Monday, December 15, 2008
The Sandhill Cranes have been migrating the past several weeks over Tennessee. Sandhill Cranes call almost constantly as they fly and it is a sound like no other. Some of the best sounds in nature are coyotes and wolves howling, elk bugling, and to me, Sandhill Cranes calling in flight. Canada Geese also call in flight, but Canada Geese sound like a pack of barking beagles. Not bad, but not nearly as cool as the sound of Sandhill Cranes. Their sound has been described as a low rattling trumpeting, or the trilling of an “R” that is made in some languages.
When I heard Sandhill Cranes the first fall that I moved here, I had no idea what it was. The problem was compounded because I was in a valley and the cranes were over the hill. I could hear their eerie call but couldn’t see anything. Many times they fly very high or even after dark so you often have to look hard to spot them. They will be in a “V” formation, sometimes with 50 or more birds.
Not everyone is as lucky as we are here in Eastern Tennessee. We are right on one of the migration paths of these cranes. The cranes that fly over Tennessee are ones that breed and nest in the Great Lakes region. They fly over Tennessee on their way to winter in Georgia or Florida. In fact, as many as 40,000 cranes actually stop and rest in Tennessee before continuing south. The big stopping area is at the Hiwassee Refuge near Birchwood Tennessee in Meigs County. In past years there has been a big Crane Festival at the refuge in January, but budget cuts have curtailed the festival this year. However, you can still visit the refuge to see the cranes. Supplemental feeding of corn has caused more and more cranes to stop at the Hiwassee Refuge each year. But then, the cranes were so well fed at the refuge that many stayed and skipped the rest of the trip to Florida. It’s kind of like many of us who like Tennessee so much that we don’t feel the need to go to Florida for the winter.
If you visit the Hiwassee Refuge you won’t just see tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, in case that isn’t enough for you; there are other birds to see as well. When I was there last January, many birders had their spotting scopes set up to see Snow Geese, eagles, ducks, and other birds. If you are really lucky you might even see a couple of the rare Whooping Cranes that pass through the Hiwassee Refuge also. But the Sandhill Cranes are the big attraction. You can’t miss them…they are 4 to 5 feet high and the adults have red crowns on their heads. These are big birds with 6-7 foot wingspans, even though they only weigh about 12 pounds.
There may still be flocks going over our area in the next couple of weeks, but don’t worry if you missed the beautiful eerie sound of the cranes this fall. They will be flying over Tennessee again next spring on their way up north. You will hear them before you see them – always. When you hear them, look up, there are cranes overhead. Just listen! You will hear one of the best sounds in nature.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Pessimists look at the dark side of winter…I look at all the positives.
Winter in most of the country is a time when plants and animals slow down, shut down or head down south. A lot of us head south also. Not me. I love winter.
First of all, we live in a great part of the country with 4 distinct seasons. We get the best of everything…beautiful springs and falls with temperatures just about perfect, and summers that aren’t too hot or humid, and winters that give us a nice change, but aren’t too long or snowy. You have to admit that you don’t hold many fond memories of those long
I love the winter season. With the leaves gone so are the ticks, chiggers and snakes. I can hike anywhere in the woods without spraying down with nasty chemicals or watching where I step. In winter you can see things in the woods that summer vegetation hides, such as rock caves, animal signs, long vistas, and the way home.
The number one key to enjoying winter outdoors is dressing for the weather and dressing in layers. Last week 4 of us hiked 11 miles in the
I love snow. I don’t mean the two feet close down the roads kind. I mean the three inches animal tracks in the woods kind. The sparkling white on tree branches, picture perfect kind. The time for a fire in the fireplace kind. When it snows I am the first one out in the morning looking for tracks in the snow or pictures to take. The last two years we haven’t had quite enough snow. I am hoping for a little more this year…I won’t wish for too much, just the right amount. If we get fresh snow and a full moon look for me hiking around one of the golf course paths about 8 or 9 some night. I will look for you there too.
My neighbor Ed loves the winter air…me too! It feels fresher, denser, and cool. You get more oxygen per breath than you do with the hot summer air. Winter air is a bargain…more for your money. In these economic times you have to love a bargain.
The days are shorter in winter. The change back to standard time makes them seem even shorter yet. But most people waste a lot of good morning daylight. It is light before 6:30am these days…just get up early enough to take advantage of all the available light. Even though the days are shorter, we get fewer cloudy days here than in many parts of the country. The amount of sunshine in the winter is a mood changer. I seem to recall a winter in northern
If you want to complain about winter don’t do it around me. I love winter here in
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
When I was a youngster with one of my first bird books I always thought that Cedar Waxwings were the best looking birds in the book….never mind that I never even saw a live one until about 10 years ago. Cedar Waxwings are kind of a brownish gray color with a beautiful black mask edged in white. They have a crest on their head and small waxy red appendages on their secondary wing feathers (that gives them their name), and a bright yellow bottom edge of their tail. They are bigger than a sparrow and smaller than a robin…about the size of a bluebird, but slimmer. Females and males look the same. But the way to spot Cedar Waxwings is much easier than looking for colors and patterns. This time of year they fly in large flocks of 50-200 birds. They are usually high in the trees or on bushes with fruit. Look for a large active flock of birds moving from tree to tree. Chances are they are cedar waxwings.
I am not a birder, but distribution maps show that Eastern Tennessee might be about as far south as Cedar Waxwings nest; however they are mainly a northern bird and show up in East Tennessee about this time of year in large winter flocks. They range far and wide in search of fruit, so don’t expect a flock to hang around in one area all winter.
During the summer breeding and nesting season they will eat insects; often chasing them down in the air like flycatchers do. I have seen them do this in my yard just last week. But throughout the winter they mainly eat fruit…lots of it and all kinds. One cute trait of waxwings, although I haven’t witnessed it yet, is that sometimes a row of birds on a branch will pass a berry from bird to bird down to the end of the line for the last bird to eat. They eat all kinds of fruit, including berries from dogwood, cotoneaster, cherries, blackgum, juniper, and especially eastern red cedar. There are lots of blackgum trees in my area of Fairfield Glade and I suspect that it was the blackgum berries that were staining my neighbor’s yard. As you might guess, an animal that eats a lot of fruit might have a lot of droppings. In fact Waxwings eat so much fruit that they sometimes get drunk on fermented berries. If you see a small good-looking bird singing karaoke, it might be a drunken Cedar Waxwing.
Lots of birds fly south to get out of that cold northern weather. But remember, we are the south; so all of you Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other northern folks can watch for your northern buddies, the Cedar Waxwings, visiting for the winter. Look for a large flock of birds moving from tree to tree and purple stains on your driveway. Purple stains are a small price to pay for the chance to see one of our most beautiful birds.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
Snapping turtles live up to 40 and they are large…up to 50 pounds or more. As the most widely distributed turtle in North America, they are found from
Right now up north, snapping turtles are getting ready to hibernate for the winter. In cold climates they slow down their metabolism and bury in the mud under the water and ice to survive the winter. During hibernation they get all the oxygen they need through absorption through their skin without having to breathe. Around here they may hibernate for short times or not at all.
Many people don’t like snapping turtles for two reasons: first because when encountered on land snapping turtles are very aggressive, and second, because they eat fish (which many people like to catch for themselves). Here is some interesting information about their aggressiveness: In water snapping turtle are very non-aggressive…they will swim away and will not bite. Their aggressiveness on land is for self defense. I have read that even though they hiss and strike out with their formidable jaws, that they will usually not bite. Supposedly, they will close their jaws just before they reach you hand. I haven’t verified this and don’t intend to, but that is what I read about these guys. Their act is enough to keep me far away. By the way, in case you decide to check out the no-bite theory, their neck is about the same length as their shell so they can reach out a very long way.
Now, about the rumor that snapping turtles will clean out a lake of fish. Snapping turtles eat lots of stuff…mostly vegetation, but also crayfish, snails, worms, fish, carrion, and even small mammals or ducklings if they can catch them. All of the information that I can find says that the fish they eat are mainly slow, non-game fish and that snapping turtles actually benefit sport fishing by reducing the competing non-game fish populations. In any case, because snapping turtles are cold-blooded, they don’t need to eat nearly as much as mammals. Snapping turtles only eat about their own body weight in a full year. And if you think about it, snapping turtles have lived in balance with fish and ducks for millions of years and they haven’t wiped out any bass populations yet.
So are snapping turtle good or bad? You decide for yourself, but for me, I like to see them. Hey, we all moved to the country to be surrounded by the beauty of
Sunday, October 12, 2008
You will hear people talk about leaf-peeper tours to the New England states, but don’t book that trip yet…Tennessee’s autumn show will rival anyone’s. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a prime leaf-lookers destination and October is the second most crowded month in the Park for that reason. The Cumberland Plateau isn’t far behind for autumn beauty.
As you probably remember from grade school, trees are very important for life on earth because they use photosynthesis to convert light and carbon dioxide to oxygen and sugar. The sugar feeds the tree and the oxygen supports life. Chlorophyll in the leaves enables the photosynthesis and gives the tree leaves their green color all summer long.
So then where in the heck do the brilliant reds, oranges and yellow colors come from? As the days become shorter in the fall and the trees prepare for winter, the green chlorophyll production stops and yellow and orange colors in the leaves become visible. Leftover sugars in the leaves produce the red and purple colors once the chlorophyll disappears. The colors were there all along, we just couldn’t see them because of the green chlorophyll.
The exact prime time for autumn leaf-looking varies each year due to several factors. It is not the temperature but rather the amount of daylight that triggers the changes in the leavers. However, the amount of rainfall and temperature also play a part. Warm sunny days, and cool, but not freezing, nights produce excellent fall colors. The best fall colors appear after a warm dry summer and early autumn rains; but, too much wet weather in late fall causes drab autumn colors. The right combinations produce the best autumn viewing.
Sourwood trees are usually the first to show their fall colors; oaks are the last. We have lots of both around here. The best red and orange colors usually come from red maples, sugar maples, sassafras, sumac, blackgum, sweetgum, and dogwood. Hickories, white oak, chestnut oak, and yellow-popular (tulip tree) have the best yellow colors. We have all of these trees in great abundance on the Cumberland Plateau.
The changing of the leaves starts up north and steadily moves south. Mid to late October is generally the prime viewing time in this area. There are maps on the internet updated daily with the progression of the autumn colors, but the Tennessee Forecast Information Line at 800-697-4200 can keep you up to date on the progression of the Tennessee autumn colors.
Lots of leaf-peepers travel hundreds of miles to view the autumn colors. Many travel to Maine or Pennsylvania or some other state. But we don’t need to go anywhere. Sit back and relax. We have front row seats for the best nature show of the year right here in Tennessee. We are lucky!
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
When I first moved to
We didn’t need to panic like we did because the scorpions in
There are two kinds of scorpions in
The other kind of scorpion in
There have been a few Plain Eastern Stripeless scorpions found in my neighborhood and quite a few more found a couple of blocks away, but I am guessing that most of you have never run across one, and probably won’t.
However, if you have had any scorpions in your house, walking around barefoot at night is the best way to find the next one. Almost all stings are a result of stepping on one. Scorpions are known to like to hide in dark moist places like shoes. I always shake out my shoes in the garage before inserting my foot, just out of habit. This is common practice in
Scorpions normally only come out at night, and one really cool thing about them is that they all glow iridescent green under a blacklight (UV light). If you had a portable blacklight and walked around a cowboy camp at night, you could easily spot green glowing scorpions crawling across someone’s forehead before it stung them. Have fun spotting scorpions and save lives at the same time…what a great combination!
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The reason that there are so many wasps and hornets in August and September is due to the uniqueness of their life cycle. The hundreds of hornets in a nest all die in the fall, and only newly fertilized queens survive the winter. In the spring, each surviving queen starts her own colony, and as the summer goes on the nests grow, until they reach peak population about this time each year.
During the spring and summer, wasps and hornets are meat eaters and feed on insects like flies, bees, and even grasshoppers. In fact, because they kill so many other insects, hornets are protected in Germany and they are illegal to kill there. If that were the case here most of you would be in jail. But, their diet changes in late summer to nectar, sugar, and fruit, and that is usually when they begin getting into trouble with us at picnics and at hummingbird feeders.
Here is a rundown on the most common types of wasps and hornets that you are most likely to encounter here in Tennessee.
Paper Wasps. This is the black or reddish brown wasp that builds a little nest on a small stalk usually under your roof overhang or under your deck. They are not too aggressive but their sting is supposedly the most powerful of the other wasps or hornets mentioned here. There are usually only a few individuals per nest.
Bald-faced Hornets. These are the guys that build that grey football sized paper nest on a tree branch or on your house. They are non-aggressive unless you get too close to their nest and with several hundred occupants you don’t want to get too close. I have read that when they attack they like to go straight for your face, but I haven’t personally verified if that is true. If you have a personal experience, let me know.
Yellow Jackets. These are the most aggressive wasps and I can attest to that. I have been stung twice in two weeks while minding my own business. Several fellow hikers have been stung too. Yellow jackets nest in the ground or in hollow trees and they defend their nest viciously. Apparently, I got too close to an unseen nest. Like all wasps, Yellow jackets and other wasps can sting repeatedly (unlike honey bees) because their barbless stinger can be extracted and used again and again. If you are stung, get away from their nest…fast!
European Hornets. These look almost exactly like Yellow Jackets except they are much bigger…about 1 ½ inches compared to the Yellow Jackets 5/8 inch. These were immigrants from Europe about 1840 and they have spread over most of the Eastern U.S. and beyond. They first reached Tennessee in 1973. European Hornets are normally not aggressive unless they are defending their nest (usually in a hollow tree but sometimes in your attic). The unique thing about these guys is that they sometimes hunt at night as well as during the day and they also are attracted to lights. Two of my neighbors have European Hornets bombarding their windows every evening. An electric bug zapper does an unbelievable job on them.
Cicada Killers. These are cool. They are about the same size as the European hornets but not as bright yellow. They appear this time of year about the same time as the annual “dog days” cicadas. This is the cool part: The female cicada killer stings and paralyzes a cicada. Then she has to drag her heavy prey up a tree to get enough elevation to fly with the heavy cicada to her underground den. There she lays an egg on the alive but paralyzed cicada so that the wasp larva will have a fresh and ready food supply. It is a tough world out there; being an insect isn’t for sissies.
All of these hornets and wasps pack a pretty good sting but for most people it just hurts for a few minutes and then swells and itches for a few days. But about 5% of individuals are highly allergic to insect stings and one sting could be life threatening. If you are one of them, you know what an Epi-pen (epinephrine syringe) is, and probably have one. If you have had a severe reaction to a sting in the past, you better talk to your doctor before the next sting. For the rest of us, we will just be on high alert and a little edgy until the cooler weather comes and the stinging insects take a break until next year.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
When I was growing up we used to call these birds Wild Canaries but at some point the name was either changed or we just found out that officially they are American Goldfinches. They are a migratory bird further north but here in
The male goldfinches are bright yellow with black wings and a black cap in the summer breeding season. The rest of the year they are drab olive very similar to the females.
Goldfinches are primarily seed eaters. They eat seeds from thistle, teasel, dandelion, ragweed, and sunflowers. They especially like the store-bought “thistle” seed called nyjer or
Goldfinches are one of the latest birds to nest each summer…usually waiting until July before starting a family. Their cup nest is so tightly woven and lined that it often can hold water without leaking. Goldfinches are usually monogamous, but supposedly every once in a while, a female will leave as soon as the eggs hatch and let the male feed and raise the babies. Meanwhile that female flies off to find a new boyfriend and start another family. I think there are names for females like that; I just can’t print them in a family newspaper.
There is an interesting fact about their seed diet that protects goldfinches. As you may know, cowbirds are brood parasites. That means the cowbirds don’t build a nest; they just lay one egg each in other birds’ nests and let the other birds raise the cowbird baby. The young cowbird often hatches first and, because it is bigger, it gets all the food from the foster parents to the detriment of the real babies. Well, even though cowbird eggs are found in as many as 10% of goldfinch nests, the cowbirds never make it to maturity in a goldfinch nest. The reason is because cowbirds can’t make it strictly on a diet of pre-digested seeds…they need meat, such as insects, to grow. While goldfinches do eat some insects, they don’t supply enough to meet the protein needs of the cowbirds.
The reason that goldfinches are not on my wife’s favorite birds list is because they tear apart our zinnias and coneflowers to eat the seeds. They even perch on the little rubber snake in the flower box that was put there to scare them away. We have a flower box with many stems with empty seed heads and no petals. But there are enough flowers to still look O.K. and I guess the little guys need to eat too. I’ll feed them nyjer seed again in the winter to keep them around because they are fun to watch and they rate a 9.9 for “cute” on my Olympic rating system.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
First let me make it clear that chipmunks don’t bother me much. In fact, I kind of like to see chipmunks. When we first moved in a couple of years ago my wife was concerned about rattlesnakes or copperheads hanging out in the yard. I pointed out the chipmunks running around and told her that if there were rattlesnakes that we wouldn’t see all the chipmunks because the snakes would get them. Several months later that attempt to calm her backfired when she observed that she hadn’t seen many chipmunks lately. I’ll have to think up another “don’t worry about snakes” idea.
Actually rattlesnakes and blacksnakes do love to feast on chipmunks, as do foxes, hawks, bobcats, and weasels. Dogs and cats sometimes catch them but probably rarely eat them. After the fox article in the paper a couple of weeks ago two different people emailed me to say that they had seen foxes catching chipmunks in their yard. Chipmunks are an important part of the natural food chain. Chipmunks, on the other hand, eat nuts, acorns, seeds, mushrooms, fruit, berries, insects, bird eggs, and even baby birds or baby mice…as well as your flower bulbs and seeds. More on that later.
The Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias Striatus) is the one we see around here. Although eastern chipmunks can readily climb, they spend almost all of their time on or under the ground. Before I put predator guards on my bird feeder poles the chipmunks would zip up and down the poles like they were on a string.
The genus name Tamias means “storer” and the species name Striatus means “striped”. That is the perfect name because this squirrel is a striped storer. They carry seeds and nuts in their expandable cheek pouches to underground storerooms for eating later. They even use their cheek pouches to carry away the dirt from the entrance to their burrows so predators can’t spot their homes as easily. That is why their burrows just look like a small 2 inch hole in the ground.
In cold weather, chipmunks sleep for days or weeks at a time but don’t truly hibernate. Instead, they wake up from time to time to have a little snack from their underground stores. Therefore they don’t need to fatten up for winter like bears and groundhogs do.
Almost everything I have read says that chipmunks do little damage in yards. Yes, they do eat some flower seeds and bulbs but ¼ inch hardware cloth will let the plants grow through but keep the chipmunks out. Their burrows (10-30 feet in length) are generally much too narrow to cause any structural damage to your house or walks. A chipmunk’s territory is ¼ to ½ an acre and since chipmunks lead a solitary life except during a brief 1 week breeding season how many could you possibly get in your yard anyway?
But to some people, chipmunks are a nuisance that drives them crazy and they must be eliminated. I know several people who regularly trap them in live traps. Some drive the captured chipmunks to another part of town and release them while some send them to chipmunk heaven. If you release them just be sure you don’t move your problem to someone else’s yard. Trapping is considered to be the only effective method to control chipmunks; however, it may be a never ending job because a yard without chipmunks is a vacuum waiting to be filled by another one. But then again, trapping chipmunks is a fun challenge for some folks and since most of us in Fairfield Glade are retired anyway what else do you have to do?
But if you are looking for that ultimate way to eliminate all chipmunks from your yard I don’t believe it exists. I just sit back and enjoy the little guys. Everyone is different and whether you love or hate chipmunks is probably just a difference in the eye of the beholder.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
Saturday, August 02, 2008
We have some beautiful hikes around here on the Cumberland Plateau with cliffs and rock houses and waterfalls but the Smokies are unique. I don't think there is anything like them between here and the Rocky Mountains. Since it was supposed to be over 90 degrees in eastern Tennessee on Friday we decided to hike up high above 5000 feet where the weather would be 10-15 degrees cooler.
There were 9 of us. Since we have a smaller group of stronger hikers in the summer we do some hikes that the regular hiking group might not like to tackle. In the past few weeks we have done 8 miles with 1500 feet elevation gain and 11.3 miles with 2000 feet elevation gain. We dedcided to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Newfound Gap to Clingman's Dome. The hike was 8 miles with 1600 feet elevation gain. Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the whole AT at 6642 above sea level.
I had injured my back the Tuesday before the hike and spent Wednesday mostly in bed and Thursday mostly sitting, since standing and walking hurt too much. On Friday, the day of the hike, I decided I would try the first mile and if my back hurt too much I would amble back to the car and read or take pictures until the group returned. Any day in the Smokies is better than a day sitting at home. My back hurt on every step but not so much that I couldn't go. Standing still caused spasms but if I didn't stop it wasn't too bad. Sitting felt great so I just hiked in the front and once I got ahead of the group a ways I would sit on a rock until they caught up. It worked out great. My back felt better at the end of the hike than it did at the beginning.
The 8 mile trail paralleled the road to Clingman's Dome and we could hear cars every now and then but could only see the road once or twice. There wasn't a level step the whole way...every step was either up or down. The ecosystem at that elevation is much different than at lower levels. It was much wetter and greener. At several places along the way we saw these nice Turk's-cap Lilies and close to Clingman's Dome there were lots of Crimson Bee-balm flowers. We stopped at the tower at Clingman's Dome and enjoyed the view even though it was a little hazy.
It was a great hike and we all really enjoyed it. Hopefully we are working up to a hike to Mount Cammerer in the Smokies. It is 11.2 miles rated difficult with almost 3000 feet elevation gain.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The hummingbirds in this part of the country are Ruby-throated hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are fascinating because they are so unique and everyone loves to watch these tiny birds as they effortlessly hover and fly backwards with wings that beat over 50 times per second.
About this time every year the 2 or 3 hummingbirds that have been visiting your feeder just exploded into many more. We have counted as many as 20 hummingbirds at one time either on or hovering for a spot on one of our two feeders in late July or early August.
The extra hummers are the new babies that are just now out on their own. They don’t look like babies because hummingbird babies are actually bigger than their mothers by the time they leave the nest (the mothers have lost weight trying to raise a couple of hungry kids on their own since male hummers play no part in feeding the youngsters like bluebird fathers do). Juvenile males don’t usually get the iridescent red throat feathers until next spring so all of the extra hummingbirds look like the females. At our 2 feeders one mature male has claimed one feeder all for himself while 15-20 female and juvenile hummers share the other one.
By the way, hummingbirds don’t just live on the sugar in flower nectar or from our feeders…they eat lots of insects and spiders for the protein that they need. The best formula for your feeder is 1 part white cane sugar per 4 parts water. This formula approximates the 21% sugar content of most nectar. Make it sweeter and you will get more bees and ants. And remember to clean and refill the feeders about every 3 days or the formula will spoil in warm weather.
Last year my wife was able to get a hummingbird to land on her finger and eat sugar water out of her hand. But it took 4 hours of patience (Nancy’s, not mine) and I didn’t get a picture because I fell asleep on the couch waiting for the event to unfold.
Usually by about early October all the Ruby-throated hummingbirds are gone around here. Actually the males leave first, as early as August. The juveniles and females leave later. Most Ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in Central America and return to this part of
Don’t worry about leaving your hummingbird feeders up too long. The birds know when to migrate by the length of daylight…they won’t stay too long. Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating from further north or other hummingbird species migrating through may use your feeders. Rufous Hummingbirds sometimes migrate through here as well as 3 other species.
Hummingbirds sometimes get in a garage and have trouble getting out because they tend to fly up to look for an opening. Hang a feeder at the door opening and the bird may come down to refuel and then head out instead of in. Supposedly, you can minimize the chances of getting a hummingbird in your garage by painting the door release handles black instead of red since bright colors (like flowers) are what attracts the little guys.
Keep those feeders full and clean because the hummingbird population explosion is happening now. I hope you enjoy watching our smallest bird as much as I do.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
A couple of weeks ago my neighbor Joe called. He and Saundra had a snake caught in some netting in their yard and they thought that it might be a copperhead. They didn’t want to kill the snake but they didn’t want to get too friendly if it was venomous.
With one look I knew it wasn’t a copperhead and I knew it wasn’t venomous because the only two venomous snakes we have around here are copperheads and timber rattlesnakes and it wasn’t either of those. My guess was that it was an Eastern hog-nosed snake but since I had only ever seen one once before in my life I had to go home and get a couple of snake books to be sure. With a closer look we positively identified it as a hog-nosed snake…a beautiful pattern and a cute little turned-up nose. I had been looking for one. I knew they lived around here especially since we have loads of toads and hog-nosed snakes are toad and frog specialists.
I held the snake by its head and tail while Saundra very carefully cut away the fine nylon netting that the snake had entangled itself in. Hog-nosed snakes are known to act very aggressively by striking and hissing and even flattening their head like a cobra. In fact, my friend Gary found another one few days later that did just that. According to the books, they always strike with their mouth closed…supposedly they never bite. Nevertheless, I didn’t test the “never bites” theory because even non-venomous snakes have lots of needle sharp teeth. If aggressive acting doesn’t work against a threat, hog-nosed snakes roll over and play dead. This 2 foot long guy was probably a little tired from being tangled up for a day so he was pretty calm. He just breathed a sigh of relief and headed off to find a toad.
The second snake tale happened a day later. My neighbor Bob knocked on the front door with a plastic bucket and a little 10 inch snake that he found in his front yard. He thought that it might be a rattlesnake because the brown patterned snake had a bright yellow tail that it vibrated rapidly just like a rattlesnake would. However, even new born rattlesnakes have a little button on the end of their tail which is the first segment of their rattle, not a straight tapered yellow tail.
This snake was a baby copperhead. The bright yellow tail is an identifying trait of baby copperheads. As they grow and shed their skin they will lose the yellow on their tail. But, even babies have venom and can bite. After some pictures and some neighborhood show and tell, Bob was going to release the copperhead back in the woods.
So what is the moral of this tale? The moral is that not every snake you see is a copperhead or a rattlesnake. Many people kill snakes that they think are copperheads when in most cases they are probably, milk snakes, garter snakes, hog-nosed snakes, kingsnakes, watersnakes, etc. I could go on and on naming beneficial harmless snakes. I know of two instances locally where even blacksnakes were killed thinking they were copperheads. Also, just for the record, in
So before you slice that snake in two think about all the insects, mice, frogs and toads that they keep in check without poisons and chemicals. It is amazing what nature will take care of if we just get out of the way and let it do its thing.
Friday, July 04, 2008
Foxes have been on my short list for a while now. But they have always been too far away or moving too fast, or seen after dark.
But a couple of weeks ago I received an email from Sue L. who said that her neighbor had a den of red fox pups in their backyard that were well within camera range. Carolyn and Gunny (the neighbors with the foxes) agreed to let me try to get a picture for a future article. Even better, their friend, Don Hepburn, with a better camera than mine, already had some great shots of the pups. So that is how I finally was able to get a picture and write an article about foxes in Fairfield Glade. Thanks to everyone involved.
There are actually 2 types of foxes in this area…red fox and gray fox. I have seen both kinds frequently so I think both are pretty common in this area. Both are similar in size and eating habits. Both types of foxes are around 7-14 pounds and both eat rabbits, other rodents, birds, eggs, insects, berries and fruit. The major difference is that gray foxes can climb trees. They have strong curved claws that allow them to easily climb trees to escape predators and catch prey. Coyotes are probably most fox’s main natural predator.
Red foxes, (in the picture above) like the ones in Carolyn and Gunny’s backyard, can be identified by their orange-red coats, black feet, and white tipped tails. There is a gray phase of the red fox called a Silver fox, but it still has a white tipped tail and black feet.
Grey foxes (like the one at left), on the other hand, are grizzled grey above with a white throat and rusty red sides. Gray foxes have a black tip to the tail. The reddish color on the sides of the gray fox causes them to sometimes be misidentified as a red fox, but the color on the tip of the tail is usually the way to tell a red fox from a gray fox. The grey fox in the picture crossed the road in front of me a few days ago with three pups behind her. One of the pups climbed 10 feet up a tree and then back down while I watched.
Since most of us don’t raise chickens in Fairfield Glade red foxes don’t usually get into trouble around here. As you may know, red foxes have a reputation for liking chickens. They also like Insects so they should be loving the cicada boom this spring. Both types of foxes eat fruit. Near where I used to live in
A gray fox comes around my house once in a while and digs up grubs in the mulch. But I don’t mind. In fact, I always kind of like environmentally friendly insect control over the chemical kind. I did get up at 2am one night and sit by an open window to try to get Mr. Fox’s picture, but his night vision was better than mine and when I raised the camera he disappeared into the night.
As you drive around here at night keep you eyes open for a fox crossing a road in front of you; I have seen several this way. Sometimes you might even see one at dusk or dawn. If you see a fox try to determine if it is a red fox or a gray fox since you now know how to tell the difference.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Mid to late June every year the Flame Azaleas and the Catawba Rhododendron bloom on Gregory Bald. In the Smokies a "Bald" is an open area with no trees high on a mountain. In the pioneer days balds were used for grazing livestock, but it is not known how they originally formed.
This was no easy hike. My GPS showed the round trip mileage at 11.3. The elevation gain was over 3000 vertical feet. Except for about 100 yards, every step was uphill for 3 1/2 hours. We went from about 1900 feet above sea level to almost 5000 feet.
White Rhododendron surrounded the trail much of the way. In some places the blooms began to drop their petals and the trail was carpeted with white flowers. We saw a few orange Flame Azaleas on the way up but nothing like the show on top. Gregory Bald in June is 10 acres of wild azaleas of many different colors. Orange and red colors predominate, but there are also yellow, fuchsia, and even white.
Here is a slide show of the photos we took.
We only stayed at the top for about 15 minutes taking pictures of the azaleas and a very tame female deer until an incoming thunderstorm chased us back down. We hiked and ate our lunch in a downpour with lightning in the background...it was great!
If you go next June, there is a shorter route you can take that is only about 9 miles round trip with a 2000 foot elevation gain. Just talk to a National Park Service Ranger for the directions.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
We fished the Little Juniata (locally called the Little J), Spruce Creek, and two others, Yellow Creek and Bob's Creek. We caught trout on all 4 streams and some pretty nice ones. We caught mostly Browns, several Rainbows, and one Brook Trout.
Spruce Creek is a beautiful, fairly small stream, that is all located on private land except for six tenths of a mile on Penn State University owned land that anyone can fish. The private land includes a couple of lodges where folks with lots of money go to get away from the regular fishermen. Larry Csonka, Dick Cheney, and former President Jimmy Carter fish the private waters of Spruce Creek. While we were there Jimmy Carter was upstream for a several day fishing trip. We can therefore correctly say that we went fly fishing with Jimmy Carter. He just happened to be 5 miles upstream.
The owners of the local Tavern in the 20 house hamlet of Spruce Creek said that Jimmy always stops in for dinner when he is in the area. They said that he has about 6 Secret Service guys with him that come in ahead of time wearing brand new fishing vests for disguise and slacks and penny loafers and radio earpieces and microphones up their sleeves.
We had good weather, outstanding fishing, and a little fun with our fishing buddy Jimmy. We didn't get a chance to straighten him out about his politics.
Thursday, June 05, 2008
I don’t know if you hear them everywhere in the Glade but you sure can up around my house. The 1 ½ inch long insects are loud. Depending on the species they make several different sounds…some make a series of clicks and buzzes, some sound like a water sprinkler, and some make a sound like the word “pharaoh” extended. These are male cicadas calling females to join them for a bottle of wine, some candlelight and a good time. Interested females respond with a little wing flick, kind of like a wink. And they are calling vigorously because they have waited 17 years for one night of romance.
Periodical cicadas have an amazing life cycle. Once the adults mate and the females lay their eggs in pencil sized twigs their job is over and they die. The eggs hatch in a few weeks and the tiny ant sized nymphs emerge from the twig, drop the ground and tunnel down 18-24 inches to suck sap from tree roots for the next 17 years. Even thousands of cicadas do little to no damage to the tree. After 17 years the nymphs dig to the surface (in mid-May in
The cicadas here this year are Brood number 14 (technically Roman numeral brood XIV) of the 17-year cicadas. There is also another race of cicadas that are 13-year cicadas.
I remember about 7 or 8 years ago I was in
Early settlers to North America thought the periodical cicadas, which are only found in eastern
There is one way you can control cicadas in a very limited way…eat them! That is right, eat them. Birds, squirrels, snakes, fish, mammals, even dogs and cats love them. Any why not, cicadas are high in protein, low in fat, and have no carbs. People say they taste crispy, crunchy, and nutty. They are said to be especially good sautéed in butter with garlic and basil. I would recommend a nice cool bottle of California Chablis with that.
The 17-year periodical cicadas will be gone in a week or two. So enjoy them while you can. Go out and look for the empty beige nymphal skins on tree trunks or the beautiful red-eyed adults on vegetation. If you are still here in 2025 you can look for the sons and daughters of the cicadas that are here now. Mark your calendar so you don’t forget.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
A donkey, a burro, and an ass are all just different names for the same animal. It is a small equine (horse-like) mammal with a relatively large head, large ears and small hooves. Burro is the Mexican name but it is used as often as donkey. A male burro is called a jackass, sometimes shortened to either jack or ass, and a female is a jenny.
My dad used to say that you could buy a donkey very cheaply in the fall because no one wanted to feed one over the winter in the north. Just to prove his point he bought a female donkey one fall for $25 to roam in the 120 acres of fenced woods at our cottage in
On the weekends we would go to the cottage and round up the burros (my dad’s buddy bought a male burro to provide a companion for Jenny) and put a bridle on them so we could ride. The burros were semi-wild from roaming the woods all week and although they didn’t buck, they would do all sorts of tricks to get us off their backs. The first trick every time was to reach around and try to take a big old burro bite out of the leg of the kid on their back. You had to have the bridle reins ready to whip their nose to keep from losing a thigh. Then, they would take us under every low tree in the woods to try to rub us off. If that didn’t work they would get up a little speed and then stop abruptly and lower their head to roll us over the front. Since we always rode bareback it was almost impossible to stay on even though we knew what was coming. What fun!
One very interesting fact about donkeys is that one or two are often kept with a herd of sheep for protection against coyotes and feral (wild) dogs. I’ve read that canine predation of sheep and lambs stops completely if a donkey is in the field.
A mule is not a donkey. A mule is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey. Mules, like many hybrids, are sterile, so if you want another mule you have to breed a male donkey to a female horse again…that is the only way to get a mule. Mules can be any size. If the mother is a pony, you get a small mule. If the mother is a Clydesdale, your mule will be large. Don’t worry, these days horse people mostly use artificial insemination so the male burro doesn’t have to stand on a stool. Mules are noted for their intelligence. They say you can work a horse to death but a mule (and also a burro) will stop and refuse to continue before it is exhausted. That is one reason that mules are sometimes considered stubborn. But they are also known as calm, strong, surefooted, and reliable. These traits are the reason mules are used to carry greenhorns to the bottom of the
Now, even if you knew about mules and donkeys, only one person that I polled had ever heard of a hinny. A hinny is nearly the same as a mule except the hinny has a horse for a father and a donkey for a mother…just the opposite of a mule. Hinnies are usually smaller and considered to not have all the good traits of a mule and therefore they are very rare.
By the way, the question in the title referring to the picture asks Donkey, Burro, or Ass? The answer is…Yes!
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
If you go to the Overlook near Dorchester Golf course (follow the signs off of
Beavers are big. Adults are 40-70 pounds and 3 to 4 feet long including the flat broad tail. Once I was fly fishing in
Beavers are sometimes not welcome neighbors to humans because they cut down trees and they dam up streams and flood low areas. But when they aren’t interfering with us, they actually do much good in nature. Their dams create wetlands that are needed by many species. And their dams actually minimize flooding and erosion by holding back water. They cut down trees to eat the inner bark and to build dams and lodges. Beavers have been know to cut down trees up to 5 feet in diameter, but usually they work on trees less than a foot across. This isn’t a problem out in the middle of nowhere, but if it is in your backyard then you may not be too happy to see beavers move in next door and drop your $200 River Birch on your driveway. A wrap of chicken wire two feet up the trunk will save your trees.
You don’t need to be a mountain man to see wild beavers but you do need to get a little bit off the beaten path along a nice stream in the Big South Fork Recreation Area, the Cades Cove area of the GSMNP, or just down by our own little Daddy’s Creek. The variety of wildlife within a few miles of your home is amazing…you just have to look around. Beavers right here in
Sunday, April 20, 2008
In the middle of the trail a coyote or fox had left a deposit as they often do to mark their territory. Canines often defecate where it can be seen and smelled so that other canines will recognize the marked territory of the depositor.
In this case several dung beetles had found the treasure and had begun to break it down and form it into little balls that they could then roll away to their den. The male dung beetle usually collects the dung, forms it into balls, and then rolls it home to the female. The beetle pushes the ball backwards by himself. If you see other beetles trying to move the same ball of dung they aren't helping, they are trying to steal someone else's ball of dung. The same thing happens in human society too.
Meanwhile the female has been busy digging a tunnel for her incoming ball of dung. Once rolled into the tunnel, she deposits her eggs into the mass so that the larva when they hatch will have a ready meal. The meal, which the adults eat as well, consists of undigested materials and microorganisms in the feces.
Dung beetles are important in nature because they break down and recycle the waste. Different species of beetles often specialize in different types of dung and not all species of dung beetles roll their food into balls. In addition to the "rollers" there are "tunnelers" and "dwellers". The tunnelers root under the pile and stay there to do their thing, while the dwellers just dive into the heap and live there.
Dung beetles can be very important in a cow pasture to keep it from being knee deep in cow patties and I have read that some developing countries import specific dung beetles so that they aren't overrun with human waste.
So there you have it...everything you always wanted to know about dung beetles.
This time the picture is a male Lone Star Tick. The previous post showed a picture of a Female. The males are a little smaller and they don't have the white dot (or "star") that the female has. The size of this guy is about 1/8 inch long. To the naked eye the male Lone Star Tick mainly just looks dark brown. But if you look closely you can see some tiny white detail along the back edge of the shell.
Nancy found this little guy on her pants leg after a 4 mile hike today.