Sunday, August 29, 2010
A couple of interesting things about bears and moose in Alaska. The general advise is bear = stop and raise your arms and voice. Moose = run! Rangers in Denali said they would rather meet a grizzly in the back country than a moose. They don't recommend bells on your pack to alert the bears because they say it just irritates your fellow hikers. They don't recommend pepper spray for most people because they say that usually they just spray it into the wind and incapacitate themselves.
Dog sledding and the Iditarod are very interesting. We saw dog sledding demos at the Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla near Anchorage, in Denali, and in Fairbanks. When the mushers go to hook up a team the dogs go nuts barking because they all want to go. "pick me, pick me". The racing dogs are not large and powerful, they are small and fast. The breed is mostly "Alaskan Husky", which is smaller than the husky you might have seen in the "lower 48". "Gee" is the command to turn right, "Haw" mean go left, and "Whoa" is considered only a suggestion to stop because if you fall off the sled the dogs won't stop. The 3 rules of mushing are, 1-hang on to your sled, 2-hang on to your sled, and 3- hang on to your sled.
In Denali, we hiked to a beaver pond and saw a beaver emerge from its lodge and swim in the water. Then, later, on the trail, we spotted a beaver in the woods and followed it to some freshly downed aspen trees that it had cut. We watched as the beaver cut through a 4 inch branch in about 2 minutes. Then he/she took two pieces of the aspen and dragged it through the woods and down the trail and to the pond. It was storing up limbs to place under the water for winter feeding when the pond was frozen.
We looked long and hard to see a sea otter. These are much larger than river otters and they spend their entire life floating in the sea. They dive to the bottom and get shellfish and then float on their back while they crack open the shells and eat the food. They are very cute floating on their backs and looking around. In Homer, we found lots floating in the ocean. One was very close to shore and we got some good photos.
We are heading back to Anchorage today (from Homer) and then back to Tennessee on Tuesday night.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Grizzlies walk through the yard of the B & B that we are staying at, but we haven't seen one yet. A couple of hundred yards away there is a salmon stream full of salmon that the bears come to.
We took a 6 hour boat trip into a National Park yesterday. This trip is known for being unpredictable in terms of wildlife spotted and especially for roughness of the trip. Among the first instructions when we boarded was which rail to puke over. They told us to lean over and "go for distance". At the end of the trip one of the deck hands said that they call the boat the "puke boat" because many people can't handle the ride. I had a big breakfast so I would have lots of ammunition but no problems, our ride was the smoothest of the summer they said. No seasickness at all. Whew!
The photos are of the day's catch from one of the fishing boats you can go out on. They are mostly halibut, 2 red rockfish, and 2 gray looking cod.
The blue water with the black spot is a fin whale. At 120 feet long it is second in length to only the blue whale. If you click on the photo to blow it up you can see the back fin and also the vapor from a couple more fin whales nearby.
The boat is similar to the one we were on. It is in front of a calving glacier. Calving is the process of large pieces of the glacier falling into the sea with a big crash and subsequent wave. Very cool! We also saw harbor seals, Dall's purpoise, sea lions, puffins, sea otters, bald eagles, more glaciers, etc., etc.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
I will catch up with last week's adventures later, but here is info and photos from today.
We drove 80 miles south to Valdez today. This is where the Alaska pipeline ends. Over the past several days we followed the pipeline for several hundred miles from north of Fairbanks to Valdez. The pink salmon were about done spawning and dying by the thousands...they all die after spawning. The silver salmon were just coming into the bay and people were fishing for them by the hundreds. We saw a black bear catching and eating pinks. On the way back to our b and b we saw a grizzly a few miles from where we are staying catching and eating salmon from another stream. Also saw a porcupine.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
If you are a robber planning on checking out my house while I am away, try not to upset the state champion shotgun skeet shooter staying there while we are away.
We have been Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, and now we are near the Copper River where the best tasting salmon in the world comes from. The sockeye salmon here is high in omega fats and therefore the tastiest. It is only available fresh about one month out of the year. We bought something called "Keta" salmon in Tennessee a few months ago at the supermarket. We found out that here in Alaska it is a kind of salmon that they don't eat and only use it to feed dogs. Interesting!
At the first Bed and Breakfast that we stayed at in Anchorage a black bear visited us the first morning. We were sitting at breakfast and Marion exclaimed "Oh!". Then she said "oh, for a minute I thought that was a bear." Then she said "It is a bear!" A large black bear was 3 feet away just outside, on porch, beside the large glass window. However, by the time I got my camera upstairs, he/she was gone.
However, here are some photos from Denali, where we saw grizzlies, moose, dall sheep, caribou, and wolves. Plus, we saw the "mountain"...McKinley. It is only visable because of clouds about 30% of the time. We saw it 2 days, and once it was out all day long...a rarity.
Thursday, July 08, 2010
Which of the following animals are you most likely to run into here in East Tennessee? Alligator, water moccasin (or cottonmouth), wolverine, badger, porcupine, grizzly bear, wolf, armadillo, black panther, elephant.
Let’s take them in order. Tennessee is far from the natural range of alligators, but then so is Oklahoma. Near where I used to go fishing in Oklahoma there was documented evidence of a six foot alligator living on a remote lake. The alligator obviously didn’t get there on its own, but somehow it survived. So, the only way you’ll see an alligator in Tennessee is if someone releases a pet and it somehow survives winter and humans.
Water moccasins…only in far west Tennessee. I have had local folks swear that water moccasins (sometimes called cottonmouths) live here on the plateau…but they don’t. There are lots of water snakes here and water snakes are usually ill tempered but none are water moccasins.
Wolverines….not even close, unless you count the humans from Michigan. Badgers…you are getting closer but still not here. You might find badgers in states west or north of Tennessee. Porcupines…nope! You would need to get about to the Mason-Dixon line to find your first porcupine.
It is always very interesting to me when I am in Gatlinburg to see a statue on route 321 of a life size bear. It makes sense because the Smoky Mountain area is known for bears but the only problem is that the statue of the bear is a grizzly bear. Grizzly bears don’t live here, never did, and never will. Don’t worry about running into a grizzly bear until you get to Yellowstone National Park.
I have had people in Pennsylvania, Texas, and here in Tennessee swear that they saw a wolf roaming around. Sorry, as I explained in an earlier article several months ago, you didn’t see a wolf; it was a coyote, a German shepherd, or a large Shih Tzu.
These last three are interesting. Did you think you saw an armadillo? Well you just might have. They have slowly been expanding their range from their original U.S. home in Texas. There are armadillos in Tennessee and they are moving this way. You are most likely to see one on a highway…flat. Armadillos apparently don’t always look both ways before crossing a road.
Recently I had two reports of someone spotting a black panther in my neighborhood. First let’s understand what a black panther is. A black panther is a melanistic (black) phase of a leopard or in rare cases a jaguar. Leopards live in Africa and India and jaguars live in Central and South America. There has never been a black mountain lion or cougar…ever. So what could it be? Well I finally found someone who saw the Fairfield Glade black panther. He described it as “a cat”, “bigger than a dog”, and “very dark”. When I asked about the length of the tail he indicated with his hands about 6 inches or so. That is no black panther…that is a bobcat. As for the “black” part, it is just a dark bobcat or one with the light behind it. Relax; you won’t see a black panther around here unless one escapes from a travelling zoo.
Elephants! Well, you obviously won’t find them running wild around here, but believe it or not Tennessee has the nation’s largest natural habitat refuge for elephants. In Hohenwald, southwest of Nashville, there is a 2,700 acre sanctuary for old, needy, and retired circus elephants.
So the answer to the quiz is that of all the animals mentioned above, you are most likely to see an armadillo. You did not see any of the others. If you said, elephant, take partial credit.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Just a short post to tell you about Nancy's new gardening buddy.
Nancy was out planting some flowers about a week ago. We live in an area with lots of interesting critters so we always look where we walk and where we reach when working outside. Nancy had been up and down the hill several times over the course of an hour.
However, once when she turned around and started toward the house she noticed that a new gardening friend had slipped between Nancy and the house. The new friend was Ruthie the rattlesnake.
We had seen rattlesnakes before, within a couple of blocks away and neighbors on each side of us had rattlesnake visitors in their yards, but Ruthie was a surprise visitor. She was moving very slowly in a straight line across the yard. While Nancy watched from a safe distance I took a number of pictures of Ruthie. I say "Ruthie" but it could have been "Randall". You can't tell rattlesnake sex without probing in private rattlesnake places.
She knew I was there but didn't coil or rattle until I tossed some mulch on her to get her to coil for a photo op. Ruthie then uncoiled and slowly proceeded across my neighbor's yard and down into the woods. She was about 3 1/2 feet long and had 9 perfect rattles. None were broken off as they often are.
There are about 3 or 4 of us on this street that may be the only ones that wouldn't have sliced Ruthie in half with a shovel. Most folks that I know slice every snake they see in half. Many harmless and beneficial snakes are killed this way. Even venomous snakes like rattlesnakes and copperheads are beneficial and protected by law and shouldn't be killed. But it is impossible to convince most
folks of this.
We'll remember to keep an eye out for Ruthie in the future.
First, let’s briefly talk about a couple unique bird nests that you won’t find in a birdhouse. If the nest is in a wreath on your front door, or in a light fixture or a potted plant, the bird is almost certainly a house finch. Once the babies are born the nest will be ringed with bird fecal material making is not so clean to look at.
If you have a bulky football sized mess of hay, grass, etc. in your barbeque grill or on a shelf in your garage the culprit is a Carolina Wren. If you have a mud nest plastered under your high deck, you probably have a barn swallow. There is a great example in the rafters near the entrance to the Village Green Mall.
A Barn Swallow rests on her nest at Village Green Mall
Photo by Don Hazel
Now, if you placed a bluebird nest box in your yard and someone is building in there, here are some clues to see what bird you have. A bluebird nest is very neat, and almost always comprised of fine grass or pine needles. There will be no fecal matter in a bluebird nest because the parents carry away the neat little white fecal sacs for disposal far from the nest. If the nest looks like a bluebird nest but has white feathers lining the nest cup, you might have a tree swallow. They almost always add a few feathers to their nest. If you have tree swallows mount another bluebird box nearby. Bluebirds and tree swallows make good neighbors.
Several other local birds also like bluebird nest boxes. If the hole in your bluebird box is no larger than 1 ½ inches (as it should be) then you won’t have a problem with starlings but another non-native invasive pest, the English sparrow or house sparrow can be a problem. Their nest is messy, and almost always has litter such as plastic or paper in it. Throw them out! The outside rafters at the Village Green Mall are home to about 2 million house sparrows.
If your nest box has a several inch layer of moss below the nest you have either Carolina chickadees or a tufted titmouse. Both birds often line their moss nest with animal fur. Until recently I wondered how they found animal hair. But now I know. The groundhog that lives under the rocks at my neighbor’s house was recently out munching on clover in the backyard and riding on the groundhog’s back was a tufted titmouse feverously pecking away and gathering hair. The groundhog just continued eating and didn’t seem to notice.
A birdhouse full of pencil sized sticks is the sign of a house wren. In fact, these wrens will sometimes fill up every birdhouse in your yard, hoping to attract a female to one of them.
If there is no nest cup in the nest in the birdhouse you might have a nest of mice; look for mouse droppings. And if you find acorns in the mass of materials suspect a flying squirrel. Just one last note of caution…more than one person has had a pants wetting moment when they opened a birdhouse to look face to face with a nest of wasps or worse yet…a snake. Enjoy nature but be careful when checking to see what bird is living in your birdhouse.
Yes, synchronous fireflies! You have all seen lightening bugs or fireflies and probably caught them as a kid. Well the fireflies near here at Elkmont in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park are special. A certain species of fireflies in the Smokies (species Photinus carolinus) actually flashes in rhythm. I have seen them. Hundreds of male synchronous fireflies all flash at the same time. It is a beautiful thing to see.
There are 14 species of fireflies in the Smoky Mountains. The firefly mating ritual works pretty much the same as it does in the human species. Males of all firefly species fly around flashing their light to attract a willing female. When a female flashes back from the ground, the male swoops down, buys her a drink, and hopes that things progress from there. But the Photinus carolinus male fireflies are the only ones that flash together. It kind of goes blink…..blink…blink..blink, blink, blink….darkness! After blinking a number of times in unison the fireflies all stop at once for about 6 seconds before starting up again. This only happens a few other places on earth and, in the Western Hemisphere, only near Elkmont in the GSMNP. Thailand is a little too far to go to see the same thing.
Fireflies are a type of beetle that takes 1-2 years to develop into adults. As adults they only live 21 days. The light is produced by a combination of chemicals in the body of the beetles. The production of light by living organisms is called bioluminescence and a few other insects, marine creatures and some plants also can produce light. None of the others light up in sync.
But, if you want to see a synchronous firefly lighting show you have to do it now. It only lasts about 2 weeks each year. Peak viewing in the Smokies is from now until next Sunday June 13. Cars will not be allowed into Elkmont during this time because of up to 1000 firefly lookers at Elkmont. So here is the plan. Go to the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the GSMNP near Gatlinburg and take the shuttle ($1 per round trip) to Elkmont. Buses run until 11pm each night. The bugs start lighting around 10pm each night, but get there early to find your spot along the paved walking trail where most of the fireflies are. Flashlights must be covered in red cellophane since light affects the fireflies and blinds folks watching in the dark. They will pass out red cellophane there if you don’t have any. Feel free to call or email me if you have questions about the lightening bug show.
Hey, you can sit at home and watch TV the next 5 nights or you can get in the car and go see one of the rarest spectacles on earth. Which one do you think you will be telling your grandchildren about? Get out and enjoy nature.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
The tick that causes Lyme disease is very very rare in Tennessee. It is the Black-legged tick, sometimes called the Deer tick. Most information that I have found says that if you have Lyme disease in Tennessee you probably got it somewhere else. My doctor told me recently that he has never seen a case of Lyme disease in his practice in Tennessee.
If you click on the photos you will get a bigger, and scarier view.
The first two photos are the Lone Star tick. It is named for the lone dot on the back of the female. The male doesn't have the dot and looks entirely different. The male is slightly smaller than the female. The Lone Star tick is the one that can transmit Ehrlichiosis to humans. I can personally attest to this. It can also transmit a disease called STARI, which stands for Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness.
Adult Female Lone Star tick...photo by Don Hazel
Adult Male Lone Star tick...photo by Don Hazel
The next two photos are of the American Dog tick, sometimes called the Wood tick. Once again, the female and the male look entirely different. Just because it is called Dog tick doesn't mean it doesn't like to feed on humans if it gets the chance. This is the one that can transmit the more dangerous Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Even though the disease was first identified in the Rocky Mountain area, most cases of the disease are now found in North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee...go figure.
Adult Female American Dog tick...photo by Don Hazel
Adult Male American Dog Tick...photo from the Internet
Although 16 species of hummingbirds breed in the United States, only Ruby-throated hummingbirds live east of the Mississippi. Four other species have been spotted migrating through Tennessee, but not very often. There is a great map on the internet at www.hummingbirds.net that is updated each spring with the dates that migrating Ruby-throated hummingbirds have been spotted on their northbound trip. For us here in Fairfield Glade the male Ruby-throats usually first arrive somewhere between mid March and the first of April. The females arrive here 2-3 weeks later than the males. So mark your calendars to get those feeders out early next year.
I seem to have had more birds than normal at my feeders this spring. I am not sure of the reason, but I am not complaining. However, don’t be concerned when soon you will probably see fewer hummers at your feeders. This is normal as more flowers become available and also as the females disperse to their own territory to begin nesting. Once the baby hummingbirds hatch they need protein to grow, and that means insects. The female, who does all of the childcare by herself, spends much of her time catching insects for her babies. All hummingbirds need insects to eat as well as nectar. By the way, the male hummingbirds don’t help with anything…their only involvement is some fancy flying to attract a female and then 5 seconds of mating. Make up your own joke here!
Food is what will attract hummingbirds to your house. There are a million kinds of nectar feeders available. I find that the cheap $5 ones from Wal-mart work just as well as the fancy $30 ones…maybe even better. Red dyed nectar is not necessary, in fact it is not even recommended. Homemade sugar water is best. One part white sugar to 4 parts water is the concentration that most closely matches natural flower nectar and the only one you should use. Replace the syrup and clean the feeder every 2-3 days to avoid spoilage and mold. And don’t forget to plant flowers that are recommended for hummingbirds.
Don’t worry about when to take down you feeders in the fall; you won’t cause a hummingbird to stay too long. They head south to spend the winter in Central America based on length of daylight. Plus, if you leave your feeders until Thanksgiving you might see a migrating Rufous or Black-chinned hummer.
Two things that I have gotten calls about are baby hummingbirds and hummingbirds trapped in a garage. Here are the answers. Those baby hummers that you think you saw flying around flowers lately are not hummingbirds at all but rather daytime flying moths, sometimes called “hummingbird moths”. Look for red and yellow on their bodies and long antennae identifying them as moths. When the real baby hummingbirds start flying 40-60 days from now they will actually be bigger than their mothers because the mothers lose weight supplying food to the growing youngsters.
Now if those darn red handles on your garage door ropes have lured a hummingbird inside, here is what to do. If your garage has no windows, close it up tight and the hummingbird, which doesn’t like to fly in the dark, will land on the floor. With as little light as possible from a flashlight, find the bird, gently scoop it up and carry it outside for refueling and freedom. An alternate solution is to hang a feeder near the open garage door and hope the little guy finds it and then heads out instead of back in. If he doesn’t eat in an hour he will die. If all else fails, hang a feeder in the garage to keep the hummer alive until he finds his way out or it gets dark enough to do the flashlight and scoop up method. And last, paint those darn handles black.
First of all, although bluebonnets grow wild, most of those roadside fields of bluebonnets that you see on postcards or in photos are not natural, they are planted. Lady Bird Johnson gets credit for starting the program to beautify Texas roadsides with wildflowers…and a great job she did too. In Tennessee we don’t have the miles and miles of planted roadside flowers, but we do have hundreds of wild natural varieties, especially in the hills and mountains of East Tennessee where we live.
Now, I never knew much about wildflowers, and still don’t, but I am learning. Some of my hiking friends like Karla, Helen, and Kay don’t even need a book to spot and identify hundreds of different flowers. But for most of us amateurs a book is pretty much a necessity. One of the best books is Wildflowers of Tennessee, The Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians, by Dennis Horn and Tavia Cathcart. I have a book that I like called Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers, which I purchased in the National Park.
A Large-flowered Trillium growing wild in Tennessee Photo by Don Hazel
Different types of wildflowers bloom throughout the year, but now, in May is the best time, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best places to see them. Plus you might catch a ranger program to get you started.
But you don’t have to leave our immediate area to see lots of native wild flowers and to learn about them from an expert. My friend, Karla Miller will be teaching a Tennessee wildflower class in the Lifetime Learning program in the fall right here in Fairfield Glade. You couldn’t have a better instructor when it comes to wildflowers. But don’t wait until fall to get started. Go out looking now and the class will be that much more valuable for you.
As you read this, the Mountain Laurel is probably in full bloom near you…I know that it is in my yard. But if you are just a little more observant you can see hundreds of native wildflowers in our area. Just to give you an idea, here is a short list of just a few of the wildflowers that I have seen hiking in the last few weeks and some of their interesting names.
Dwarf Crested Iris
And the list goes on and on.
Wildflowers are just another part of nature that makes living in an area like ours in East Tennessee so interesting and enjoyable. Get out and see for yourself.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
As you probably know, the yellow dust covering everything that doesn’t move this time every year is pine pollen. Pine trees produce large (very large) amounts of pollen each spring in order to ensure that the seeds get fertilized and the species can survive. You may not know this, but pine trees have both male and female pine cones. The male cones are usually smaller and often not even noticed, but the pollen that they produce is. So, if your car is yellow, blame a male.
Cloud of Pollen from whacking a pine tree
Now, if your seasonal allergies are kicking up with all of this yellow pine pollen, don’t blame a pine tree. Most people think that the pollen they see is the culprit causing their sneezing, but other male agents are at work here. Pine pollen is large and heavy and drops quickly to the ground which is why it coats everything. But because it drops out of the air quickly and also because it has a waxy coating, it usually isn’t a cause of allergies. The main cause of your sneezing is all of the other trees that are producing pollen at the same time.
Pines and their relatives are non-flowering plants called Gymnosperms. The Angiosperms or flowering trees, grasses, and plants are the ones that cause the most allergic reactions. Although their flowers are tiny and easily overlooked, the oaks, maples, hickorys, etc. are main cause of hay fever this time of year, not the pines. Believe it or not, there may be 50-100 times the amount of oak pollen in the air right now than pine pollen. It is just much smaller and less conspicuous than pine pollen. Later in the year other flowering plants, especially grasses and ragweed cause your hay fever. Bright yellow goldenrod usually gets the blame but the small, plain-looking flowers of ragweed are the real bad guys. Things are not always as they seem.
So if you your car is yellow and your eyes are itching, don’t worry, the tree pollen will soon be gone and everything will be right in the world again. Oops, but then it will be time for the grass pollen and later the ragweed pollen…again all of these irritations are caused by the males of the species. Men! What would you do without them?
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Loons are unique ducks for several reasons. Probably the most interesting is their eerie wavering call. If you have never heard one, you can go on the internet and search for “call of the loon” to hear this beautiful song. It is one of the best sounds in nature. Loons are big black and white ducks that float very low in the water. They have long pointed bills that they use to catch fish, crustaceans, and amphibians. They are great swimmers, but because their feet are located far back on their bodies for swimming they can barely walk on land. If you ever see one walking on land they look kind of like a penguin, their closest bird relative.
Common Loons are rarely seen around here, but the most common duck in east Tennessee and probably most places in the U.S. are Mallards. These are the green headed males and the non-descript females that you see on any body of water. And of course we have Canada Geese, not everyone’s favorite because they can slime a yard overnight with their droppings.
But with our eleven quiet lakes here in Fairfield Glade we have the privilege of having quite a few Wood Ducks. Male Wood Ducks are probably the most colorful and good looking ducks anywhere. And even better, they readily will nest in boxes mounted over or near the water. Many lakeside residents have mounted Wood Duck boxes with great success. A year ago a friend of mine, Mark, was mounting a box over the water at his house. I sent him an article that explained that the hole size of the box was determined by the cross section size of a typical female Wood Duck breast. Mark emailed back that he had just shot a Wood Duck and that as soon as it was frozen he would saw it in half to make sure he had the right size hole in his nest box. Of course he was joking….I think.
In addition to our one lonely Loon, several other kinds of ducks migrate through here that we don’t see any other time. I saw about 10 Buffleheads on Spring Lake last week and last year there was a pair of Ring-necked ducks on Mirror pond for several weeks. Keep your eyes open this spring and you might see several other types of migrating ducks. Spring is a great time to enjoy nature…but then so is summer, fall, and winter.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
The birds are starting to search for a mate.
There is a northern flicker drumming on my outdoor grill to attract a mate as I write this. I am tuned into bluebird songs and I have been hearing them sing everywhere. The birds are abandoning the small flocks that they spent the winter in and beginning to pair off. They will begin nesting over the next several weeks.
The other morning I heard a beautiful new bird song in my front yard. I had to grab my bird book to identify the bird with the beautiful voice as a song sparrow. We have lots of chipping sparrows around but I think that was the first song sparrow that I identified. You’ll also hear cardinals, tufted titmice, wrens, and some others with great voices.
It doesn’t take a very warm day for the insects to start crawling and flying again. You might not like that but the birds sure do. On a warm spring day the bluebirds and woodpeckers visit my suet feeder less frequently because they prefer to get their protein from sweet juicy insects rather than from dead animal-fat suet.
Also, as it warms up, you will hear more and more frogs. If you have a wet spot anywhere near your yard the spring peepers (tiny little frogs) will start peeping soon. So will toads and other frogs. My friend Karla spotted some frog’s eggs in a puddle already two weeks ago. Another phenomenon around here is the march of the spotted salamanders. These guys pick the first warm evening of the year to congregate in a vernal (seasonal) pool in the woods to mate, lay eggs, and then disperse back into the woods until their rendezvous the same time next year. It sounds like a political sex scandal, but don’t worry this one is approved by nature.
Spring is the peak of wildflower time in the woods and Tennessee has some of the absolute best wildflowers in the country. The book “Wildflowers of Tennessee” by Dennis Horn is a great one. If you hike with someone who really knows their wildflowers it makes it a lot easier. I am a slow learner when it comes to identifying flowers but I remember a new one or two every year…I think I am up to 10 now..only six or seven hundred to go.
Usually around the first of April is when I first start watching for ticks and snakes. The snakes will mostly be active during the day at this time of year, especially in sunny spots. As we move to summer, the snakes are more active in the cool of the night. Ticks….we have lots of them around here and they seem to be particularly ravenous early in the spring. If you can avoid brushing against vegetation in the woods, and especially in fields, you can reduce your chances of becoming tick food. Check for ticks when you get home after hiking or chasing your golf ball into the woods. It is rare to get a tick when walking around the short grass in your yard, but walk through the edge of a field in knee-high grass and you better beware.
Spring is an exciting time of year…the end of pale skin, high heating bills, and spousal overload. Time to get outside, talk about something besides the cold weather, and enjoy nature.
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
But even if you aren’t a birder either, many of you probably enjoy feeding birds in the winter and watching them at your feeders. One of the cutest little birds that visits my suet feeders every day is the Carolina Wren. There are several kinds of wrens, but the most common one around here is the Carolina Wren. He is the one with the tail that always seems to stick up in the air (like all wrens) and the two-tone brown with the prominent white eyebrow.
Carolina Wrens range over most of the eastern U.S., but I don’t recall ever seeing any until I moved to Tennessee. They are insect eaters and they don’t readily come to feeders, but in the winter when insects are scarce they will hang around suet feeders. Usually they like to eat on the ground, but the one in my yard eventually moves up to the feeder after he picks up all the suet scraps that the other birds dropped on the ground.
The Wren in the Photo is a Carolina Wren on a suet feeder outside my window.
Carolina Wrens sometimes nest in the strangest places. A friend has one that nests inside his closed garage every year on the shelf with all the dangerous lawn chemicals. He is not sure how the bird finds her way into the closed garage, but she returns every year. The nest is a fluffy affair with an entrance on the side. In another example, last year, twice, I had to throw out the beginnings of a nest as big as a football from inside my barbeque grill. With the cover closed the only way in was through a small hole near the bottom. I mean, I like to have the wrens around, but I didn’t want braised birds on the barbee.
I think that wrens have some of the prettiest voices in the bird world. Carolina Wrens sing a wide variety of songs. Another western wren that I used to hear in Texas is the Canyon Wren. It has a beautiful series of descending notes that you will never forget once you hear it. Like its name, it lives in canyons.
There are a couple of other wrens that you might see in Tennessee. The Bewick’s Wren is similar to the Carolina Wren, but duller. I am not sure I have ever seen one yet. The Winter Wren visits here in the winter only, as its name implies, and the House Wren lives here in the summer.
Now, I like all the little wrens, but I am not a big fan of the House Wren and it mostly has to do with that wren’s behavior in relationship to Bluebirds. First of all, the House Wren will fill every Bluebird box in your yard with pencil sized sticks. The male places these sticks in several possible nesting sites to attract a female, even though the female will use only one of the nests. But in the meantime, the wren has excluded all other birds from using any of the nest boxes. Additionally, House Wrens will enter Bluebird nests and peck holes in the eggs or even remove the newly hatched Bluebird babies from the nest to die on the ground outside. House Wrens and Bluebirds don’t readily mix…but then that is nature.
Look for wrens around your yard. They are little, smaller than a sparrow, and usually very quick, and always with a tail that sticks up in the air. Even us non-birders can identify these cute little guys that are fun to watch an hear.
Not quite so famous, yet, is Tennessee’s own Cumberland Trail. This trail follows the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau and when completed it will be 300 miles across Tennessee from Chattanooga to the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky. Currently, over half, or about 170 miles of the Cumberland Trail is done and many of us have hiked segments of this beautiful trail. The Cumberland Trail is part of the longer Great Eastern Trail that will be a less crowded alternative to the Appalachian Trail. The Great Eastern Trail will be 1800 miles long and run from Alabama to New York.
Now, if all these facts and mileage figures are boring you, let’s get to some interesting stuff. Amazingly, the Cumberland Trail is being built completely by volunteer labor. Much of this labor comes from college students who volunteer during their spring breaks each year. Instead of partying in Panama, these future leaders donate their spring break raking, digging, cutting, and basically just building the trail by hand. This year nearly 250 college students will be coming to Tennessee from all over the United States from 18 different schools to work on the Cumberland Trail. There will be students here from Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, and several other states.
The trail building this spring will take place a little over an hour south of Crossville, between Soddy-Daisy and Chattanooga, during the 3-week period from February 28 through March 20. The General Manager of the Cumberland Trail organization, Tony Hook, has arranged for the students to stay at the Dogwood Lodge, a church camp facility near Soddy-Daisy where meals will also be prepared and served. In the evenings there will be educational programs about local history, geology, the environment and other topics.
If you ever thought that volunteer work was something that you wanted to do, here is a great opportunity for you. You don’t have to swing a pick or run a chainsaw (although you are certainly welcome to do so); you can help build the trail in many ways. You can work in the kitchen, supervise work on the trail, clip vegetation, be a go-fer, shuttle students, etc. And, working with young, smart, hard-working, young adults is more fun and rewarding than you can imagine. These are amazing, motivated young men and women that are just fun to be around; but as you can imagine 200 college students need support.
If you can help, or if you just want to know how you can help, please think about it. Come for a day or a week. If you can stay overnight just bring a sleeping bag and we will find a cot for you, or bring an RV or a tent and have your own place. All food will be provided.
Call Marleya at the Cumberland Trail office in Crossville at 456-6259 or email me for more information or any questions you might have.
A few years from now when people come from all over the world to hike on the 300 miles of the Cumberland Trail through Tennessee, you can say you helped build it…and you’ll be famous.
The photos above are from the March 2010 trail building near Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee.
Fly-fishing has a sort of cachet to it. I don’t hear people say that they always wanted to learn to bass fish or crappie fish. Maybe it was Brad Pitt standing in that river with a fly rod in the movie “A River Runs Through It” that attached the romance to fly-fishing. But actually it started long before Brad Pitt. Fly-fishing does have something special about it.
I like to do a little bass fishing once in a while. But I love to fly-fish. Fly-fishing is different. Most fly-fishing is usually associated with trout fishing and trout fishing is often associated with peaceful, clear, cool mountain streams and beautiful surroundings. Fishing for wild (not stocked) trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just about as good as it gets. And, although they don’t have to, most fly-fishermen (and women) practice catch and release. Often they use barbless hooks to minimize injury to the fish and they release the fish after catching them to live and fight another day. Many fly-fishermen and women learn to tie their own flies out of feathers and fur. This is a whole other element to the sport that is not necessary but very enjoyable to many.
Another difference is the fly-fishing equipment that allows you to cast nearly weightless imitations of the tiny bugs that make up most of a trout’s diet. Live bait is not used in fly-fishing. There are no slimy worms to thread on a hook. The beautiful images of a fly-fisherman with a yellow fly line in a tight horizontal loop thirty feet behind him or her is a picture of the techniques that you’ll need to master to present a “fly” in front of a beautiful brook, rainbow, or brown trout.
So if you have ever thought of learning to fly-fish where do you start? Well consider yourself lucky because you live near some of the best trout streams in the country and not far from a great place to easily get started.
First of all, there is a lot to learn. Here is my suggestion for you if you think you want to get started. There is a great fly-fishing store in Townsend Tennessee called Little River Outfitters. They have a 2 day beginner fly-fishing school that is very reasonably priced. In my opinion, this is the easiest, best, and only way to start fly-fishing. Another, higher priced option, is the Orvis Store in Sevierville which also has classes. At either place you will learn the fly-fishing terms, equipment, techniques, and most importantly, how to cast a fly rod. If you can’t accurately and gently cast a fly on the water, your chances of catching a fish drop off the chart. In fly fishing you don’t just chuck a lure into the stream and reel it back. You must learn how to quietly present your fly on the water in a natural way to the trout. You will begin to learn this critical skill in a beginner fly-fishing class; especially on the 2nd day when you actually go to a stream to practice.
Now, in February or March, is the time to take a class because April is when the trout fishing in the Smokies really begins to heat up. You can take a class without having any equipment or prior knowledge of fly-fishing and not feel out of place. Everyone else in the class will be a beginner too. Besides, what else are you going to do in February? Exploring the beauty and mystery of fly-fishing might just be the beginning of a wonderful new activity for you. And it is not just for men; fly-fishing is a perfect sport for women too.
If you have questions about fly-fishing just send me an email. I will be glad to answer your questions.
Serious birders can look at a raptor and distinguish a Ferruginous Hawk from a Rough-legged Hawk or a Swanson’s Hawk. However, most of us never even heard of those birds and couldn’t care less how to tell them apart. But it would be nice to know what that raptor is in a tree along the highway or cruising past our bird feeder, or hovering over a field here in Tennessee.
So here is a quick and easy identification guide that will let you impress your friends and neighbors with you birds of prey identification abilities. Trust me; this is extremely easy, and accurate enough that you will usually be right. We will identify hawks by what you see them doing, and not by the number of color bands on their tail or some other hard to handle detail. I will only cover hawks today. We will get back to eagles, owls and vultures in some future article.
OK…so you are driving down interstate 40 and you see a large hawk sitting in a tree near the highway…what is it? It is almost certainly a Red-tailed Hawk. These are large hawks that eat mostly small rodents and they love the U.S. interstate highway system. They consider highways one long field with perfect mouse habitat. They also soar along the highways but you usually see them just sitting on a tree. When the sun is right you can definitely see the red tail on the adults. They are our most numerous hawks.
Now, you are driving down that same highway and you see a small hawk hovering in mid air and looking straight down into the field. That is an American Kestrel zeroing in on a mouse or even a grasshopper. They used to be called sparrow hawks because of their small size. They also often sit on telephone or power lines along the highway. Like the Red-tailed hawks, these guys thank President Eisenhower for the interstate highway system.
Now, it is a beautiful winter afternoon and you are relaxing in your house and watching all the little birds at you bird feeder. All of the sudden thirty birds explode into the air and head for cover as some hawk coming zooming through the yard and catches a dove that wasn’t paying attention. The hawk is either a Cooper’s hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. These guys look almost identical, except for the slightly larger size of the Cooper’s hawk and both eat other birds for a living. Don’t worry about telling them apart; just know that they are one or the other. Once you become a serious birder you can worry about the differences. Lots of folks don’t like these guys because they eat the pretty little birds at the bird feeder. But remember, this is just nature doing its thing and hawks need to eat to survive too. You just happened to make it a little easier for the hawks by concentrating lots of tasty birds in one spot with your bird feeder.
If you are driving near the Tennessee River or a large lake and see a very large, mostly white bird (underneath) with a Zorro mask and a bad hair day, it is an osprey. (I stold this description from Lyn Bales of the IJams Nature Center.) These guys build giant stick nests in trees or platforms near water and eat almost exclusively fish. Ospreys dive into the water and catch fish in their talons. I have not seen any near the lakes in Fairfield Glade but you’ll certainly see them near the bigger rivers and lakes in east Tennessee.
That’s it! Now you are an expert in identifying our most common hawks . We also have Northern Harriers, Peregrine Falcons, Red-shouldered hawks, and a few more in the area, but they are much less common than the ones above. Nail the identification of the four hawks described above and you will enjoy nature and dazzle your friends even more than you do already.