Crawl out of your igloo and take a look around. We had kind of assumed a “snow” mentality here at the Hendershot household. A little sledding, a little snow play, then back into the house for hot chocolate, snacks and movies — wet snow clothes draped over a rack near the back door to hopefully dry before they’re donned again for another sortie outside.
We didn’t have it nearly as bad as some of our friends with steep drives on north-facing slopes and no four-wheel drive. We’re close to the four-lane, our road gets plowed and we have four-wheel drive so we were never really housebound.
But there’s something about when the snow starts piling up that turns your attention to the cave. Chores, like making sure the wood box is full, shoveling the sidewalk and shoveling a path to the birdfeeders on the deck take precedence. The veil of falling snow has a way of turning your thoughts inward – but hey, the world is still out there. The beautiful mountains, forests and streams that so many of us cherish are sparkling in their winter finery and the roads are cleared, so gear up and take a look. You’ll definitely want waterproof boots and dress in light but warm layers. A little slogging through the snow can heat you up quickly, but when you stop it’s still chilly out there.
We opted out of cave mode last Sunday for a trip down to DuPont State Forest, between Hendersonville and Brevard. It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since the rancorous eminent domain battle that transferred the 2,223-acre heart of DuPont State Forest with its dozen or so waterfalls to public lands.
There are several spectacular waterfalls in the area that can be accessed along well-kept trails just minutes from large parking areas along Staton Road. We chose Triple Falls for our destination. Triple Falls can be accessed, even in the snow, with kids, in about 10 minutes from the Hooker Falls parking area. There are convenient steps that take you right to the base of the falls on Little River. There are three distinct cascades with a total vertical drop of 120 feet. The falls, in the snow complete with icicles and 30 feet of spray at the bottom, were stunning. The kids slid on ice, inspected icicles and basically romped in the snow at the bottom of the falls.
The steeper parts of the trail were a bit slippery and that, depending on your perspective (nimble, caution-to-the-wind kid’s or cautious, too-old-to-slide-20-feet-on-your-butt adult’s) was either the coolest thing ever or pause for concern. Dad didn’t have a choice on the descent, in tow by Maddie (5) as she raced her 9-year-old sister, Izzy, down, we “slip-slided” all the way. Mom preferred the tried and true “crab-on-a-tightrope” descent; short, often sideways steps with arms in a graceful arc for balance.
The cool air and exercise put everyone in a restful mood, and while I had company for a while as we traveled U.S. 276 back through the winter wonderland that was the Pisgah National Forest, it wasn’t long after we crested the Blue Ridge Parkway and started our decent to Bethel that I was left alone with my thoughts and three sleeping girls. All in all, it was a great afternoon.
Another debate regarding DuPont is steeping as North Carolina ponders putting the 2,000 or so acres and waterfalls added in 2000 under the jurisdiction of N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation while the remaining acreage will continues under the oversight of the N.C. Division of Forest Resources.
If there was any lingering doubt that the apocalypse was, indeed, scheduled for 2012, it has been erased. The totally unprecedented death of thousands of birds, tens of thousand (or more) fish and tens of thousands of crabs has been universally accepted — at least by a few bloggers on the Internet — as a sign that now is the time to go ahead and run up those credit card debts.
In fact, while I was waiting for the train from Waynesville to Asheville (man I’ve been waiting a long time) I overheard one guy say that his cousin heard someone say that Pat Robertson said it was evident that the mixed flock of birds falling from the sky in Arkansas was a message from above and that it was an abomination to find mixed species actually roosting together.
Of course, if religious explanations don’t work for you there’s always the gummint. Some enlightened bloggers attribute the deaths to:
“Just go do some research on HAARP [The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program]. Might be the explanation for the bird and fish deaths reported in Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Maryland. Also I read reports that Arkansas experienced tremors before the bird and fish deaths. Which supposedly is another side effect of the HAARP project. Also do some looking into Tesla and his death ray somewhat similar to the HAARP project.”
Or maybe: “There is also the possibility that recent volcanic activity around the globe may have been spewing harsh chemicals into the air that these birds breathed in and died from.”
The list goes on to chemical weapons, aliens and even terrorists:
“After all, we are supposedly at war, and our enemy has made it clear their intent to use biological and chemical weapons. If that is indeed a legitimate threat, doesn’t it make sense to know the truth before shrugging the events off to natural happenstance?” wrote Doug Hagmann in the Canada Free Press.
But if, like me, you’re just gonna stick your head in the sand and believe what scientists and biologists are saying this is all you’re left with.
In Beebe, Ark., on New Year’s Eve blackbirds began falling out of the sky, perhaps as many as 3,000 were found dead. The culprit: Loud explosions, likely associated with New Year’s Eve celebrations disturbed a mega roost of blackbirds and starlings. The birds took to the air, in the dark, where they collided with buildings, power lines, etc. and fell from the sky. All necropsies tested negative for poisons and trauma was the cause of death.
A similar situation occurred in Louisiana a couple of days later — blackbirds rousted from a roost in the dark and flew into structures — trauma was the cause of death.
In Sweden, a couple of days later — dead jackdaws were found in the street. Was it a sign from God? Not unless he drives a lorry (bus), because a lorry driver admitted to driving through a large flock of birds. They were in the road eating the salt and grit from the snowmelt.
Freshwater drum in the Arkansas River likely died from some type of pathogen because no other species of fish was affected. The fish die-offs in the Chesapeake Bay and the crabs in England were due to extremely cold temperatures.
Sadly it happens all the time for a myriad of reasons. Some human induced, some natural causes like when migrating Lapland Longspurs got caught in a storm in Minnesota in 1904 and more than 750,000 died.
I, personally, blame Al Gore for this debacle. If he hadn’t invented the Internet people would have never known about these disparate events.
The twin banes of birding, wind and rain, combined to help set a new record low for the eighth annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The soggy but undaunted cadre of birders sloshed and slogged their way around Lake Logan, Lake Junaluska and the Waynesville watershed; mucked through the mud at the Test Farm and fields of Jonathan Creek; foraged the forests of Balsam Mountain Preserve and braved the brambles at Barber’s Orchard to eke out 65 species of birds. The previous low for the Balsam CBC was 69 species recorded each of the first two years – 2003 and 2004. The high count for the circle is 77 species, which has been achieved twice, and the average is around 73 species.
Woodland birds were especially hard to find this year. Notable misses included red-breasted nuthatch and winter wren. I’m sure these birds were hunkered down somewhere trying to stay dry, and with last Saturday’s conditions if you didn’t stumble right upon birds you weren’t about to hear or see them through the woods, at a distance.
The Lake Junaluska and Lake Logan sections produced the highest species counts in the circle with about 46 each. Lake Logan was essentially still iced, but I believe ring-necked ducks were found there. Only about seven species of waterfowl were recorded at Lake Junaluska. Canvasbacks were probably the best find at Lake J. The snow goose that had hung around for weeks departed just a couple of weeks before the count. A lone Bonaparte’s gull joined a group of ring-billed gulls at the lake late Saturday evening to add another tick on the species list. The Waynesville reservoir was totally devoid of waterfowl.
Doug Johnston of Leicester, who oversees maintenance and construction at the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Chapter’s Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary in Asheville, suffered through the soggy day with me in my section of the Balsam CBC circle.
My section runs from the Old Asheville Highway (east) to Balsam Mountain Preserve (west) and from the Waynesville watershed (south) to Mt. Lynn Lowry (north). The average number of species for my section is low to mid-40s. We turned up (barely) 37 species this year.
At the end of the day, Saturday, we were still missing house sparrow, so we took a turn through most of the fast food restaurants and the Wal-Mart parking lot on the way back to Doug’s vehicle – nothing, zip, nada. We were left with 36 species. Then, as I rounded the corner to the entrance at Bocelli’s, where we gathered for the count tally, I was greeted by a cacophony of house sparrow chirps and whistles emanating from the English ivy along the walls of the little patio there.
No new species were discovered for the circle this year. But we had high-count numbers for robins and probably cedar waxwings, two species we dipped on in 2007. Other notable misses besides red-breasted nuthatch and winter wren included blackbirds and common grackle.
The warm, cozy and dry confines of Bocelli’s were the antithesis of the cold, wet and uninviting conditions encountered in the field. And with warm food, cool libations and resuscitated brethren to commiserate with the after-count glow transcended the gloomy count-day blues.
The Balsam CBC whishes to thank all the die-hard participants as well as the staff and management at Bocelli’s, the Town of Waynesville, for access to the watershed, and Jim Francis and Glen Tolar for access to their private property.
Correction: Last week’s story regarding the Balsam CBC stated that dinner after the count would be at the Sagebrush. Wrong! The fine people at Bocelli’s will graciously be putting up with a bunch of tired, noisy birders.
This year is winding up just like last year began — cold and snowy. An early Naturalist’s Corner from last January was “Birrrrrding the big chill.”
“The annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count was scheduled for last Saturday (Jan. 2). However, scary weather conditions — snow, high winds and temperatures in the low teens — especially in the northern count area, caused the count to be canceled.”
The weather for this year’s count on Jan. 1 looks to be much better — chance of rain but temps in the 50s.
Snow continued to be a theme through last winter with one of my favorite columns — learning about diamond dust — “A snowflake by any other name.” And February’s “Snow Day.”
March noted a mature bald eagle that spent a month or so hanging around Lake Junaluska plus a head’s up regarding White Nose Syndrome (a fungus that is decimating bat populations) inching closer to the state.
April’s Earth Day Naturalist’s Corner highlighted an article written by Waynesville half-timer Chuck Dayton. “It is a great read by one who was inspired by Earth Day and dedicated his career to the environment.”
The column is still online at www.conservationminnesota.org/news/?id=4729.
May found, “Murky waters — Louisiana in limbo.” “The giant oil slick (reported to be the size of Puerto Rico) sliding around in the Gulf of Mexico like bacon grease on a George Foreman grill tied to the back of an alligator is once again sliming its way toward a Louisiana landfall.”
June provided a great trip with my then 4-year-old daughter Maddie. We discovered “A kaleidoscope adventure” at Harmon’s Den. We found at least seven species of butterflies (in good numbers) all puddling together.
During our annual July Fourth trip to Rock Hill to visit my sister, my family and I stumbled onto Glencairn Gardens and prompted this column “Green spaces — good places.”
“When we entered Glencairn, we walked into a space that was clearly 6 to 8 degrees cooler than the heat that was building along the asphalt and concrete of downtown. The air was fresher — green plants are amazing air purifiers and there was even a calming noise reduction from the nearby thoroughfares. Some environmental benefits of urban green spaces include enhanced public health, wildlife sanctuary, pollution mitigation, storm runoff reduction, environmental education and community building.”
September brought mixed emotions with “North Carolina’s loss — Louisiana’s gain” as Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina stepped down to become Vice President, Gulf of Mexico Conservation and Restoration to help with the work of restoring and protecting Gulf of Mexico habitat and wildlife in the wake of BP’s massive oil spill.
November brought news of the impending protection of 8,000 acres in Transylvania County as the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and partners worked to broker a deal with former congressman Charles Taylor to purchase the East Fork Headwaters tract.
A December e-mail from Ida Phillips of Audubon North Carolina noted that a generous donation from Fred and Alice Stanback had made possible the protection of Lea Island, one of North Carolina’s barrier islands. That news prompted “a heartfelt thanks to the Stanbacks.”
“Fred and Alice Stanback have been instrumental in preserving tracts like Needmore, Mount Lyn Lowry, Lands Creek Watershed, Chimney Rock, Jocassee Gorges, the East Fork Headwaters tract and so many more. They have donated to organizations like Friends of The Smokies, the American Chestnut Foundation and National Parks and Conservation Association just to name a few.”
Now, let me close that window — the snow is blowing in again and who knows what will blow through in 2011?
Happy New Year!
Don’t worry, PUFIs won’t harm you. They won’t even take you up to the mothership to probe and prod you and send you home with nothing but a vague recollection of bluish lights and otherworldly mutterings. PUFI is simply bird-nerd speak for purple finch.
This “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice,” as described by Roger Tory Peterson, nests primarily in coniferous and mixed woodlands across Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland and down both coasts to California in the west and New England to Minnesota and West Virginia in the east.
The purple finch is an erratic short-distance migrant, generally following the availability of cone crops. Conventional thinking is that the finches that breed farther south like New England and California, etc. remain in the same region year round, while the more northerly nesters are the ones likely to show up at our feeders and feeders across the South to the Mexican border in the winter.
The PUFI is sparrow-sized (5 to 6 inches) and weighs about 1 to 1.5 ounces. The male is the raspberry dipped one. It has a reddish (raspberry) head and breast with red mixed with brown on the back. It also shows red along the sides of the breast with a whitish belly. The male shows a dark ear patch under the red and also a dark malar (throat) streak. Females are brown and white with dark coarse streaking on breast and flanks. They show a whitish eye stripe, dark ear patch and dark malar. Both sexes have deeply notched tails.
There are two subspecies of purple finches — eastern, Carpodacus purpureus and western, Carpodacus p. californicus. The primary measurable difference between the two is that the western PUFI has a longer tail and shorter wings. In the field, the eastern PUFI male is brighter (rosier) and the eastern female is crisply brown and white with distinct dark streaking on the breast while the western female has a greenish-yellow tinge and more faded-looking breast streaks. There are also slight differences in the vocalizations.
The bird in this area most likely to be confused with the purple finch is the house finch. The house finch, which was originally a western species, was introduced to the east in the 1940s when a few captive birds were released on Long Island. They are now quite common from Canada to Louisiana. And if you see a reddish finch at your feeders in the summer it almost certainly is a house finch, as they nest in the area.
The red of the male house finch ranges from orange to reddish-orange — it’s not the rosy (raspberry) of the purple finch. The red of the house finch is not as extensive on the back of the head as it is on the purple finch, plus the house finch lacks the dark face pattern of the purple finch and it has heavily streaked flanks not present on the male purple finch.
The female house finch has a plain brown or grayish-brown head, lacking the bold face pattern of the female purple finch. And it has blurry streaks on a dingy breast unlike the contrast of the dark streaks on the white breast of the purple finch.
House finches appear to supplant purple finches where the two species are found together. Purple finch populations don’t appear to be in peril but their numbers do appear to be dropping in the East as house finch numbers increase.
There are “murders” of crows and “gaggles” of geese and a group of finches is known as a “charm,” “company” or “trembling.” My charm of around 20 PUFIs really set my feeders trembling with all their company.
I received an email last week from Ida Phillips, communications director for Audubon North Carolina, announcing that Lea Island, a barrier island in Pender County was close to being permanently protected:
“One of the last undeveloped barrier islands in North Carolina is one step closer to permanent protection. Thanks to a generous donation from Fred and Alice Stanback, Audubon North Carolina has purchased a 35.7-acre tract on Lea Island, an undisturbed barrier island in Pender County.
The nonprofit organization purchased the property in a bargain sale from James Johnson of Coastland Corporation. The island is one of the most important havens for shorebirds and waterbirds in North Carolina, as well as an important nesting site for federally threatened loggerhead sea turtles. Audubon North Carolina will manage the tract as part of its coastal sanctuary system, which comprises 19 other island and inlet bird habitats along the coast.”
This is certainly wonderful news. Wonderful news for shorebirds and all the other marine and estuarine plants and animals that depend on barrier islands like Lea Island for their very existence. And it’s wonderful news for all outdoors men and women (and hopefully children) who yearn for and need unfettered open spaces with nature at their fingertips to be whole. And it’s wonderful news for all the people at Audubon North Carolina and other organizations around the world that have turned their avocation for clean air and water and wild places into the vocation of protecting and/or enhancing such places and attributes for all of us.
A few words from Ida’s announcement jumped right out at me – “Thanks to a generous donation from Fred and Alice Stanback …”
I can’t begin to count the number of times since I began writing about the environment that I have seen, heard, read or even written that same or a very similar statement.
There is no way for me to list here all the purchases, easements, initiatives, programs and/or organizations that have benefited from the Stanback’s unsurpassed generosity and unflinching commitment to the health and well being of the Old North State’s people and places. The Stanback’s son Brad and his wife Shelli are also well-known philanthropists working to protect North Carolina’s environment.
Just take a quick look around Western North Carolina and you can see some prime examples of the Stanback’s generosity. Fred and Alice Stanback have been instrumental in preserving tracts like Needmore, Mount Lyn Lowry, Lands Creek Watershed, Chimney Rock, Jocassee Gorges, the East Fork Headwaters tract and so many more. They have donated to organizations like Friends of The Smokies, the American Chestnut Foundation and National Parks and Conservation Association just to name a few.
Brad and Shelli Stanback were instrumental in preserving Canton’s Rough Creek Watershed and Little Sandy Mush Bald and they continue working with area environmental organizations.
If North Carolina ever snaps back from the headaches of urbanization, commercialization, industrialization, corporatization, etc. it will be due, in a large part, to the vision, commitment and dedication of the Stanbacks.
A spin around Lake Junaluska the other day (12/2) turned up another unusual winter visitor plus highlighted the foibles and frustrations sometimes associated with birding.
I had finished a quick check of the new wetlands and was headed back to my truck when I noticed a stranger among the resident gaggle of domestic greylag geese. The stranger was white with black wingtips, so snow goose immediately came to mind. The size difference between the visitor and greylags was pronounced — making me think this visitor was a very small goose — therefore a Ross’s.
The Ross’s, Chen rossii, is a small (23 inches) goose that looks for the most part like a miniature version of the snow goose. It comes in two color phases, like the snow goose — one, white with black wingtips and the other, a dark or “blue” phase. The main difference between the two species other than size is head and bill shape and/or features.
The Ross’s has a rounded head and short bill. The base of the bill — where it meets the bird’s face — is straight. And the Ross’s has little or no “grin patch.” The grin patch is the black serrated edge of the bill, prominent in snow geese that make the bird look like it’s grinning. This grin patch or serrated edge is highly developed in snow geese and enables them to saw off tough marsh grasses and sedges.
The snow goose (both subspecies lesser, Anser caerulescens caerulescens and greater, Anser caerulescens atlantica), besides having a prominent grin patch, has a longer bill with a more wedge-shaped head. And the area where the beak meets the face is curved outward, away from the eye. It’s not a straight edge like in the Ross’s.
I looked no further than the obvious white-morph snow goose form and size discrepancy between the visitor and its greylag hosts. Not wanting to spook the bird, I returned to my truck and called a friend to say I had just found a Ross’s goose at the lake. My friend was running errands and we made a date to meet back at the lake.
When I got to the lake, my friend was there with his scope watching the goose and concurred that it was a Ross’s. The gaggle had taken to the water and once again it was easy to see the major size discrepancy. We chatted about what else was around the lake and watched as the birds swam a little closer. When I looked through my binoculars at the little fella, I noticed a grin patch. I mentioned it, but didn’t think much about it and I hit the road.
But that grin patch kept bugging me. I came home, looked online at some photos and looked on page 79 of my copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, where he illustrates the head pattern of a Ross’s, a Ross’s X lesser snow, a lesser snow and a greater snow. I realized I had shot from the hip and needed to get a better look at that bird.
Friday morning I headed for the lake. I called my friend to say I had questions. Turned out, I wasn’t the only one.
A couple of other experienced birders had a similar experience; one, immediately identifying the visitor as a Ross’s because of the comparative size difference; then, with longer looks, especially focusing on the head, questioning that ID.
So Friday morning, the four of us with binoculars a field guide and photos were standing there within 100 feet of the bird. The one consensus was that the head was definitely snow goose. I and one other birder (I think) are mostly convinced that the bird is a lesser snow. One, I believe, was as of Friday, leaning towards greater snow and the other was still having trouble committing.
What threw us all initially was the size discrepancy. But what we failed to take into account is the fact that greylags are giants of the goose world and those domestics are probably large greylags.
As large as greylags are, I don’t think they would dwarf a greater snow goose (listed at 31 inches in my Sibley guide) the way they dwarf this bird. But I would think a Ross’s X lesser snow’s head would have intermediate characteristics like Sibley depicts — this goose’s head looked all snow to me — so I’m left with a small (probably female) lesser snow goose.
Now birders of varying skill levels can get a seconds-long glimpse of a black and white bird in a swamp and never see it again and be 100 percent sure they’ve seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. While four “fairly” experienced birders with a cooperative subject and time to study are still left with “in my opinion.”
Ain’t birding a hoot?
I mean, where would you hang a tire swing if there were no trees? How could you lay back and watch the sky rock back and forth filling the jigsaw spaces between the leaves with ever-changing bits of sky and cloud? Or, how could you reach that cool deep hole in the middle of the bayou without a rope tied to a friendly, strong furrowed arm reaching out over the water?
Sure, trees provide an array of environmental benefits. They help provide clean air and water plus they provide food and shelter for a host of different species of wildlife. But trees are more than that — trees have soul.
Huge water oaks, Quercus nigra, were dominant across the landscape of Mer Rouge, the tiny farming community in northeastern Louisiana, where I grew up. So notable they were that they inspired Mer Rouge High’s alma mater — “Through the stately oaks we glimpse …”
In the yard of the ramshackle shotgun house that was home, there were three of these behemoths. They were home to fox squirrels, raucous red-headed woodpeckers and barred owls. Colorful Baltimore orioles would weave their intricate basket-nests near the tips of the high branches in summer. And on those hot July and August afternoons they would plop huge cool shadows down to play catch in.
And trees can be so enduring. Methuselah is a 4,841-year-old bristlecone pine living in the White Mountains of California. Methuselah’s location is kept secret so it doesn’t suffer the same fate as an even older cousin, Prometheus, who was cut down in 1964.
These elders live all around the world. Sarv-e Abarqu, a 4,000-year-old cypress tree in Iran is thought to be the oldest living organism in Asia. A 4,000-year-old yew graces the churchyard of St. Dygain’s
Church in Wales and in Florida there is a 3,500-year-old bald cypress, The Senator, thought to be the oldest of its species.
And these are living organisms produced from a single seed, or in tree language — non-clonal. Clonal trees are those species that sprout stems or trunks from a common rootstock like willows, aspens and others. The rootstock from some clonal tree species is believed to be hundreds of thousands of years old. One colony of Aspens, named Pando, from the Fishlake National Forest in Utah is listed as anywhere from 80,000 to 800,000 years old.
And because trees move us so:
“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and
melodious thoughts descend upon me?”
— Walt Whitman
It is often sad to think about the shortsighted way our ancestors fell upon the forests of this continent with axe and saw obliterating thousands of years of history in a few hours.
But because trees move us so:
Lovely, glistening, green, swaying back and forth.
Flowers blossoming in the spring.
Horses nibbling on the bark.
Bugs feasting on the leaves.
Leaves whispering to the wind,
dancing in the sun.
Reaching to the sky.
My favorite tree.
— Melissa, age 10
There’s promise that with foresight, children will sit beneath trees a thousand years old that Melissa wrote about as a child.
The answer is, in the case of the federally endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel, a resounding yes. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission with the aid of North Carolina Department of Transportation, Duke Energy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service has extended a helping hand, uh, pole — make that poles.
NCWRC and partners have erected three flying squirrel crossings along the Cherohala Skyway that runs from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tenn. The crossings consist of tall utility poles erected on either side of the Skyway. The poles serve as launching and/or landing pads for this small arboreal rodent whose preferred method of locomotion is gliding through the forest from tree to tree.
The two subspecies of flying squirrels found in the Southern Appalachians — Carolina northern flying squirrel and Virginia northern flying squirrel — are both endangered. Biologists believe these two subspecies are relic populations of northern flying squirrels that were stranded in the fir and spruce forests of the high peaks of the Appalachians when the last ice age receded.
The tawny red Carolina northern flying squirrel is about a foot long and weighs less than a pound. It is slightly larger than its ubiquitous gray cousin, the southern flying squirrel that is found primarily below 4,000 feet. The Carolina northern flying squirrel is found at high elevations (generally above 4,500 feet) in Western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. It is known from nine locations in the state.
The completion of the Cherohala Skyway in the mid-1990s essentially divided the Carolina northern flying squirrels of the Unicoi Mountains into two populations, one on either side of the Skyway. The northern flying squirrel can glide about 160 feet. The roadbed, right-of-way and shoulder maintenance along the Skyway created too wide of a canopy gap and telemetry studies showed that the squirrels were not crossing the road.
Segmenting and/or restricting the movements of even healthy populations of wildlife are never good things. They reduce the gene pool and limit foraging, breeding and denning habitat. In the case of small, imperiled populations like the Carolina northern flying squirrel, such effects can be devastating.
The flying squirrel crossings erected in 2008 are having a positive effect. “Carolina Northern flying squirrels have been documented using and exploring all six poles in three corridors along the Skyway. Spring and summer seem to be the peak time for dispersal, though we also have documented flying squirrels crossing in fall and winter, even during a snowstorm,” said NCWRC biologist Chris Kelly.
Cherohala Skyway managers have implemented a “do not mow” policy at these squirrel-crossing sites. They hope to encourage native tree growth at these corridors so the poles can eventually be removed.
These crossing poles are clearly having a positive impact but Carolina northern flying squirrels are seeing their share of negative impacts. These little critters depend on conifers. The conifers are not only used for food and denning but the conifer oil that is ingested when the squirrel feeds on conifer cones and fungi that grows on conifer roots seems to deter a debilitating intestinal parasite, strongyloides robustus, that can make the squirrel unable to reproduce.
And conifers have been under attack for decades in the Southern Appalachians. First the balsam woolly adelgid decimated the fraser firs. Now the hemlock woolly adelgid is doing the same to the eastern hemlock. The loss of high-elevation hemlocks in the Unicoi Mountains is especially troubling. Carolina northern flying squirrels have been able to rely on red spruces in much of their former spruce-fir habitat. But the Unicois lost their spruce-fir component four to five thousand years ago due to a slight temperature rise. The eastern hemlock is the only high-elevation conifer left in the Unicois and its future looks bleak.
You can help NCWRC in its mission to protect the Carolina northern flying squirrel and other non-game species through the Tax Check-off for Nongame and Endangered Wildlife on your state income tax form. Checking line No. 27 lets taxpayers designate part or all of their state tax refunds to this fund.
To learn more about the “squirrel crossings” and to see a couple of cool videos visit www.ncwildlife.org/videos/index.htm#n_flying_squirrel.
A beautiful morning and Lake Junaluska was calling again. I approached the lake along Golf Course Road on the side that borders U.S. 19. A thick white mist was rising from the warm water into the crisp morning air and the coots were disappearing from the surface and popping back up like giant black corks bobbing in the water. There is definitely no shortage of coots at the lake this fall.
My first stop was at the pull off just before North Lakeshore, across from the wetlands. Across the lake was a group of around a dozen redheads. These handsome diving ducks regularly grace the lake from time to time now through spring. This particular group has been around since the last cold snap. Near the redheads was a pair of gadwalls. Gadwalls are mallard-sized puddle ducks. The male is gray with black tail coverts. The hen gadwall can look a lot like a mallard hen but the mallard hen usually shows a blue speculum (wing patch) when resting and/or swimming while the hen gadwall generally shows a small white patch (from the inner secondaries) near the rump.
A raft of ruddy ducks was napping out from the large parking area near the chapel. Ruddy ducks have been regular winter visitors over the past few years and their population seems to be growing, there were at least 40 present last Saturday.
I was surprised to find an immature pine warbler foraging in one of the spruces near the cross. We occasionally get pine warblers passing through in the spring and fall but November 13 seems a little late.
A stop across from the lake at the Waynesville Greenway parking area on Richland Creek produced white-throated sparrows and a pair of hairy woodpeckers.
Another pleasant surprise was three or four rusty blackbirds gorging themselves on dogwood berries at the lake. The rusty blackbird is named for its gorgeous rust-tinged winter plumage. Rusty blackbird numbers have dropped precipitously since the 1960s and biologists are trying to discover the causes. Smithsonian and partners have created the International Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group to try and discover the causes of the decline and work to help re-establish the population. You can google “rusty blackbird working group” to learn about these efforts.