tromp through the snow to get to the outhouse.


Weather is frightful

Winter on LeConte is either spectacular, scary, or maybe some of both, depending on your point of view. The record low temperature recorded on Mt. LeConte was minus 32 degrees fahrenheit on Jan. 13, 1986. The record high was 80 degrees fahrenheit on Aug. 9, 1995. The coldest temperature McFalls recorded during his stay was minus 9 degrees fahrenheit.

“But it hovered around zero for nearly a week at one stretch,” McFalls said.

Because there is no anemometer on LeConte, McFalls was left to estimate wind speeds.

“There were days when I estimated sustained winds to be between 30 and 40 miles per hour and estimated gusts to be between 70 and 80 miles per hour,” he said. “The wind can be quite an event. You can be snug as a bug in a rug, deep asleep in your warm bed and the wind will shake the whole cabin. It’ll definitely wake you up!”

The annual snowfall for the peak at Mt. Leconte averages just a little over 71 inches. McFalls recorded 51 inches of snow at one point last winter.

And winter isn’t necessarily through with LeConte when the lodge opens back up in March.

“We had to shovel paths to all the cabins through two-and-a-half feet of snow when we opened the third week of March [2010],” McFalls said.


One with wildlife

McFalls caught occasional glimpses of other visitors besides winter hikers. He said there was a red fox den near the lodge and that resident raccoons were constantly trying to investigate the buildings. He saw signs of bobcats and coyotes, and even in the dead of winter one of the resident bears would sometimes make an appearance.

“He minded his business and I minded mine,” said McFalls.

He also said that ravens, which are fairly common during the season, would come and go during the winter.


Keeping provisioned

McFalls said the caretaker begins stocking provisions late in the season while the lodge is still open and the llama train is running.

“A llama pack train brings supplies and packs out laundry three days a week during season, and near the end of the season the pack will begin bringing up can goods, rice and beans and dry goods. Right at the end of the season, they’ll bring up things like potatoes and carrots.”

The caretaker does get a little R&R during the winter when they can arrange for a substitute caretaker.

“On those trips to town you can pick up things like milk and eggs,” said McFalls.


One caretaker’s perspective

McFalls grew up in Gatlinburg, Tenn. His Dad was born in the Park and his Mom went to Sevierville High School with Dolly Parton.

“I’ve spent a lot of time hiking these mountains, and when I stayed at the lodge for the first time back in the 90s I knew I wanted to work here,” McFalls said.

He was hired for the season in 2008.

“I took that first winter off, but when I came back in 2009 I took the winter caretaker job plus worked this season. I was at the lodge through the winter and up until Thanksgiving this year.

“I love the peace and serenity of it. It’s so remote and so beautiful. The winter I stayed at the lodge, it was a shock when I would go down the mountain. Town was distracting — there was constant input. I was happy to get back up top where there was time to think and reflect,” McFalls said.

“I wouldn’t close the door on it,” said McFall of aother winter on LeConte. “But I’ve experienced most of LeConte. More than I ever thought I would when I signed up for my first season. And it has instilled a desire for other adventures.”

McFalls has applied for a position as a ridgerunner with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Ridgerunners spend most of their day out on the trail talking with hikers and keeping and eye on trail conditions. “Can you imagine getting paid to hike the AT through the Smokies?” McFalls said, almost wistfully.

You can get an idea of what McFalls experienced at LeConte Lodge by visiting

This winter’s caretaker is Alexander Hughes. You can keep up on this winter’s happenings at LeConte at



Leconte Lodge

LeConte Lodge is the only private lodging facility in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park open to paying guests.

The rustic cluster of log cabins has a capacity of 60 guests per night housed in one of the 7 rough-hewn cabins or 3 multi-room lodges. There is no electricity but hot meals are served twice daily. The only way to get to LeConte is by hiking.

Although LeConte Lodge is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it predates the establishment of the park in 1934. Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer and founder of the rustic lodge, began building the retreat in 1926.

Eight years later, Jack and Pauline Huff were married at a sunrise service at LeConte’s now-famous Myrtle Point, the traditional place to watch spectacular performances of daybreak. Jack, Pauline and their family continued to operate the lodge until 1960. It is presently operated under the auspices of Stokely Hospitality Enterprises.

LeConte Lodge is open from mid-March through late November. For information visit


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