Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Sweet Taste of Sourwood

This article was published in the Fairfield Glade Sun weekly newspaper on July 22, 2009

Enjoying Nature

by Don Hazel

My neighbor Bill has tried to convince me to raise bees. It is not just because he doesn’t want to raise them himself; he has raised bees. The reason that he wants me to get a hive is because of the tree in the picture that grows near my backyard.

This is a sourwood tree. They bloom for a few short weeks this time every year. They are sometimes called the lily-of-the-valley tree because of the flowers which look almost exactly like the lily-of-the-valley plant. Sourwoods are not large trees; usually only about one foot in diameter and typically only about 50 feet tall, and their wood is insignificant in the lumber industry. But to some people, sourwood trees are like gold…precious and few. And, we just happen to live near the geographic center of sourwood tree distribution in the United States. Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee is sourwood heaven.

So what is it about this tree that gets so many people excited? The answer is in the flowers. The leaves and bark may taste bitter (hence the name sourwood), but the flowers are sweet. The nectar from sourwood flowers produces what many people believe to be the best honey in the world. Sourwood honey has been called the Cadillac of honeys. One writer said, “Most honey is made by bees. But sourwood is made by bees and angels.” I am not a honey connoisseur, but I have heard the praises for this honey so much that I have to believe it is true.

Supposedly, in order to truly be called “sourwood honey” it must be tested and found to be nearly 100% sourwood with few other types of nectars. If you like honey you probably ought to try some sourwood honey. I am not sure if you can get it in the supermarkets but I know that it is available in the gift shops in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

This brings us back to the bees. The only problem with me raising bees to take advantage of the sourwood trees in my yard is those little stingers that bees have. I am not inexperienced with bee stings. My dad had a hive or two of bees for a number of years when I was a youngster and I have more than a few memories of being on the wrong end of a bee. Once, a wrong turn caused me to run my little homemade go-cart directly into the front of a hive with unfortunate results. Fortunately, I am not allergic to bee stings, but the darn things do hurt. They say that beekeepers get used to the stings, but for me, I will just enjoy the sourwood trees out my window and get my sourwood honey in a jar at the store. I guess my neighbor Bill will have to do the same.

Big Scary Night Bugs

This article was published in the Fairfield Glade Sun weekly newspaper on July 8, 2009

Enjoying Nature

by Don Hazel

My wife came in the house the other evening after dark and asked “what are those big scary bugs out on the driveway?” A couple of neighbors asked me the same thing. Well, to many people, just about any and every “bug” looks scary. But, to me, the insect on the driveway that night was beautiful. That insect was an American Salmonfly (Pteronarcys dorsata). It is also called the Giant Stonefly. They are about 2 inches long, not counting the antennae, and they are twice that big in some parts of the country.

Stoneflies are important natural trout food and many artificial flies are tied to imitate stoneflies. The word “Salmonfly” is usually reserved for one of the several species of very large stoneflies. Stonefly nymphs live underwater in clear, clean, streams and usually hatch over a short period of time once a year. When they hatch they climb out of the water and break out of their underwater shell, sprout wings and fly. During this time trout go crazy chasing the big juicy morsels and consequently trout fishermen go crazy casting imitations of stoneflies to the trout. To a trout fisherman, anything named “Salmonfly” usually brings tears of joy.

The only problem here is that there are no trout streams on the plateau that are cold enough to support the giant trout that like to eat the giant stoneflies. So I can’t quite get as excited as they do in the Western States where the Salmonflies are twice as big and the biggest trout in the stream get careless chasing them. Even so, to me, the sight of a harmless Giant American Salmonfly in my driveway is a beautiful sight.

There is another large insect probably on your porch right now that scares a lot of people. It looks like a giant mosquito…I mean like twenty times the size of a regular mosquito. This is the harmless crane fly. The adult crane fly doesn’t eat; they just exist to mate, lay eggs, and die. The larvae looks like a fat worm an inch to 4 inches long and some species live in streams and some in the soil.

My neighbor Lynne has crane fly fun on her porch every morning. The crane flies are attracted to the lights at night and some get stuck on her screen. In the morning the chipping sparrows gather up the crane flies and pluck the long spindly legs off one by one and then the wings. Once the crane fly is just a body with no legs or wings, the sparrows eat them or carry them away for their babies.

Some of the biggest, scariest night creatures are just harmless insects looking for sex and trying not to get eaten. It’s a tough world out there in nature.

A tick in Time

This article was published in the Fairfield Glade Sun weekly newspaper on June 28, 2009.

Enjoying Nature

by Don Hazel

OK, I have written about ticks before; about how to avoid them, what diseases they can transmit, etc. But this time it is a little more meaningful to me and hopefully it will be to you too.

As I am writing this I am recovering from Ehrlichiosis, a tick transmitted disease that is not fun to catch. Hopefully in a few more days I will be back to “normal” (although there are some friends who think that may be asking too much). And, hopefully, by reading this you will be a little more careful when playing in tick territory.

It started on Tuesday, June 2. I went up to Black Mountain near Crab Orchard to scout out a location for a hiking group picnic. On Wednesday evening June 3, I noticed a tiny (size of a pinhead) tick nymph attached to my left hip. I am boring you with the dates because the time frame is critical. You see, unless a tick is attached to you for at least 24 hours you odds of getting anything bad are very very low. This one had a good 36 hours to have his fun with me. That still didn’t mean I would get anything bad, just that my odds went from near zero to something greater.

Well, 9 days later (the incubation period for Ehrlichiosis is 5-10 days) my legs had a slight dull ache all day and my knees ached also, but not too bad. The next day everything hurt just a little more. The following day I was hurting bad enough to go to the Emergency Room at 4 am. Doctor McKinney in the Emergency Room knew his stuff. He knew about the 24 hours to be attached, knew that Ehrlichiosis in this part of the country is transmitted by the Lone Star Tick, and knew that Ehrlichiosis doesn’t usually cause a rash in adults. Some doctors are not nearly as informed about ticks. The symptoms plus the tick bite plus the timing are enough to start antibiotics immediately.

I am telling you all this so you can avoid the same fun that I had. Even though I started the medicine right away, it takes several days to feel better. I had a few pretty miserable days. And I am not the only one…I know several other friends and neighbors who have gone through the same thing and the Doctor said he saw 4 other cases in the past few days. Ehrlichiosis isn’t the only tick disease around here; we have something called STARI and more Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever than the Rocky Mountains, but thank goodness Lyme disease is extremely rare in Tennessee.

Here’s your 3 step plan to avoid a bad encounter with a tick.

  • Avoid brushing against vegetation when in the fields and forests if you can…especially knee high grasses and low shrubs. Ticks are usually down low where they can catch a ride on any number of hosts like a raccoon, rabbit, fox, or mouse, as well as a deer or a human. Your mowed lawn is probably pretty safe because a tick isn’t going to have much luck grabbing a meal from a 3 inch piece of grass.
  • Use DEET, Permethrin, or Lemon Eucalyptus, and carefully read directions. Avon Skin so Soft won’t stop a tick.
  • And number 1….Do a tick check after venturing into tick habitat. Look carefully, tick nymphs are only the size of a pinhead and they can have all of the bad stuff as their bigger brothers and sisters. If you find any ticks within 24 hours you are pretty safe. Use tweezers to remove them safely…the only recommended way.

The good news is that I might have some immunity to Ehrlichiosis going forward. But trust me; it is far better to catch the tick in time.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Return to Mt. Cammerer

Summer is the time when we do our harder hikes. You would think we would do hard hikes in cooler seasons, but when it might be hot in the lower elevations in Tennessee, it is cool in the Smokies. A few weeks ago we hiked to Chimney Top and Andrews Bald and before that we hiked to Gregory Bald, all in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Last Thursday we did the 12 miles round trip to Mt. Cammerer. Linda and I had been there last November but 4 others had never been there.

It was near 90 in Knoxville, in the Smokies at almost 5000 feet elevation we were mostly in the 60s all day...a great day for hiking!

Six of us left Fairfield Glade at 5 am for the nearly 2.5 hour trip to the trailhead. All of the males but me dropped out for various reasons...injury, previous commitments, chicken, etc. Our group consisted of Karla, Linda, Erin, Ellen, Nancy, and me. Those are the girls in order on the lookout tower on top of Mt. Cammerer. As always, you can click on the photo for a bigger view.

Speaking of views, unfortunately the only view from the tower this day was about 30 feet instead of 80 miles. The mountain was fogged in all day. But with master gardener Karla with us we did get to see and identify many plants and flowers. The rhododendron at the higher elevations was in prime bloom and several places along the way we walked on a trail strewn with blossoms. Plus we ate fresh wild mountain blueberries along the trail.

We saw and learned to identify crimson bee-balm, dodder, Indian pipe, galax, Turk's-cap lilly and a few others thanks to Karla. If your wildflower book is too heavy to carry when hiking, just take Karla...you don't have to carry her and she has more information than any old book.

The hike included a little over 2 miles on the Appalachian Trail which is the most beautiful section of the route to Mt. Cammerer.

As usual, we stopped for a nice dinner on the way home. P.F. Chang's is getting to see us on a regular basis.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bluebird Update

Here is a picture of the male bluebird on top of my front yard nest box with a nice tasty green katydid for his babies.

The babies are 17 days old today. They should fledge (leave the nest) at usually 19-21 days old. We will be watching closely to catch the action this week.

About a week ago I had some technical difficulties! After a very hard rain the camera ceased to work. When I turned it on one morning it had static and no picture. I found that the cable which had been running from the box to the TV along the outside of my house had some damage from what appeared to be rodent bites. I am guessing that a mouse was chewing on the plastic coating of the cable. I spent several hours trying to isolate the problem with no success. I gave up and did something else around the house for a couple of hours and when I turned the camera back on to resume my trouble shooting I found it to be working again. I am guessing that the camera got wet somehow and then dried out in my house when I brought it in to work on it.

I decided not to reinstall it for a couple of reasons. First, the babies were 11 or 12 days old by that time and you cannot open the box at 12 days or they might jump out prematurely. But also because they were beginning to fill the screen as they got bigger. It was getting hard to see more than one or two babies because of their size and closeness to the camera. Plus, another bluebird box in the backyard had 3 eggs in it and I was going to mount the camera in that box.

I am not sure what was going on in the box in the backyard. Several weeks ago a pair built a nest and then laid no eggs in it after 2 weeks. I cleaned out the nest. Then within 2 days they built a 2nd nest and laid 3 eggs in it but stopped there and didn't appear to sit on that nest. After another week of no visible activity, a raccoon got into the box one night and pulled out the nest and probably ate the 3 eggs. I think I had the predator guard too low on the pole and the raccoon might have been able to reach the top of the guard and pull himself up to then reach in through the opening and pull out the nest and eggs. I am sure that it is the same raccoon that did the same to my neighbors box. I will be live trapping that raccoon soon and relocating him to a territory 5-10 miles from here. I am just hoping that the box in the front yard with the 4 babies isn't found by Mr. Raccoon before they fledge.

My friend Gary has a bluebird box that fledged 5 babies a few weeks ago. The bluebirds had built a 2nd nest and laid at least one egg. However that egg is now missing. Gary doesn't have a predator guard and we suspect a blacksnake got the egg or eggs. Gary has seen blacksnakes in the vicinity. He will be installing protection to see if the birds can regroup and lay some more eggs. I will keep you informed.

Hike to Virgin Falls

Well, we had been waiting for a good rain. A few days ago we got it...1.25 inches at my house. We were waiting for the rain to hike to Virgin Falls. We wanted to make sure that the falls were running at full capacity.

So last Thursday afternoon we decided to see who was interested. The hike to Virgin Falls is considered "strenuous" because it is 9 miles round trip and because it is mostly uphill on the way back to the cars. some of that uphill is pretty substantial. A total of 7 of us decided to go.

This is a great hike. It is only about 30 minutes away to the trailhead and there are 4 great water features along the way. The first is Big Branch Falls. This is more of a cascade than a falls but it is very nice.

At about 2.5 miles in is Big Laurel Falls. That is Big Laurel Falls in the photo above. This waterfall has about a 40 or 50 foot drop and is very wide. It has a cave behind it that you can go into. Except this day the cave was flooded from all of the recent rain. I have been there before when there were people camping in the cave with a tent...but not today.

In another mile or so we came to Sheep Cave. This is where a stream comes out of a cave and cascades down over a long drop. I understand that you can go a ways into the cave when the water is down...but not on this day.

At about 4.5 miles we came to the very impressive Virgin Falls. This falls drops 110 feet and has a very large volume of water going over it. But the most interesting part is that the water comes out of the mountain, goes over the falls, and then disappears into the ground again. There is no visible stream either above or below the falls. I had heard of Virgin Falls for several years but never hiked to it until this spring. I was blown away by the size of the waterfall both in volume of water and height of the falls. Look at the picture above. That is about the height of a 10 story building. It would take about 20 people standing on top of each other to reach the top. Before I hiked there the first time, I didn't realize from the pictures the impressiveness of this waterfall. There is a very loud roar and a lot of mist from the falls.

It was a long uphill 4.5 miles back to the car but we all made it in good shape.

About a mile from the parking lot on the gravel road we saw a herd of wild boar. There were about 10 and they were all black and most had heavy manes. They crossed the road and ran into the woods. They stopped a ways inside the woods were we all got a good look at them. They were quick and agile. They certainly all had the appearance of Eurasian boars rather than feral pigs. The herd that I had seen in March had several members that had the coloring of domestic pigs, but not these.

We stopped at the Artist Corner Cafe on the way home and several of us had the lamb special for that day along with a little Fat Tire beer. A great hike and a great day!
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Saturday, July 11, 2009

BB Cam update July 11

Although I didn't plan to provide another update this quickly, I have a cool picture that I wanted to share.

I opened the nest box today to check for bluebird blowflies. BB blowflies are parasites that can live in the nest and feast on the babies. A adult blowfly (with red eyes) lays eggs in the box and the larvae which look like gray maggots which hide in the nest during the day and feed on the blood of the babies at night. My daughter has found them in one of her bluebird boxes just once. I found no blowfly larvae today.

While I had the box open I took this picture which shows the color of the babies that the in-box camera doesn't capture. The second picture from yesterday's posting is essentially the same picture but you can see today what the in-box camera doesn't pick up.

Friday, July 10, 2009

BB Cam update July 10

Well, the bluebird babies are growing rapidly!

If you scroll down to previous blog postings when the babies had just hatched you can see the differences. When first born there was just a little fuzz on their eyes and backside. They were born (hatched) on July 2. The picture above shows them on July 6, at 4 days old. You can see the beginnings of feathers down their backbone and on the edges of their wings. Also, feathers were just barely starting to show on the back of their heads as little dots.

At 4 days old I removed the unhatched egg. Information about bluebirds says that sometimes the mother might remove it herself, but that if it is still there after 3 days it is best to just remove it because it won't hatch if it hasn't by then.

This second photo shows the babies at 8 days old on July 10. Notice the big difference. The birds are much bigger and much darker because feathers are growing. The feathers on the wings look pointed as they grow out. Also, because the birds are bigger they are beginning to fill the TV screen. The mother covers the whole field of view in the camera when she comes in and since the babies are about as big as the parents by the time they leave the nest, it will probably get harder and harder to see what is going on as they grow.

We can watch as the parents bring food in regularly all day long. They started out with small worms, caterpillers, grubs, and especially spiders. But as the babies grow, the food gets bigger. We now see grasshoppers, large grubs, moths, and even, we think, katydids. The babies sometimes have trouble choking them down, but they eventually always do.

We have had many friends stop by to see the action. Everyone seems to be very interested and amazed watching the babies sleep and eat.

I will shoot for another update in 3 or 4 days.

Our second bluebird box in the back yard had 3 eggs in it yesterday morning. I expect that there are 4 there now, but I will check later today.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Bluebird Cam Update July 3

Yesterday, July 2, was a big day on Bluebird TV. The babies began hatching!

To get up to date you can scroll down to the posting from July 18. That entry tells about the camera set up, etc. These pictures are from me sitting on the couch in the living room and pointing my camera at the TV.

The 5th and last egg was laid on July 18 so we expected the eggs to hatch on July 1, 2, or 3. During the incubation period only the female sat on the eggs. During the day the temperatures were in the mid 80's and she would leave for 15-30 minutes at a time approximately every hour. She would be on the nest all night every night from dusk to dawn. The male during this time was often nowhere to be seen.

About noon on Thursday July 2 the mother left long enough for us to see one egg cracked open and a tiny pink bluebird baby struggling to get out. While the first baby was trying to break out of the shell the mother hung on the outside of the box and watched. About 3pm there was another baby and about 6pm we saw a third.

This morning (Friday July 3) at about 7 am I noticed a 4th had hatched. He/she must have just hatched because the few feathers that they have at birth were still wet and sticking together. Within an hour the feathers dry and are just a little bit of fuzz around their eyes and back. As you can see in the picture below, they are pretty much pink and featherless. They have large unopened eyes and wide, large mouths.

Once the eggs start to crack open from the baby pecking on the inside, the mother helps by chipping away at the crack and making it bigger, but she lets the baby break out most of the way on its own. The mother then eats the entire egg shell. She doesn't feed the baby right away, but rather settles back down on top of the babies and the remaining eggs. You feel like she might smother them but obviously they can breathe just fine through the nest.

About an hour after the first baby hatched the mother left for about 15 minutes and returned with something to feed the baby. The male then began bringing food to the mother by hanging on the outside of the box and passing food in to her. She passed the food on to the babies. Later in the day the male began bringing food directly to the babies when the mother was gone. If he was in feeding the babies when she returned, she would wait on top of the box until he left.

When the female was sitting on the babies and unhatched eggs and the male came to the opening, we could hear a chirp or two. We couldn't be sure but it seemed to be the male making the sound, maybe announcing food was here.

The food being brought to the babies appeared to be small worms, similar to mealworms, and several spiders. The babies often have a hard time swallowing all the legs of the spiders.

When the parents are away from the nest the babies mostly just lie face down apparently sleeping. When one of the parents comes with food one or more of the babies jerks their head up and opens their mouth hoping for food. For the most part they seem very feeble and can't move around much more than to lift their heads.

Here is an update on two other bluebird boxes. Another bluebird pair in my backyard completed a nest in another box about 2 weeks ago. However, no eggs were laid and we often saw the male singing in a nearby tree, apparently calling for the female. We figured that the female must have been picked off by a Cooper's Hawk or some other predator because we didn't see her for that two weeks. So I took the nest out of the box hoping that the male would find another female and she would build a new nest. I left the nest on the ground near the box so if he found a new girlfriend that she could reuse some of the nest building materials. Well, 2 days after I removed the nest there is a new nest in the box. I will check for eggs in the next couple of days.

Bad news for a friend's bluebirds. His box was on the same timetable as mine that just hatched...4 or 5 eggs waiting to hatch. A couple of days ago he called me over because he saw what looked like part of a nest under the box. When we opened the box, sure enough the nest was gone. There were muddy raccoon track on the black predator guard. A raccoon had climbed up and reached in and pulled out the nest and the eggs. We don't know if it got the mother or not. She would have been sitting on the eggs at night but she might have flown when she heard the raccoon climbing up the pole. Why didn't the predator guard stop the raccoon? My friend had wired the bottom of his predator guard so it wouldn't wobble in the wind. However, the wobble part is what is supposed to keep the raccoons from climbing. He has since removed the wire and restored the wobble. If the mother escaped she might rebuild a nest and start over. That happened when a snake got my eggs a couple of years ago. I highly, highly recommend properly installed predator guards for your bluebird boxes.

I will provide another update in a couple of days.
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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Hiking to the top

Another great day of hiking in the Smokies!

I went hiking in the Smokies with the TTA (Tennessee Trails Association) Wednesday hikers. I hike with them about once a month or so. I like to pick hikes that I haven't been on before or ones that are especially interesting. Wednesday can be a bit of a problem sometimes because that is my designated fly fishing day.

This week the hike was to Andrews Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hopefully see more wild azaleas. I had been to Gregory Bald the week before which has a larger azalea field, but Andrews Bald is supposed to peak a week or so later and have better long range views. I hadn't been to Andrews Bald.

Eight of us showed up for the hike. Because the Andrews Bald hike is only 3.6 miles we added a hike to Chimney Tops to the schedule. Chimney Tops is rated strenuous because of the 1350 elevation gain in just 2 miles and much of it very steep. 1000 feet of the gain is in just one mile. The end of the trail at Chimney Tops is where the fun begins. You can, if you want to, climb the Anakeesta rock formation a couple hundred feet to the top. The rocks are steep and slick. Warning signs at the beginning of the trail near the parking lot and again at the base of the caprock remind you that many injuries have occurred here and that you climb at your own risk. At the photo to the left you can see our view looking down over the route that we climbed. Click on the photo for a bigger view.

Many hikers climb part way up, but a extra steep section with very small handholds about half way up stops most. Of the 8 of us, only Ginger and I made the climb all the way to the top. Coming down is even harder and requires considerable butt scooting. Ginger announced to everyone within earshot what a exhilarating experience it was. I agree, it was very cool. Here we are at the top.

Next the group headed to Clingman's Dome and the trail head to Andrews Bald. This hike starts at about 6300 feet elevation and the Bald is at about 5800. although it was in the mid to upper 80's in Knoxville, it was a perfect 65 degrees with a nice breeze at our elevation. The trail goes through a beautiful spruce-fir forest. Unfortunately the azaleas at Gregory Bald were about over for the year, but there were a few bushes still in full bloom. However, the views for many miles in several directions are great and it was a pretty clear day for the summer. The picture at the top is one of those vistas.

Although the Gregory Bald hike is rated easy to moderate, the previous 4 miles at Chimney Tops added on top pretty much wore us out. We did a total of almost 8 miles and it seemed that every step was either up or down....steeply. Dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewhouse in Pigeon Forge helped us feel a lot better for the 2 hour ride home.

Two great hikes...I highly recommend both of them.

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