Friday, June 25, 2010

Nancy's friend Ruthie

Click on any photo for a much larger view.

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.

Whose nest is that?

OK, so you have a birdhouse in your yard and there is a new nest in there, but what kind of bird is building it? I have had a number of inquiries lately asking me that question. Sometimes the birdhouse is situated where you can’t easily see the birds going in and out. Well, here is how you can figure out what you have in your birdhouse.

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.

Synchronous Bioluminescence

If you live in Eastern Tennessee, You live in a special place. Of course, you know that for many reasons. But here is one reason you didn’t know about. You live within 100 miles of one of only a couple of places on earth that has synchronous fireflies. What???

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

Those Cute Little Ticks

Here is just a short posting with photos of two main tick culprits that we have around here...both the male and female of both species. The photos do not reflect the size of the ticks or the size in relation to each other. Adults are about the size of a flax seed and nymphs are smaller than a sesame seed. Both stages can cause disease, but usually only if they are attached to you for 24 hours.

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 by Don Hazel

Adult Male Lone Star 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 by Don Hazel

Adult Male American Dog from the Internet


Well, the hummingbirds have been back for over a month now, so I thought it might be a good time to refresh your memory on how to best enjoy these little gems of nature.

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 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.

Tennessee Wildflowers

If you have ever been in Texas during April then you have seen the beautiful blue waves of bluebonnets and the colorful Indian Paintbrush and Indian Blankets. Texas is a great state for wildflowers, but Texas has nothing on Tennessee for wildflower variety.

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


Trout Lily

Spring Beauty

Wild Violets

Wild Geranium

Creeping Phlox


Lady Slippers

Fire Pink

Bishop’s Cap

Pussy’s Toes



Shooting Star

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.