Peering into the deep blue

Bluebird skies are wonderful for lots of things. For example, along U.S. Hwy. 64 west of Franklin the other day the clear blue created the perfect backdrop for the dazzling display of blue and yellow produced by the masses of asters and goldenrods.

Izzy and I were headed to the Beech Creek Seed Orchard located west of Murphy, off Forest Service Road 307 in the Tusquitee District of the Nantahala National Forest. The seed orchard provides seeds from “genetically improved” shortleaf, Virginia and white pines designed to produce better wood. It also serves as a clone bank for hardwoods like black cherry, oak and yellow poplar. But what it provided for Izzy and me that Saturday afternoon was a vast expanse of bluebird sky. I have bird survey points that I monitor for the Forest Service near the seed orchard and last spring when I was over there I noted that the orchard offered a great sky-panorama and made a mental note to get back over and look for migrating raptors this fall.

A finger of Lake Hiwassee closely approaches FSR 307 in places. Due to winter drawdown and this year’s severe drought the lakebed was dry except for a small rivulet. We decided to go down and take a look. On the trail down to the lake we discovered an eastern hognose snake, Heterondon platirhinos, about 30 inches long. The eastern hognose is a very entertaining critter.

When I cut off it’s escape route, this snake immediately went into its menacing phase. It flattened its head and neck, cobra style, and began hissing loudly. This posture and action has earned the hognose the colloquial names of “spread adder” and/or “puff adder.” The snake also “rattles” the end of its tail. In dry leaves or vegetation this mimics a rattlesnake. Unfortunately this guy was on a clean dirt path so its rattling had little effect. When I refused to move my foot the hognose reared back and struck a couple of times. The problem (for the snake) with this action is that if it’s not food, the hognose invariable strikes with its mouth closed. All these actions are for show.

When I picked the snake up it launched into its grand finale. It twisted to its back and with mouth agape and tongue dangling it began to writhe as if it was in its death throes. We put the dead snake down on the side of the path and went to explore the lakebed for a little while. When we returned the snake had miraculously come to life and disappeared.

When we returned to the car I looked up to see a dark speck soaring high in the deep blue. Through my binoculars I could see an osprey – a reminder of what we had come for, so we loaded up and headed for the seed orchard.

We parked at the gate to the seed orchard off FSR 307 and hiked in along a gravel road for about one-tenth of mile. We found a nice shady spot with a commanding view of the northern horizon and set up our camp chairs. We had a picnic, a bottle of bubble solution and a wand plus there were lots of butterflies, grasshoppers and dragonflies to keep Izzy’s attention while daddy scanned the skies for raptors.

Raptor migration can be hit or miss even at established sites. I had no idea what to expect and in this scenario the bluebird skies were working against us. It is awfully hard staring in to that blue expanse to pick out the tiny specks that turn into migrating raptors. And with no cloud ceiling the thermals raptors use for migrating can be miles high, again making it hard to find migrants.

After an hour or so of scanning the skies a dark speck appeared far away over the northern horizon. The bird was circling slowly and when it turned in the sun there was no mistaking the bright white head and tail of an adult bald eagle.

The eagle came directly over us and though it was very high, you could still see the head and tail when it turned in the sun. Soon it was joined by a mottled, brown and white juvenile bald eagle. As I was watching the two of them turn and climb slowly in a thermal, four bullets streamed by above them.

By their shape, size and habit, I figured these were broad-winged hawks that had kettled north of the eagles and were now streaming south. I couldn’t find a kettle or more hawks. They may have been too high or those four may have been all there were. But I believe an osprey, two eagles and a handful of hawks in two-and-a-half hours of scanning less than optimum skies means the seed orchard warrants another look.

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