Saturday, December 19, 2009

Nature in Winter

The following article appeared in the Fairfield Glade Sun newspaper on December 10, 2009

Enjoying Nature

Don Hazel

How Animals Survive Winter

Well it looks like winter is upon us. I like winter! Of course I also like spring, summer and fall but winter is one of my favorite times for getting out in the woods. It is too bad that many people, (and you may be one) hate winter. They fret about the 5pm darkness, the cold, the grayness, the sniffles, the snow and on and on and on.

But winter isn’t so bad for most of us humans. We just put on an extra layer of clothes, crank up the thermostat, and turn on the lights. However for plants and animals, winter can be a struggle and different species have different ways of coping.

Some animals head to where the weather is more hospitable. You may have heard and seen the sandhill cranes overhead the last few weeks heading south. The hummingbirds left a couple of months ago. Some birds, like the yellow-bellied sapsucker in the photo at left migrate from farther north to winter here in Tennessee.

Many birds stay here, but some, especially the insect eaters, have to change their diet to survive. In winter, bluebirds switch from mostly bugs to mostly fruit, such as dogwood, holly or red cedar berries. Contrary to many folk’s beliefs, birds do not need us to feed them to make it till spring. Birds have survived winter for thousands of years without black oil sunflower seeds or suet. Bird feeders are mostly for our benefit, and a nice benefit it is.

Some mammals become less active in winter. True hibernators like groundhogs curl up in underground burrows and sleep for up to six months at a time. They can survive without food by dropping their temperature from about 100 degrees to 50 and by dropping their heart rate from 80 to about 5 beats per minute. Bears mostly sleep the winter away, but they are not true hibernators and wake up from time to time. Don’t be surprised to see bear tracks in snow.

Amphibians disappear completely. Frogs, turtles, and salamanders bury themselves deep in the mud below frost line and get all the oxygen they need by absorption through their skin. Reptiles, like snakes and lizards, overwinter underground.

Foxes, coyotes, bobcats, mink, and other carnivores stay active all winter long. Deer stay active too, but they switch their diet to survive. They switch from roses and tulips to mostly twigs and buds in the woods. Elk migrate in winter, not south, but rather from the mountaintop meadows to the warmer and more protected valleys.

Many insects die in the cold weather, but many more can survive freezing temperatures with a type of antifreeze in their blood. A few insects even hatch on snowy days such as tiny Blue-Winged Olive mayflies that live in cold clear trout streams.

Even though much of nature slows down or goes to sleep, winter is a great time to get out. If you are moving and dressed in layers you can be very comfortable no matter what the temperature is. And, for me, an hour or two hike when the snow is coming down in the woods is about as good as it gets.

So think positive about winter. Get out and see how the real world of nature survives the season. Look for tracks in the snow and birds in the trees. We don’t need to shut down just because it is colder outside. Get out enjoy winter; we have it a heck of a lot easier than the animals.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at

Stick Insects

The following article was published in the Fairfield Glade Sun newspaper November 25, 2009.

Enjoying Nature

Don Hazel

When is a stick not a stick?

If you look at the picture it doesn’t look like much. If anything it just looks like a piece of a twig or a stick…and the stick likes it that way.

What you are looking at in the photo is an insect called an American walking stick, or sometimes just called a stick insect. The walking stick uses its unique shape to hide from predators.

For some reason, this is the time of year when I usually see the most walking sticks. It may be because they grow all summer through a series of molts, or shedding of their skin and they may just be bigger this time of year and easier to spot. But they are by no means easy to spot unless one happens to be on the side of your house or on your driveway like this one was.

A fellow hiker spotted a walking stick a couple of weeks ago. Actually she spotted two that were mating. One was a fat female 4 or 5 inches long and the other was a male only about one fourth her size. But as crazy as it may seem, the female didn’t need the male to raise a family.

Walking sticks are a rare type of animal that can lay fertile eggs without the need for a male. This process is called parthenogenetic reproduction. However, without male fertilization the young will all be females. Males are only needed to fertilize the female in order to produce some percentage of males. It is certainly good thing that this idea didn’t catch on in human society. The world could be all females with no need for males. That is a sobering and scary thought…on many levels…for both men and women.

For the most part walking sticks are pretty harmless. But supposedly they can spray a defensive chemical that can cause temporary blindness and pain. I have handled walking sticks and never run into this issue, but I wouldn’t get one too close to my eyes. They do have chewing mandibles and could cause a pinch but not really a bite. The biggest danger is imported foreign walking sticks that are sold in the pet trade. In some places like California these non-native walking sticks have escaped and become a plant eating, sidewalk covering, nuisance.

Walking sticks eat leaves, primarily oak leaves and you know we have plenty of those around here. I know that some of you obsessed leave rakers and baggers out there wish that walking sticks ate a few more oak leaves. They usually cause no serious damage to trees unless there is an unusually large population. Birds, primarily crows and robins, seem to like to eat walking sticks.

So if that stick on your driveway seems to be slowing moving, look closely, it may be a stick that is not really a stick. It may be a walking stick.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at

Elk in Cataloochee

The following article was published in the Fairfield Glade Sun newspaper November 11, 2009.

Enjoying Nature

Don Hazel

A Nature Event you don’t want to miss.

Well, you missed it for this year! But if you like wildlife, nature, and a beautiful outdoor setting, you don’t want to miss it next year. It is even a pretty cool thing to have on your bucket list. You know, that list of all the things you want to do before you kick the bucket. Mark your calendars for mid-September through mid-October next year. I am talking about the elk “rut” or mating period in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We have a rare opportunity to see this amazing ritual played out very close to home. And it really is amazing. On TV you have probably seen video of massive bull elk bugling their high pitched call to attract females and to warn rival males, and the clashing of antlers as bulls battle for dominance. But, the sound and the spectacle is something that you can’t appreciate unless you are there.

Elk were originally native all over the Eastern United States, but the early pioneers wiped out the last Eastern elk in the mid 1800’s. In an effort to restore elk to part of their original territory, 52 elk were relocated from Kentucky and from Canada to the Cataloochee Valley on the North Carolina side of the GSMNP about 8 years ago. That herd has now grown to 110 animals. There are another approximately 300 elk in Tennessee in areas north of Wartburg that were released by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Kentucky’s elk reintroduction program is even better…they have about 10,000 elk in the southeastern part of the state.

In the fall of each year the bull elk attempt to gather a harem. One large bull that I saw in Cataloochee had 25 cows (female elk) in his harem. For about a month, day and night, that bull will keep the cows together and fight off any other bulls that try to steal his cows. The one bull that is dominant will mate with all of the cows in his harem….what a deal! However, during that month the dominant bull will hardly eat and by the end of the rut he will be totally exhausted…as you might imagine.

The result of all of the last year’s autumn action was 19 new elk calves in 2009. Sixteen survived the bears, coyotes and other natural perils.

The fun part for you and me is to visit the Cataloochee Valley during the fall and watch the ritual of posturing, fighting, bugling, and chasing cows. At Cataloochee you can literally get within yards of all the action. The National Park has volunteers called the “Bugle Corp” who can answer just about any question that you can ask about elk. They are extremely knowledgeable and friendly and they really add to the experience. The best viewing is from about 4pm until dark.

People drive to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado from all over the country to see the same thing that we have just a few hours away. So mark your calendars. Heck you can play golf, work in the yard, or go to a movie anytime, but the elk rut only happens once a year and it is a nature event that you don’t want to miss.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at

Animals Talk to You

The following article appeared in the Fairfield Glade Sun newspaper on October 28, 2009.

Enjoying Nature

Don Hazel

Animals talk to you...really!

Don't worry; I am not claiming that your dog can tell you his inner thoughts, or that you can discuss national politics with your parrot. But if you listen carefully, animals can tell you things that you wouldn't know without them.

There is a great series of books that I enjoyed reading by Colonel Jim Corbett that lived in the early 1900's in Northern India. He grew up in the jungle hunting and observing nature. In his books he often tells how he knows what is going on in the jungle by listening to the calls of the various animals. For example, birds, monkeys and deer have specific calls when a tiger or leopard is in sight. Colonel Corbett could often tell the exact location of a tiger by following the calls of the animals as the tiger moved through the jungle.

Closer to home, I can give you an example that you could use yourself. A few weeks ago I was watching a bobcat in a neighbor's yard when a squirrel spotted the bobcat and spent 10 minutes barking, chittering, and scolding the bobcat from the safety of a high branch. Once the bobcat moved out of sight, the squirrel became quiet again. A few days later, I heard several squirrels doing the same scolding to something behind my house in the woods beyond my view. The squirrel barking moved through the woods as some squirrels quieted down and others further away picked up the alarm. Without seeing a bobcat, I am pretty sure that I know he was there...thanks to the squirrels.

Another example happened a couple of weeks ago. There was a buck deer in my neighbor's yard down at the edge of the woods. He was looking into the woods where it was too thick for me to see from my location. The buck was flicking his tail and snorting. The snort is a nasal sound that signifies danger. He did this for over 5 minutes. Bucks don't use this alarm call for squirrels, or rabbits. The buck was watching and sounding the alarm for some predator; probably either a coyote or a bobcat.

You have probably heard a murder of crows making a big ruckus some morning...squawking and cawing ("murder" is the crazy term for a group of crows). Although you might not have seen it you knew that the crows had probably cornered a great horned owl and were giving it the business.

Dwight McCarter is a retired National Park Ranger from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is a skilled tracker who was often called to track and locate lost hikers or children in the mountains. In his book, "Lost" he tells one story about how a home owner's pet dog helped catch some escaped murderers. When a North Carolina State Policeman was shot and killed by a couple of escaped convicts, the killers ditched their car and escaped into the mountains. After days of intensive searching by hundreds of police, without success, the search was about to be given up. Dwight was finally given a last chance to try to track the criminals before the search was ended. He went to the few residences in the isolated area and asked each neighbor if in the last few days anyone's dog had barked in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. One woman said that "yes", her dog had barked a few nights before. Dwight carefully checked her garden and found footprints in the tomato patch. He followed the tracks into the woods and eventually right to the hungry killers, who were captured and sent back to jail. Without the dog communicating in the middle of the night the killers might have never been caught.

So the next time you take a walk around your neighborhood or in the woods, listen. The birds and animals are talking. With a little observation and some careful listening you can begin to understand the language.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at

Hiding in Plain Sight

The following article was published in the Fairfield Glade Sun newspaper October 14, 2009.

Enjoying Nature

Don Hazel

Hiding in plain sight

The photo could be in black and white but it doesn’t matter. It looks just about exactly the same either in black and white or in color. In any case, the little guy hiding in the photo is hard to spot.

If you are looking at the photo, you are looking at an eastern fence lizard. Look closely.

These cute little lizards are abundant in Eastern Tennessee. And unlike much of the wildlife around here, these lizards are diurnal, just like us. Diurnal means active during the day and sleeping at night. Many other animals are nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn). Eastern fence lizards are also our most arboreal (tree dwelling) lizards.

Because they are cold-blooded like other reptiles, lizards like to bask in the sun to warm up their bodies, since heat is not generated internally. However, one advantage of being cold-blooded is that they don’t have to eat as frequently as warm-blooded animals. Warm blooded animals like mammals and birds need a constant supply of food to warm their bodies. Cold-blooded animals can often go weeks without eating since their food is not needed to generate warmth, only to give them energy and growth. As you know, we humans need dessert at every meal or we could die.

I often see eastern fence lizards in the rocky areas around my house, but they are usually not far from a tree for escape. If you circle the tree they will stay on the opposite side just like a squirrel will; and they blend in beautifully for their own protection.

Beside camouflage these little lizards have another unique form of protection. If caught by the tail, the tail can break off and wiggle wildly. While the predator looks at the crazy tail the lizard can get away to grow a new tail and live another day.

We have several kinds of lizards around here. The northern green anole is the little green or brown lizard that used to be sold in pet stores as chameleons. The five-lined skink is the one you have probably seen with the blue tail.

All of the lizards in Tennessee are harmless and beneficial and should be protected. They eat spiders and insects. Just be glad that they are here and their big cousin the ten foot long Komodo dragon of Indonesia isn’t. If that were the case we would be the ones trying to hide and not in plain sight.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at