Friday, June 26, 2009

Hike to Gregory Bald

On Thursday June 25 we did our long planned hike to Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We have been planning this trip for a year, ever since 3 of us hiked it last June. The reason that it took a year to hike it again is because the wild Flame Azaela only blooms for about 2 weeks each June. If you miss the bloom it is just another green shrub until next year.

In the picture above, Karla and Ray are strolling through some azeala bushes. The horse belongs to one of 4 riders that passed us on the trail.

Gregory Bald is named because it is an open area on the top of a mountain that is...well, bald. No trees grow on this approximate 15 acre area and no one knows exactly why. The area was just a grassy field when the first pioneers found it. Back then it was about 4 times the size that it is now. It may have been fire that cleared the area of trees initially and then grazing bison and elk kept it clear. Later settlers grazed their cattle and goats here each summer. Once the National Park was formed in 1934 grazing was stopped and over time the trees around the edge have crept in. The National Park service plans to slowly move back the trees to restore the bald to its original size.

At some point the wild Flame Azaela plants and wild blueberry plants began to grow on the bald. Each year many people hike the 9 to 11.4 mile round trip (depending on which trail you take) to see the fabulous display of azeala flowers. Most of the azealas are orange but there are many shades of orange as well as some white, yellow, red, fuchia, etc. Many of the plants are 10 feet tall or taller.

Nine of us made the trip. Seven of us left Fairfield Glade at 5 am and we met two others who were RVing at the National park. Just for the record, we were Linda Barclay, Mary Listenberger, Karla Miller, Jim Grove, Ray Miner, Dick Bachelder, Dave and Sarah Southall and me. We were hiking in the Smokies, we were not in Argentina.

The road to get to the trailhead is gravel and because of recent rains it was very soft at spots. At one hill we all had to walk the hill while our driver, Linda, backed down the road and got a running start in order to make it to the top without bottoming out. Plus, after the hike on the way out we crossed probably 6 or 7 water crossings. If the stream was running much higher you might have to wait for it to recede to get home.

The trail started at a little over 2000 feet elevation and the top was 4949. So you gain almost 3000 feet in 4.5 miles. It is basically all up for 2.5 hours. Although Knoxville hit 97 degrees that day, it was under 80 at the top.

Last year we hiked the Gregory Ridge Trail which is 11.4 miles RT. We did the shorter Gregory Bald Trail this year at 9.0 miles. We didn't like the shorter trail because they let horses on that trail and the horses just tear up a trail. They make the trail a muddy mess both with regular mud and with horse poop. Even though it is longer I would recommend the Gregory Ridge Trail.

At the top we stayed about an hour or more. We ate lunch, enjoyed the views of the valley below, took pictures of the azeala and more. The more part is pretty interesting. Ray was wandering around and a deer came up to him and licked his hand for several minutes. Then it went over to another hiker and licked her cheek. A little yucky, but cool!

Then, as Linda, Mary and I were exploring some large azeala bushes at the edge of the woods Linda stopped and pointed near my feet. I thought it was a rabbit in the vegetation at first because the size of the brown animal I saw was the size of a rabbit. But when the rabbit rattled I saw that it was the biggest Timber Rattlesnake that I had ever seen. It rattled and moved away very slowly. I could see the head of the snake about 8 feet away but thought that there was another one because I could hear the rattle just 2 or 3 feet from me. The rattle belonged to the snake. I saw the whole snake but not all at once because of the vegetation. Through a gap in the thick vegetation I saw the head all the way to the rattles as he/she moved away. We estimated it to be well over 5 feet long and much bigger around than a softball. Beautiful! That made my day. Too bad I couldn't get a picture.

There were probably at least 25 other hikers on the bald while we were there. It was a beautiful day. The fellow hikers in the picture ate their lunch on a log at the edge of the azealas.

On the way back down the trail to the cars we came across a rotted log next to the trail that a bear had torn apart looking for insects between the time we went up and came back down. We did see a bear in the Park earlier on the drive to the trailhead. I didn't get any good pictures but the bear stopped in the woods and we observed him answering that age old question....yes they do poop in the woods, we witnessed it.

On the way home we stopped in Knoxville and had a great meal at P.F. Changs. That was part of the hiking plan all along. I think that 2 of our 9 hikers were convinced to hike mainly for the P.F. Chang part of the trip.

If you can make it next June, around the 20th or so, plan to go to Gregory Bald.
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Friday, June 19, 2009

Busy Day

What a busy wildlife day!

First, this morning at 6am I went for a walk across the street to a subdivision that is being developed. There is only one house there now but a nice paved road and lots of lots with fresh grass and no houses yet. It is a nice place to walk.

One of the local police cars was parked there doing his paperwork before going off the night shift. I stopped and talked for a while. He said he just had seen a herd of wild pigs and a couple of turkeys. I mentioned that I ran into a herd of pigs in March while hiking nearby. I said there were about 12. He said the herd he saw had about 12 also and two were white with brown spots and the rest brown or black. It was exactly the same herd that I saw 3 months earlier. Interesting!

He drove off and I walked on. About a minute later I heard a loud sound that most people have never heard and would have no idea what it was...but I knew immediately. Years ago I bought a cassette tape of a "screaming rabbit" used to call in coyotes, fox, or bobcats for hunting. Most people don't know that rabbits can make an awful, loud deep, not high pitched, squealing sound, when they are in distress, such as when a predator catches them. I followed the sound about 100 yards and over a hill and this is what I saw...

A large Bobcat leaving the scene. Luckily I had my camera and got one shot before he melted into the underbrush. I don't think he saw me at all. Click on the picture for a larger (although grainier) view.

Next, I went to breakfast at the golf club and someone explained to me how copperheads are one of the 6 most venomous snakes in the world. Wrong! They are the least venomous of all the pit vipers in the U.S. I dropped off some articles to them later to get them the correct information. A lot of people have a lot of wrong information out there about a lot of stuff. Of course some folks probably think that way about me too.

Next I came home and turned on the Bluebird Cam and saw that Mrs. Bluebird laid a 5th egg. Then I checked my neighbor's bluebird box and saw that they have 4 eggs.

And finally, I noticed that there was a pair of bluebirds going in and out of one of the boxes in the back yard. That box is only about 100 feet from the one in the front yard and about 200 feet from my neighbor's bluebird box. Usually they need about 100 yards between boxes but maybe the large human houses between the three boxes provides some territory protection and allows 3 pairs to nest on adjacent lots. I checked the box tonight and after all that all day activity there is only about 10 strands of dry grass on the bottom of the box. But then that is how the nest in the front nest box started. It usually takes 5-7 days to complete a nest. Hopefully, this is the real thing and the nest will continue in the coming days.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bluebird Cam

This will keep me busy.

For Father's day, my daughter-in-law, Jennifer, got me a tiny (approximately 1 inch square) camera that is made to mount inside of a birdhouse to be able to watch the birds hatching, getting fed, growing, etc., etc. It is a gift from Jen and Scott, but we need to give credit where credit is due...Jen found the camera!

So....I plan to keep you up to date on what is going on with Bluebird Cam. I don't believe that I have the knowledge, equipment, or bandwidth to show the live feed on the internet like some of those live cams do. So I will take pictures of my TV screen from time to time and post them here along with an explanation of the happenings.

This first report will be much longer and more detailed than you will get for awhile. I don't plan to watch BB TV all day. But I do want to get you up to date and also I want to record the eggs laying process. Bluebirds lay one egg per day until all eggs are laid. Only then do they begin to incubate the eggs. That way all the babies hatch about the same time and compete for food equally. Once the female starts sitting on the eggs my posts may be several days apart since the two week period until they hatch could be very similar..."female on nest".

The camera is a color camera, but color needs lots of light and there isn't enough of that inside a bluebird box. That is why the pictures look like they are in black and white. It also has sound but you won't experience that here although we hear every sound perfectly through the TV. It also has infrared lights (they can't be seen by humans or birds). So I get just as good a picture at night as I do during the day. The camera is a Hawk Eye Night Owl Nest Box Camera, also called a Hawk Eye Nature Cam. seems to have a good price.

The camera is attached to 100 feet of cable that snakes along the outside of my house, in around the front door, along the foyer and into the den, under the rug and out into the hall, under the runner, behind the bookcase, around the corner, and into the TV. My other option was to drill a 1/2 inch hole (to accomodate the plugs on the end of the cable) down through the wooden floor and out through the crawlspace. Plan B would not have been approved by the home superintendent (Nancy).

I have 2 bluebird nest boxes in the back yard and they have each had bluebird nests in them the past 2 years. But they compete with the box in my neighbor's back yard. I have 2 boxes to give the birds a choice, but all three boxes in the back (my 2 plus my neighbor's) are within 100 yards of each other and normally only one of the three will have bluebirds nesting at a time due to bluebird territory requirements.

So, I decided to add a Bluebird nest box in the front as a third choice and hopefully to not compete with my neighbor's birds. One of my boxes in the back did serve as a home for some Carolina Chickadees this spring. The picture of the front bluebird nest box shows where it sits at the north corner of my house...left front as you look at the house from the street. Notice the "Kingston" predator guard on the pole. I just recently read on a bluebird web site that it is estimated that in Tennessee snakes comprise 1/3 of all predation on bluebirds. Other predators are house sparrows, house wrens, mice, squirrels, ants, raccoons, mink, etc., etc. A good predator guard should protect the birds against almost all of those concerns. However, it won't stop black bears, which will also eat baby bluebirds (as experienced by my friend Bill Cuppett in Pennsylvania).

So here are the time frames to get you up to date. The bluebird started the nest about Tuesday June 9. That day there were only a few strands of dry grass in the box. Over the next 4 days the nest took shape. I actually never saw the female carrying any nest materials into the box, but each evening when I checked the nest was fuller and eventually the nest cup was completed on Sunday, June14.

One egg each was laid on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, June 15, 16, and 17. That is the picture that you see here with 3 eggs. I waited until there were 3 eggs before installing the camera because I didn't want my activity to cause the birds to abandon the nest. I installed the camera on a spare roof and then just switched the roofs so that I would disturb the nest box for as short a time as possible.

June 18, Thursday I turned the Bluebird Cam on about 5 am when I got up. Still 3 eggs no activity. I left the BB Cam on while I went outside for awhile and about 6 am I heard the male BB calling from a nearby tree. In a few minutes he flew to a high tree to a branch where the female was sitting. I think he was looking for her.

At 6:25 while I was making coffee I noticed the female (via the cam) entering the box. She rearranged some of the dried grass of the nest and then sat on the nest. The picture here is her on the nest as viewed on my TV. after about 12 minutes she left. Still just 3 eggs. At 7:25 she returned and sat again for about 10 minutes and left again...still 3 eggs. At 8:05 she returned and at 8:25 am, she jumped up and voila, the 4th egg. She stayed for about 5 minutes and then left again.

At about 11:30 am she returned for about 5 minutes and then left again. I am guessing that since she isn't staying that she might have another egg for tomorrow. Bluebirds typically lay 4 or 5 eggs.

So now you are up to date. Hopefully you will enjoy and learn from the camera experience almost as much as I plan to.

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