Thursday, March 25, 2010

What to Watch Out for this Spring

Hopefully spring is going to get here pretty soon. That global warming theory is going to be a little harder to sell after the winter we have been through here in Tennessee. But spring will come, and with it comes a lot of things to watch for – some good and some not so good.

The birds are starting to search for a mate.

Photo by Don Hazel

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

Those Wonderful Wrens

I am not a birder. Sure, I know a little about birds, probably more than most folks, but I only know the more common birds. There are some people around here that are birders. They can identify all of the different warblers, and buntings, and ducks by sight, by their song, etc. I freely admit that I am not in that same league. But, I do have a bookshelf full of bird books and I use them frequently. Maybe you do too.

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.

The Cumberland Trail Needs You

Everyone has heard of the Appalachian Trail. This national treasure is a 2,174 mile footpath that runs from Georgia to Maine. It’s famous!

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.

Learning to Fly-Fish

You may be one of them. I have run into quite a few people over the years who, in the course of a conversation that turns to nature or the outdoors confess that they always wanted to learn to fly-fish. If you are a closet fly-fishing wannabe or are just a little curious about fly-fishing…read on.

A beautiful brown trout caught on a fly rod. Photo by Don Hazel

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.

Here is a Quick Hawk Identification Guide

Winter is a great time to spot lots of local wildlife that are harder to see in thick summer vegetation. And winter is an especially good time to see hawks. Hawks are raptors, or birds of prey, and they are birds that hunt other animals.

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.

Spotted a Wolf Lately?

Someone recently asked me how many wolves we have around here. Another person said that they had seen a wolf standing in a field near an interstate highway not long ago. Well, I hate to disappoint anyone, but you didn't see a wolf anywhere near Tennessee unless you saw one in a zoo. In fact gray wolves never lived here...ever. But, a different wolf did live here not too long ago and is now breeding again in the wild in a state right next to Tennessee.

First of all, let's talk about gray wolves. These are the wolves that you often read about being reintroduced Yellowstone National Park and they are the big bad wolf of stories and legends. Here are the facts. Gray wolves once roamed over all of the continental U.S. except the Southeast. By 1973, by every means imaginable, gray wolves were eradicated in the lower 48 states except for a few hundred in Northern Minnesota and Michigan. Today, through re-introduction efforts and protection, there are about 1000 wolves in the Yellowstone National Park and the northern rockies (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho), 50 in Arizona and New Mexico, and 4000 in far northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. That's it! If you saw a wolf anywhere else, you didn't see a wild wolf. As for being big and bad...not true. In the last 40 years in North America (including Canada and Alaska) there have only been 16 cases of non-rabid wolves biting humans. The one fatality in those 40 years was caused by a human habituated, wolf that was used to being fed by humans. In contrast, pet dogs kill about 12 humans per year in North America and seriously bite millions. Believe it or not, you are safer facing a pack of wild wolves in Yellowstone, than you are facing that wacko dog that lives down the street.

Now, just as interesting to me, and much closer to home, is the wolf that used to live right here in Tennessee and is once again living in the wild not far away. Most people have never even heard of the Red Wolf. It is a separate, but closely related species to the Gray Wolf. The Red Wolf used to be the top predator in the southeast and it lived from eastern Texas to the Atlantic coast and from southern Pennsylvania south to Florida. The red wolves were nearly extinct when the last 17 in the wild were captured in 1980. Any Red wolves alive today are decedents of those 17 or the few that were in zoos.

The Red wolf photo above is by Baron Crawford.

The red wolf is smaller than a gray wolf but bigger than a coyote. Large male red wolves can top out at about 80 pounds. In contrast, gray wolves can reach 175 pounds. Red wolves look thinner and longer legged than a gray wolf. Red wolves are very shy, secretive, and elusive and are rarely seen because they primarily hunt small mammals such as rodents, at night.

The red wolf was reintroduced back into the wild back in 1992 just down the road in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Of the 28 pups born in the wild, zero survived due to parasites, lack of prey, and predation and the original 37 adults were down to about 11. In 1998 all that were remaining were recaptured, because they just couldn't survive in the GSMNP.

However, about the same time 4 pairs of red wolves were released in northeastern North Carolina in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Those 8 wolves have now grown to about 120 and they are doing well. Forty-one new wild pups were born in 2009. Although these wolves are hard to spot, you could hear them by attending a guided “howling”. At these nighttime events rangers howl and the wolf packs howl back.

Wolves of any kind are always controversial. Ranchers and hunters claim that they kill livestock and decimate deer and elk herds. Conservationists say that we are just returning wolves to their natural place and helping to put nature back in balance. However, no one can argue that wolves bring in big dollars to local economies from wildlife watchers. Wolf watching in Yellowstone NP is estimated to bring in up to $10 million each year to the local economy there.

Regardless of your opinion of wolves, you must admit that they are interesting. You could go to Yellowstone NP or Minnesota to hear or see gray wolves or even as close as North Carolina for red wolves. Just don't expect to see any in your backyard anytime soon.

Nature Lovers Extravaganza

If you love anything about the outdoors, nature, history, music, or photography, I want to tell you about what may be the best free event of its kind in America. It is 8 days of 100% free, presentations, lectures, seminars, demonstrations, hikes, and exhibits and it is just down the road in Pigeon Forge January 9 through 16.

I had heard of Pigeon Forge’s Wilderness Wildlife Week (WWW) a couple of years ago but I didn’t know much about it and I didn’t understand what a fantastic event this is. Finally, last year I decided to drive down on a Monday and see what it was all about. I was blown away. I went back a day later and stayed overnight for 2 more days of WWW.

Wilderness Wildlife Week is held at the Pigeon Forge Convention Center which has maybe 8 or 10 large meeting rooms. There are usually about 5 presentations going on at one time…you choose which ones you want to attend. Events run each day from 8am until about 8pm. Everything is free.

Here are some of the nearly 175 presentations that you might be interested in:

Photography. There are numerous presentations on how to improve your photography skills, and all are taught by professionals who really know their stuff. Plus there is a room full of some of the best outdoor photographs that you will ever see.

Animals. National Park Rangers and other wildlife professionals discuss such topics as black bears in the Smokies, elk reintroduction, raptor identification, hiking with llamas (real llamas in the room), animal rehabilitation, two separate live bird shows, and much more.

History. This is not my area of much interest, but there are seminars on the history of the Smoky Mountains, the Cherokee, the Civil War, etc. If you are into history you can find lots to interest you.

Music. At Wilderness Wildlife week you can learn to play the harmonica, the dulcimer, the banjo, or the mandolin, or just sit back and enjoy professionals providing the entertainment on several different evenings.

Travel. There are a number of travel presentations to various destinations during the week. My advice…don’t miss anything presented by Bob & Gloria Epperson. They have at least 3 presentations on Denali, Yellowstone, and the Tetons.

Backyard gardening. Learn about herbs, edible wild plants and wild medicine or how to attract butterflies, birds, or wildlife to your property.

Outdoor skills. You can learn “dowsing” (the art of finding water with a stick), how to read a map and compass, how to carve a hummingbird, or hiking tips and tricks. Plus there are over 50 guided hikes that you can take that are led by expert guides.

Also, try not to miss former GSMNP ranger Dwight McCarter when he tells stories of his days tracking lost hikers in the national park. His stories and his presentation are captivating.

I could go on and on. But if you are interested in attending Wilderness Wildlife week my best advice is to go online to “” and click on “Wilderness Week” and then click on “class listing”. There you can find what days hold the presentations that you are most interested in. I plan to be there about 4 days this year.

By the way, did I mention that this may be the best event of its kind in America and that it is entirely free? I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.