Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hiking with a Goat

A couple of weeks ago I went hiking with 21 of my favorite hiking buddies….one of them is a goat….literally.

The Wednesday Tennessee Trails Association group usually has 12-15 hikers each week. The week that we went to hike on the Cumberland Trail we had more than the usual number of hikers because we all wanted to see first hand what was under way on one section of the state park trail. It is hard to believe that someone is legally able to destroy a state park!

When we parked at the trailhead we were met by a long haired cream and black billy goat. He came trotting down the road and just hung around as we were getting organized to begin the hike. We figured that he was looking for a free handout but since no one fed him I was surprised that he followed us as we started to hike. After a little hesitation at the first bridge, Mr. Goat fell right in line and for some reason he liked to hike about 2nd or 3rd in line. If he stopped to eat leaves along the way he would catch up and run past the end of the line to get back to 2nd or 3rd. I liked being about in the middle or further back because someone near the front of the line didn’t smell very good and I think that it was Billy. After about 4 ½ miles of beautiful scenic hiking we came to what we were looking for….bulldozed trees and carved up earth in the middle of the Cumberland Trail State Park.

As you may know, when land is sold, sometimes the mineral rights to that land are sold separately or retained by the original owner. In this case, the state of Tennessee spent nearly $2 million to purchase land that is now part of the Soddy segment of the Cumberland Trail State Park. The mineral rights were not part of that purchase, as they aren’t in many Tennessee properties. Now after millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to purchase and build the trail, the owner of the mineral rights has decided to harvest rock for building and landscaping. They have moved in heavy equipment, mowed down trees, built gravel roads and bulldozed and trucked rocks right out of and over the Cumberland Trail. Current mining laws classify rocks as minerals and don’t require the rock harvester to restore the land in any way…even in a state park. Twenty-one of us, plus a goat, hiked in to see this unbelievable destruction. As a homeowner and as a frequent visitor to many of the beautiful scenic areas of Tennessee this is kind of scary. If you don’t own the mineral rights to your land, theoretically, the one who does could drive onto your property, dig out the rocks, haul them away and leave the hole. That is exactly what they are doing on the Cumberland Trail.

If you live in Tennessee your help is needed! Please email or write to our state legislators and ask them to co-sponsor and support House Bill 2764 and Senate Bill 2781. These bills won’t change the rights of the mineral owners or even stop the rock harvesting, but they will at least require the harvesters to restore the land by planting trees and grass. It’s a start. In Fairfield Glade our State Senator is Charlotte Burks, 9 Legislative Plaza, Nashville, TN, 37243, sen.charlotte.burks@legislature.state.tn.us . Our State Representative is Eric Swafford, 202 War Memorial Bldg, Nashville, TN, 37243, rep.eric.swafford@legislature.state.tn.us .

The goat and I will thank you. Well, at least I will thank you. At the end of the trail that day we met a woman who said the goat lives in the farm next to her and he really doesn’t like people. But for some reason he seemed to like us, and hopefully it was because of our warm personalities good looks and not because we smelled like a fellow goat. As much fun as we had with the goat that day the air in the vicinity of Mr. Billy and in the vicinity of the rock harvesters was not as fresh as it usually is in the great outdoors.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

A winter Visitor

Keep your eyes open and you might see our National Emblem in Fairfield Glade. Yes, there is a beautiful American Bald Eagle visiting Fairfield Glade this winter.

I am a little surprised… not to see one in Tennessee, but because this Bald Eagle seems to be hanging around Fairfield Glade, not just passing through. Bald Eagles both nest year round and migrate in the winter in Tennessee. They migrate from the north to find open water and more fish. But they usually like two things…very large bodies of water and lack of human activity. We have bodies of water in Fairfield Glade but they aren’t large by eagle standards and all of our lakes are surrounded by houses and humans. We are extremely lucky and privileged to have such a wonderful visitor. The beautiful picture here was taken by Linda Sisco on Lake Dartmoor from her kitchen window. But I have heard from other Glade residents that the magnificent bird was also seen on Lake St. George and even tiny Spring Lake. Linda and her husband have seen the eagle around this year since late November. One was here last year also…probably the same one.

As you know, our National Bird was nearly extinct in the early 1960’s. Loss of habitat, shooting, and especially DDT (a pesticide) was blamed for reducing the number of Bald Eagles to only around 400 nesting pairs in the continental U.S. They have since recovered to about 10,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states and they were removed from the “Threatened and Endangered Species List” about 6 months ago. Even so, they are still highly protected by law. You could go to jail for even possessing one Bald Eagle feather. The Bald Eagle only lives in North America, with the majority found from Alaska to the northwest U.S.; but they are also found in all states except Hawaii, especially along both coasts. The total population is around 70,000 birds today. What a remarkable and wonderful recovery!

If you want to see Fairfield Glade’s Bald Eagle (I am guessing there is only one here at this time) here are some ideas. First, whatever you do, don’t get too close…eagles are very sensitive to human activity and are easily disturbed….you may scare it out of the county so no one can see it. Viewing from a car or a house is the best way to not disturb the eagle. While fly fishing in Oklahoma a few years ago a little 10 year old boy told me that looking for “trash in the trees” is how to spot eagles. What looks like a white plastic bag or a white piece of paper in a tree could be the white head or tail of a mature eagle (young eagles don’t get the white head and tail until about 5 years of age). Look in the tall trees near the lakes. Bald Eagles perch in the tallest trees to search for fish swimming or floating in the water. I have seen them in Colorado along a trout stream where each eagle had its own favorite tree. They eat fish almost exclusively but will eat ducks, rabbits, turtles, or even carrion at times. Look for a very large bird. Bald Eagles are 3 feet tall and have a wingspan of 6-8 feet. By contrast, a large crow has a 3 foot wingspan.

It is doubtful that “our” Bald Eagle will nest here since our lakes are small, but about 40 eagle pairs do nest in Tennessee. If you really want to see lots of Bald Eagles visit Reelfoot Lake in far northwest Tennessee. About 200 Bald Eagles visit there in the winter and about 10 pairs stay and nest there each year. There are eagle tours and festivities at Reelfoot Lake until the first weekend in March.

Bald Eagles live to about 30 years in the wild so if we treat this one with the respect and dignity that it deserves maybe he/she will visit FFG every year. What a nice winter treat for us! Thanks to Linda Sisco for getting a great picture for all of us to see.

Wild Pigs

Wild pigs in the Glade! So what are these things and what the heck are they doing here? It is an interesting story (at least to me).

What are these things? All of the wild pigs today are either 1-Eurasian (Russian) wild boars, 2-domestic pigs that have become feral, or 3-hybrids of the two. Russian boars, wild pigs, razorbacks, feral hogs….they are all the same species. In this article I may call them any these things, but remember they are basically all the same animal. They can be black, brown, red, white, spotted or striped. They can grow to several hundred pounds, but most average just a little over a hundred pounds and stand up to 3 feet tall at the shoulder. Most experts agree that there are probably few, if any, pure Russian wild boars left…they have all interbred with feral hogs. The majority of the bloodlines are from domestic pigs gone wild. But make no mistake about it…they don’t resemble the fat pink pig you saw at the county fair. These wild guys have adapted to a life on the run. I encountered two in Arkansas once while fly fishing and when they saw me they ran away and jumped logs as gracefully as a deer. By the way, I took the picture here of a stuffed wild pig at the Tennessee Wildlife Management Agency (TWMA) office in Crossville.

How did wild pigs get to Fairfield Glade? Pigs are not native to North America. Like House Sparrows and Starlings they are imports. They were probably first brought to America by the Spanish explorer DeSoto in about 1539. Later, in the early 1900’s, Eurasian Wild Boars were imported into North Carolina and some other states for hunting in fenced hunting preserves. In the many years since then both domestic pigs and Russian Boars either escaped or were allowed to run wild and they established free-ranging wild populations. Early settlers allowed their pigs to forage freely in the woods and then they rounded them up from time to time to ear mark them or to butcher them. Not all returned to the farm on cue. According to Jim Zimmerman at the TWRA, wild pigs were released in Catoosa Wildlife Management Area for hunting years ago, but probably not since the 1950’s. It is interesting that in Tennessee there is a technical difference (not a physical difference) between a wild boar and a feral hog. Officially, a “wild boar” is any pig on Catoosa or one of a couple of other Wildlife Management Areas (WMA). If that same “wild boar” steps over the line onto private property it is now technically considered a “feral hog” with an open hunting season and no limits on the number that you may shoot. Theoretically, with a little corn and a little “here piggy piggy” you could entice one out of Catoosa and have him for lunch. I hear that they are very tasty.

Are they dangerous? I went to some experts for this question. I talked to Jim Zimmerman and Mark Lipner at TWRA as well as a ranger in the GSMNP. All said that wild pigs will run from humans; they will not attack. Now if you pick up a piglet or corner an adult pig with no way to escape you could get bitten or slashed with their razor sharp tusks. But then the same might happen with your neighbor’s poodle. So don’t be worried about any crazy stories of wild boar attacks.

Are there many around? Wild pig populations are growing…quickly. Fifteen years ago it was estimated that there were 1-2 million in the U.S. Now the estimate is over 4 million. They are found in 40 states and expanding. In Tennessee they are especially a big problem in the Smokies where they compete with native deer and bear for available food. There are plenty on the Cumberland Plateau, particularly in and surrounding Catoosa WMA.

What do they eat? Pigs are omnivorous; they will eat anything, including acorns, berries, fruit, roots, worms, grubs, beetles, and agricultural crops. They love corn and cause tremendous damage where crops are grown. They will even eat ground nesting birds and fawns. Golfers in Fairfield Glade have seen the traps for pigs on Heatherhurst. Steve Kraft, FFG head golf pro, said the pigs sometimes tear up the fairways rooting for grubs. They recently have done some damage on the Brae course on holes 15 & 16.

How can you spot some? You will have a difficult time seeing any wild pigs because they avoid humans and they often come out only at dusk, dawn, or at night. Although their eyesight isn’t great, their hearing, and especially their sense of smell, is excellent. Wild pigs almost always sense you and are gone without you even knowing that they were anywhere near. Your best chances to spot wild pigs is in wet areas around creeks. Mark Lipner at TWRA said that the Otter Creek drainage area is as good an area as any to look for pigs or pig signs.

What does all of this mean to you? Unless wild pigs tear up your lawn or dine on your favorite hole on Heatherhurst you probably won’t run into any pig issues. Although it hasn’t been a problem yet, a bigger threat could be the transmission of a couple of diseases to domestic livestock. Going forward, more effective wild pig control methods will be needed or we will begin to see effects. I am sure you will hear more about feral hogs in the future. In the meantime wild pigs are just another part of the nature around us here in Fairfield Glade. Enjoy it!

Time for Bird Feeding

It is that time of year to start filling up the bird feeders again.

There is some difference of opinion about rather feeding birds hurts or helps them. Those against feeding claim that birds become dependent on humans for food and then have trouble fending for themselves if the feeding stops. But the studies that I have read say that the birds either go to other feeders or easily go back to finding food themselves if no feeders are available. We know that birds can survive just fine without human help….heck they have done it for millions of years. In my view, bird feeding is mainly for the enjoyment that it gives us humans….and it provides plenty of that.

But we do create some problems by putting up feeders. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks cruise by my feeder from time to time looking for a nice juicy songbird for dinner. And feral cats can make a fine living hanging around under a feeder. You can’t do much about the occasional hawk, but most of us have found various ways to scare the feral cats away.

Bird seed is a favorite food of a range of animals besides birds. As you all know, squirrels, raccoons, deer, and even bears, love birdseed. A neighbor told me of someone in another state that used to put birdseed, cracked corn and apples slices out each night to feed the local deer. Each night the deer would come and they would always eat the birdseed first, before either the corn or the apples.

I have had pretty good luck against squirrels and raccoons by mounting my bird feeders on a six foot freestanding pole with a two foot predator guard on the pole. This setup must be at least six feet from trees and decks to keep the squirrels from leaping across. You can make your own predator guards out of 36 x 8 inch stovepipe or buy them at Birds Unlimited in Knoxville.

You’ll get the biggest variety of birds if you have a variety of feeders and food. In addition to the regular hanging feeders you may want to try, tray feeders, ground feeders and suet feeders to attract more birds.

For the type of birdseed, almost all the experts say that black oil sunflower seeds are number one. Striped sunflower seeds are ok, but not as good as the black ones. Safflower seed is a white seed that birds like but squirrels hate. Niger is that tiny black “thistle” seed that Goldfinches love. Niger takes a special feeder or Lowe’s sells it in a “sock” that you can hang. I’ve read that white millet is good, but most birds don’t eat red millet.

Watch out for low-priced and mixed seed. These often contain lots of “filler” seed like milo, red millet, wheat, or oats that most birds just scatter on the ground and don’t eat.

And don’t forget the insect eating birds like Bluebirds and Woodpeckers. We feed Bluebirds mealworms and cut up raisins and cranberries all winter. Woodpeckers come to suet and peanut feeders, but so will many other birds.

So, does feeding birds hurt or help? I haven’t read anything that convinces me that it hurts the birds, but it sure provides lots of enjoyment for us humans. Load up those feeders, winter is coming!

Insect Horror Movie!

The plot and the characters are in place for a terrific new insect horror film. The ads would read like this…“Giant caterpillerzilla threatens food supply until air force saves the day with new deadly smart bombs…and it’s all going on in your backyard.”

Actually it is not a movie, and it is nothing special, it is just an everyday happening in nature. The following is a true story.

If you have ever grown tomatoes you are probably aware of those giant green caterpillars called Tomato Hornworms. These things are as big as your thumb and they look like they could swallow a finger, but their green camouflage color make them extremely difficult to see on a tomato plant. There are three ways to spot them. First, if your tomatoes are in a container on a deck (like mine) you might see the little black droppings of the caterpillar on the deck. That is your clue that a Tomato Hornworm is in the vicinity. Another way to find them is to notice that the leaves are missing from a whole stem on your tomato plant. In these two cases you can then step back and carefully search the plant for the Hornworm. The third way to find a Tomato Hornworm is the scary way. You are reaching for a tomato and you notice a very, very large, green, caterpillar with a dangerous looking spine on its backside about an inch from your fingers. When you spot them this way it is sure to jolt you to attention in a hurry.

The Tomato Hornworm is the caterpillar form of a moth called a Hawk Moth. The moth lays its eggs on tomato plants and the larva (caterpillar) eats leaves voraciously and grows quickly to 3 or 4 inches long and ½ inch or more thick. A couple of them will strip a tomato plant of all its leaves if you don’t remove them. I usually remove them with a pair of pliers and if you have had them you know that they don’t let go easily.

So that is the first part of the story of the big scary caterpillar and the threat to your tomatoes. But the rest of the story is the interesting part and the gory part of this nature documentary.

There is a tiny ½ inch wasp called a Brachnid Wasp that we probably never notice, that preys on the Tomato Hornworms. Their smart bomb method is devious and deadly. The wasp locates a Hornworm and injects it under the skin with numerous eggs. The eggs hatch in a couple of days into little wasp larva like tiny maggots. The larva feed on the caterpillar from the inside. They don’t kill the caterpillar yet, they just cause it to stop feeding. However, I am sure that the caterpillar is not feeling too frisky at this point. In a few days the larva bore out and form cocoons on the outside of the caterpillar. The picture in this article shows a Tomato Hornworm caterpillar covered with these tiny cocoons. In a few more days the young wasps hatch and go on their way looking for more Tomato Hornworms to prey on. The air force to the rescue! The host caterpillar dies without causing any more damage to your tomatoes.

It is estimated that by late summer that 90% of all Tomato Hornworms are parasitized by the tiny Brachnid Wasps. This is natural insect control by another insect. This is not a unique case; there are a number of types of wasps that parasitize other insects or spiders in this way.

So let nature help. If you see one of those scary Tomato Hornworms covered with tiny football shaped white cocoons let it be. The Hornworm won’t be feeding any more and if you let the wasps hatch there will be that many more of your tiny wasp buddies helping to control a common garden pest.

Nature can be scary, exciting, interesting, fun, and kind of gory at times…and it is happening in your backyard.


Crossin' the highway late last night

He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right
He didn't see the station wagon car
The skunk got squashed and there you are!

You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road
Stinkin' to high Heaven!

Remember that song “Dead Skunk” by Loudon Wainwright III? Some days it seems like he wrote it about Fairfield Glade.

I always thought that skunks were as dumb as armadillos in Texas for getting flattened as often as they do. You don’t see fox, coyotes, bobcats, or other mammals dead on the road very often. But I recently found out why so many skunks get squashed. Their eyesight is not clear beyond about 10 feet so they just never see the cars coming. Their hearing and sense of smell are sharp but that doesn’t help them much on the highway.

Growing up, we always called February “skunk month” because that is their breeding season and when they are most active…except when they are inactive on the road. But I have been seeing (and smelling) dead skunks all summer around here. Things will slow down in the colder months, because although skunks don’t truly hibernate, they do become much less active

Everyone seems to be afraid of skunks because of their potent chemical protection. But not many of us can think of a human that got sprayed by a skunk. Dogs are a different story. A friend’s slow learning dog has been nailed three separate times. The reason is that skunks spray in self defense so unless you run up and attempt to grab one you probably won’t get sprayed. By the way, their spraying range is only about 15 feet, so you conceivably could impress your neighbors by agitating a skunk from 20 feet away.

A few months ago I was hiking on the Cumberland Trail and a movement next to me caught my eye. Within 12 inches of my foot, walking right beside me was a skunk. I jumped 3 feet but the skunk just ambled along. Only when I kept approaching him to get a picture did he stop, stamp his feet as a warning and eventually do a handstand on his front feet to warn me prior to firing. I took the hint and backed off and everyone was cool…no chemicals were launched.

There are two kinds of skunks in Tennessee, Striped Skunks and Spotted Skunks. I have only seen the more common striped ones around here. Skunks are related to weasels, mink, otters, wolverines, etc. All of these mammals have strong scent glands but none are as potent or as specialized as skunks.

Up to 70% of a skunk’s diet is insects, but they will also eat lizards, snakes, birds, or even garbage if you put it out the night before. Those little cone shaped holes in your lawn or mulch are probably from skunks digging out grubs. Hey, they are neat, they work at night when you are sleeping, they do the job, and there is no charge…what more could you ask for?

So, look outside before letting the dog out at night and try to miss them on the highway and we should be able to appreciate and enjoy skunks just a little bit more. They are just another part of the big picture of nature around us.

Snakes in the Glade

Just about everyone you know (maybe you are included) seems to be afraid of snakes. Some people are irrationally afraid. I guess it is because snakes are that odd long and skinny shape and maybe because some are venomous.

Like most things in nature, snakes are beneficial to us and our environment. They eat rodents, insects, frogs and toads among other things. But even I have to admit that birds eat those things too, and birds are much warmer and fuzzier than snakes.

There are over 30 different kinds of snakes in Tennessee, but there are only 2 venomous kinds found here on the Cumberland Plateau….Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads. Regardless of what someone told you, there are no Water Moccasins (sometimes called Cottonmouths) in this part of Tennessee. Yet it seems that everyone who sees a snake claims that it was a Copperhead, Rattlesnake or Water Moccasin. The odds are that it was one of the other 30 non-venomous kinds of snakes. Water snakes, Milk Snakes, Corn Snakes, Garter Snakes, and even Black Snakes are killed by well meaning folks mistaking them for venomous snakes. By the way, it is illegal in Tennessee to kill, harm, or even possess any native snake, venomous or not.

Here is some information about our two venomous snakes and how to avoid trouble with them.

Copperheads can grow to 3½ feet long but most that you will see are smaller. I have seen several around Fairfield Glade…mostly on the roads...mostly dead. The one in the picture to the left was in my neighbor's garage on an eye-level shelf. That will give you a jolt!

One interesting fact is that baby Copperheads have bright yellow tips of their tails...cute! Copperheads are definitely venomous but almost never deadly because of their relatively small size, small amount of venom, less toxic venom and small fangs. It is estimated that in 50% of Copperhead bites no venom is injected. I have read that Copperhead bites are almost never even treated with anti-venom even though it is available.

Timber Rattlesnakes can grow to 5 feet or more but most are 3-4 feet long. They have bigger and more of everything a Copperhead has including more toxic venom. We came across this rattlesnake on a hike in northern Tennessee. He was very calm and just wanted to be left alone.

Rattlesnake bites can be serious, but once again, Timber Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal. In Tennessee only 7 people have died from snakebite in the last 40 years. In fact, only 12-15 people in the whole U.S. die each year from snakebite (most of those from bigger or more toxic rattlesnakes than we have here). Twice as many people die from bee stings and over 100 people from lightning strikes each year.

Timber Rattlesnakes are not very common around here, but they are here. My next door neighbor Harold found one hiding under a bag of mulch under his deck recently. After a few pictures he herded his visitor back down into the woods making both feel more comfortable.

There are a couple of things you can do to avoid being on the wrong end of a venomous snake. First, most snakebites involve either stepping on a snake or reaching where they are hiding. In the summer, snakes are most active when it is cooler, so watch where you walk, especially at night, even on roads. Snakes are especially active on warm humid nights or after a rain. In the spring and fall they are more active during the day. Don’t reach where you can’t see, like in piles of rocks or bricks or cement blocks, or in wood piles or under boards. If you have a wood pile, just always assume that there is a snake in there.

I have seen Milk Snakes, Black Rat Snakes, Northern Water Snakes, Black Racers, Worm Snakes, Copperheads and Rattlesnakes since I moved here. I always like to see snakes just because they are another interesting part of the nature around us. But at the same time I watch where I walk and where I reach.

So respect snakes and be aware that they are around here….but don’t fear them. Heck, you don’t fear Buicks and you have a much greater chance of getting injured with a Buick on Peavine than you do of tangling with a venomous snake.

Spiders are good….really!

I know that most of you don’t believe that spiders are good…but they really are. Really!

Just like birds, bats, snakes, lizards etc., spiders eat lots of insects that would overrun us without some natural controls. Spiders are just another part of the food chain…they just don’t happen to be as cute and cuddly as bluebirds, for instance.

As most people know, spiders are not insects. Insects have 6 legs…spiders have 8. Spiders are Arachnids and they are related to some other unloved cousins such as ticks, chiggers, scorpions, etc.

Unlike ticks and chiggers, spiders don’t really want to bite humans. Spiders bite humans in self defense, not to suck our blood. The bad news is that almost all spiders have venom. The good news is that very few spiders have fangs capable of piercing human skin.

But there are two spiders here in Fairfield Glade, Tennessee that can hurt you. For that reason you need to be aware of these guys…but you don’t need to live in fear of them.

You have heard of both….the Brown Recluse and the Black Widow.

First the Brown Recluse! This is a shy spider that likes to hide during the day and hunt at night. It is usually tan to brown with a darker fiddle shape on its back. With legs extended it is about the size of a quarter. Almost all bites occur when the spider is encountered hiding in old shoes, old clothes, or in seldom used storage areas. They are reported to particularly like to hide in and around cardboard. The spider bites in self defense when pressed against human skin. The venom can cause local tissue damage (sometimes serious) but rarely are Brown Recluse bites fatal. So just shake out those old shoes and clothes, especially those not worn regularly and you should be fine.

The infamous Black Widow is a beautiful spider. The female is usually patent leather shiny black with the red or orange “hourglass” marking on her abdomen. The ones that I have seen have a body about the size of a blueberry and with their legs extended they cover a quarter or larger.
They get their name from the belief that the female always kills and eats the male after mating. This sometimes happens but usually the male escapes to mate again. Thank goodness the kill and eat idea didn’t catch on.

Southern Black Widows are most often found outside in old logs, rock piles, wood piles, and in crawlspaces. Northern Black Widows are also found here and they often build their web in trees. They both have a very messy looking web, not the beautiful symmetric webs that some spiders weave. The females rarely leave their web. The one in the pictures here had a web under some loose bark on a dead log in the woods behind my house. They are in some of your yards also.

Fortunately, Black Widows usually retreat when they encounter humans and don’t bite. Unfortunately, if they do bite, their venom is 15 times as powerful as rattlesnake venom; but they can only inject a small amount. A very small percentage of Black Widow bites do cause human fatalities, so if you are bitten, go to a hospital and if possible take the critter (dead, preferably) with you.

The way to keep both the Brown Recluse and the Black Widow away from your house is to keep a clean yard and house. If you remove the insects that these spiders eat and you keep debris and storage places cleaned up you will reduce the chances of an encounter with a bad spider.

As for all the rest of those spiders….think of them as our organic friends, eating insects and helping us to keep down the cost of buying more chemicals for insect control. Spiders are good…..really!

Coyotes in your backyard

OK, I haven't posted to this blog since October and a friend correctly guessed that it was because I was concentrating on writing nature articles for the local weekly newspaper. The paper publishes my articles every 2 to 3 weeks at my request. I didn't want to do it more often because it would then seem like a job.

So....I decided that if nothing else, I could at least post the newspaper articles here. I will post the article after it appears in the paper. There will be some catching up to do look for about 7 articles now and then one more every time one hits the paper.

The picture here did not appear in the paper because I didn't have this picture at the time. I took this picture of a beautiful coyote in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in October 2007 on the way to a hike.

Coyotes here in Fairfield Glade? You bet! And here’s the story.

As everyone knows from watching those old Westerns on TV, coyotes live in the southwestern United States. That is pretty much where they lived back in 1492 when Columbus arrived. But a crazy thing happened over the last 500 years….we humans wreaked havoc with nature.

One of the things we did was kill all of our competition such as Mountain Lions, Wolves, Bears, etc. These animals were the top of the food chain until firearms, traps and poison wiped out or greatly reduced them from their original range. Especially with the wolves gone from the lower 48 states, a void was left that coyotes were all too happy to fill. Wolves have since been reintroduced in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana and there is a small population in parts of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But in most of the eastern U.S. coyotes rushed in to fill the space where wolves once roamed.

One web site says that it was 1985 when coyotes were first confirmed in the Smoky Mountains. That is probably about the same time that they found Fairfield Glade.

Coyotes look very much like small German Shepherds. Supposedly, one way to tell is that coyotes travel with their tail down (not between their legs, just down) while dogs usually carry their tail up. But don’t worry too much about trying to identify them…..coyotes are rarely seen. Even living in the southwest for 15 years, I only ever saw a handful of coyotes, even though I heard them many times. And they are smart, too. It was years before I realized that all armadillos aren’t flat but you will rarely ever see a dead coyote on the highway. However, one way to know that coyotes were in your neighborhood in Dallas was that your night roaming cat suddenly turned up missing. Coyotes love cat snacks.

Coyotes are rarely a threat to humans unless they become conditioned to getting food through either garbage left out overnight or pet food left outside. Even then, they usually skedaddle at the sight of a person. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website says that in “recorded history there have only been 30 cases of coyote attacks on humans, while 3 million children are bitten by dogs each year.”

My wife Nancy and I were lucky to see two coyotes in Fairfield Glade last winter. We were walking along a back road near our house one morning about 10am when two deer ran across the road in front of us. I was curious why the deer were in such a high gear. I knew the answer when 2 coyotes appeared on the road a few minutes behind the deer. They stopped and looked at Nancy and me for 5 or 10 seconds, and then they were off. Coyotes probably don’t often catch healthy adult deer, but like all predators they will always look for a weakness. These two either knew something about the deer they were chasing or they were hoping to get lucky.

We hear a pack near us several times a week in the summer when we have our windows open at night. Sometimes we hear them twice a night, sometimes just once a week. They yip and yap more than they howl, but there is no mistake when a whole pack sounds off….it is beautiful music.

Coyotes! They are here in Fairfield Glade even though you may never see them. Step outside at night and listen or better yet, sleep with you windows open in the summer and you just might be lucky enough to hear one of the great sounds of nature.