Ten years later and one hurdle leapt — there will be more. Last week the 10th U.S. Circuit court of Appeals upheld the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule after the state of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association brought suit claiming the rule was in violation of the law.
The Roadless Rule, which imposed restrictions on logging, mining and road building in roadless areas within our national forests was one of the last hurrahs of the Clinton administration — published in the Federal Register on Jan. 12, 2001. However, soon after George W. Bush was sworn into office Jan. 20, 2001, new White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card issued a memo instructing all cabinet secretaries to delay all last-minute rules and regulations put into place by the Clinton administration.
On May 10, 2001, Federal Judge Edward Lodge issued a preliminary injunction barring the rule from taking affect. Then in a strange turn of events, the Bush administration actually defended the Roadless Rule in August 2002, and in December 2002 a federal appeals court reinstated the rule.
But the ping-pong ball didn’t stop there. In 2004 the Bush administration proposed a new rule to replace the old Roadless Rule, offering governors a petitioning process allowing them to manage roadless areas within their state. Since that time the ping-pong game has raged with various, seemingly conflicting federal court rulings, at times upholding and at times overturning the new Roadless Rule.
In August 2009, the Obama administration, in support of the national roadless rule, appealed a Wyoming Federal District Court ruling. That appeal went to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver and on Oct. 21, the 10th Circuit Court reversed the Wyoming decision.
This decision is certainly great news for wildlands, wild ecosystems, wildlife and the people who support and revere all of the above. And while it is surely a decision to celebrate, it is not the be all, end all. Both the governor of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association are mumbling about an appeal.
There are two things certain. The original Roadless Rule of 2001 was one of the most publicly vetted policy initiatives of all time. There were over 600 public meetings and 1.6 million comments received by the forest service. The next greatest number of public comments for any type of policy initiative was 275,000 in 1998 regarding organic food standards. And of the 1.6 million comments, more than 90 percent favored the rule. So there is little doubt about how the public feels regarding the protection of our wildlands.
The second thing that’s sure is there are plenty of deep pockets that see those wildlands as profit-producing commodities, and deep pockets always seem to have a prominent place at the table when it comes to public policy.
This one is going to the Supreme Court.
“Mariah blows the stars around
And sends the clouds a’flyin’
Mariah makes the mountains sound
Like folks were up there dying”
We recently spent a weekend on Isle of Palms. When we hit the bridge over Cooper River on the Isle of Palms connector, the wind hit us in the face and it blew every second of every day we were there. And it blew hard and steady, probably 15 to 20 mph on the marsh side of the island and 20 mph plus on the beach. The sand on the beach peppered you like a sand blaster; even kids gave up after 45 minutes or so.
On the marsh side, where we were staying, things weren’t so bad. We didn’t turn the air-conditioning on the whole time we were there — a couple of open windows and/or sliding doors and it was quite comfortable and the sound was soothing. The tall marsh grass waved and bowed before the determined zephyr and birds either spirited past riding the aiding tailwind or rowed vigorously into the crushing headwind.
We went out on the long dock to let the girls do some crabbing — a kind of blue crab catch and release program. At first the blustery embrace was refreshing and welcoming — the warm air pressing against your skin.
But it just never stopped, and it made anything you were doing just a bit more difficult. You couldn’t simply lay the bag of crab bait on the dock — you had to be sure it was anchored down. Almost anything and everything had to be secured if you weren’t holding on to it. One bag got away, but luckily it stuck in the marsh grass not too far out. We sent Izzy out in the kayak to retrieve it. The ebbing tide and constant wind gave her a bit of a workout.
It’s easy to see why humans are so intent on finding effective efficient ways to harness the power of the wind. It is, indeed, a force to be reckoned with.
When I worked offshore it wasn’t uncommon, especially in winter, to see lines of tugs with empty barges lashed together and tied to moorings in the Intracoastal Waterway. They were “wind bound” — meaning the wind made it too difficult for the tugs to maneuver the empty barges. I saw something quite similar on a trip to California in the early 90s — the gale force Santa Annas had miles of 18-wheelers parked (wind bound) along the interstate.
In the simplest sense, wind is air moving from high pressure to lower pressure. In the case of small, strong short-lived systems like thunderstorms the flow of air can be direct from high to low pressure. However, for most large-scale weather patterns the flow is not direct. The rotation of the earth deflects the flow of air to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere, so the wind gets caught up in a circular motion, rotating around the high and/or low pressure areas. The closer the high and low-pressure systems are to each other the stronger the wind.
Like so much in nature, a little bit is a good thing, a light breeze to cool a sweltering summer afternoon or the rustle in the trees outside the bedroom window, but too much of a good thing — like tornadic winds, hurricanes, etc. — can be devastating. And like most impressive aspects of nature, wind can be inspiring:
“Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley – “Ode to the West Wind”
But the constant wind-blown second by wind-blown second from the other weekend left me thinking more along the lines of Catherine the Great: “A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.”
How did it get to be October already? Oh well, it’s here and the deep red sourwoods shinning from the road shoulder as we climbed up the Saluda grade on I-26 from one last weekend to the beach, plus pockets of color on distant mountain peaks, said it all – “it’s leaf season.” So, here is a little leaf-season primer.
Where does all that color come from? Well the yellows, orange and golds are produced by carotene (carotin) and xanthophylls. These pigments are present in the leaves already but are masked by the green chlorophyll produced during the growing season.
The red colors are produced a bit differently. The red comes from anthocyanin pigments. Anthocyanins are not present in the leaf during the growing season but are produced at the end of summer in the sap cells present in the leaf. The amount of anthocyanin (red) produced can depend on a lot of different things. One is the species of tree — sourwood, red maple, sugar maple and black gum are some of the trees noted for their red color. But even the genetics of a particular tree can play a large part. It’s not uncommon to see two red maples side by side — one brilliant red and one with splashes of red but lots of yellow. The red one is genetically predisposed to produce more anthocyanin.
And then there’s the weather. The perfect red scenario is bright sunny days — the sunshine aids the production of the sugars in the leaves that produce the anthocyanins — then cold autumn nights, below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, that inhibit the trees from translocating the sugars to the roots, trunk, etc essentially trapping them in the leaves.
While red and sugar maples often produce red fall foliage, striped or mountain maple generally produces golden-yellow. Other trees in the yellow group include birch, tulip poplar, the deciduous magnolias, beech and hickories.
Other factors that play a part in color production include the health and vigor of the particular tree and even the soil type. It’s easy to see how, with all these mitigating factors, each fall is a crapshoot when it comes to color. But weighing heavily in our favor here in Western North Carolina is the diversity, breath and scope of our Southern Appalachian forests. There are more tree species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone than in the whole northern half of the European continent. The diversity of species, the myriad of habitats and the variation in local, microclimates, guarantees that there will be outstanding fall color somewhere, every fall. Of course, under optimal conditions it will be more widespread but as I have said in this column before, “… this October is going to be the best leaf season we’re going to have this year. And don’t be afraid to get out on those drizzly, overcast days.
While we all revel in those bluebird autumn days when we can see multi-colored ridge after multi-colored ridge stretching to the horizon like a rumpled patchwork quilt, clouds and fog can produce their own striking effects.
Avid birder and burgeoning cyclist Lena Gallitano has come up with an ambitious plan to combine two of her passions. Gallitano will take part in Cycle North Carolina’s annual fall ride. This year’s trek will be a modest 500-mile affair from Elkin, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Outer Bank’s Corolla.
Now I don’t know if it was a lack of oxygen to the brain from all that pedaling or an endorphin induced “biker’s high” moment of revelation, but according to Gallitano the idea came to her during one of her training rides this past spring. “On the greenways in Raleigh this spring, I did a lot of birding by ear while riding my bike which made me think … is there a way I can turn this challenging adventure into something more worthwhile? The birds made my training rides more pleasurable and I’ve been a member of Audubon for many years so that’s when it clicked: I could make the ride a fundraiser called Bike for Birds,” recounted Gallitano.
Of course, for those who know Lena it comes as no surprise that birds were in her ears, on her mind and in her heart as she was cycling Raleigh’s greenways. The North Carolina native has a long history of working on behalf of her feathered friends. Gallitano is a long-time member and past president of Wake Audubon Society. She has served on the boards of Audubon North Carolina and the Carolina bird Club. As soon as she retired from North Carolina State University, where she worked for the Cooperative Extension Service, Gallitano focused much of her time and energy working on environmental, educational and conservation projects that benefit birds and other North Carolina wildlife by protecting and enhancing the wild places they need to survive and thrive.
That hard work was recognized in 2004, when she not only won Audubon North Carolina’s 2004 Volunteer of the Year award for her grassroots efforts in opposing the U.S. Navy’s plan for locating an outlying landing field adjacent to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, but was also awarded the Governor’s Award as Wildlife Volunteer of the Year by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation for her work in helping to make the North Carolina Birding Trail a reality.
Did I say combining two of her passions? I meant combining three of her passions. Gallitano has also served on the board of N.C. Beautiful whose mission statement is: “To foster environmental stewardship through education and outreach to perpetuate the natural beauty of North Carolina.”
And there will be no shortage of natural beauty on this year’s Cycle N.C.’s fall ride. The tour will start in Elkin, where 1,000 or so riders will hit North Carolina’s scenic backroads for their trip to the coast. There will be stops at Autumn Creek Vineyards plus other venues in communities such as Mebane, Henderson, Rocky Mount, Manteo and Corolla. After all, there’s no rule that says you can’t have fun performing a good deed but remember, even through beautiful scenery 500 miles is still 500 miles.
If you want to support Lena, North Carolina’s varied bird life and/or Audubon North Carolina please contribute to her Bike for Birds fundraiser. You can mail your tax deductible donation to Audubon North Carolina, 123 Kingston Drive, Suite 206 Chapel Hill, NC 27514 please make your check out to Bike for Birds. There is also an online giving page at www.ncaudubon.org. Audubon North Carolina member and Bike for Birds supporter, Bon Parker has announced that she will match every $20 donation with her own $20 donation up to $1,000, so $20 will get you $40 – there’s a deal!
All donations will directly support the work of Audubon North Carolina, supporting its vital work of managing 19 coastal sanctuaries, monitoring 96 Important Bird Areas, protecting imperiled species like golden-winged warblers, cerulean warblers and the largest colony of beach-nesting least tern in North Carolina. Hope is a thing with wheels.
Migration is at full tilt across the region right now. In the passerine (songbird) department thrushes, grosbeaks and tanagers are joining in making those fallouts and mixed flocks even more exciting. And while the night skies have been busy for the last month (passerines migrate at night) some of the more notable diurnal migrants are beginning to show up across the region.
The most common diurnal migrant in the East is the broad-winged hawk. Nearly two million broad-wingeds nest in North America and overwinter in Central and South America. These chunky, crow-sized raptors and other larger-bodied birds such as eagles, ospreys, wood storks, cranes and pelicans utilize thermals and updrafts to aid them in their southerly journey. Hawk Watches along the broad-winged’s migration path, many of them setup and maintained by volunteers, help scientist monitor this species.
Caesar’s Head State Park, located on U.S. 276 in South Carolina, just south of Brevard, is probably the most notable Hawk Watch in the area. Nearly 10,000 broad-wings are reported annually from Caesar’s Head from mid-September till early October. As of Sept. 17 only 46 broad-wings had been recorded at Caesar’s Head, so if you have some free time between now and the first of October there are lots of birds still left to come through. The close-knit group of volunteers who keep a tab on broad-wings at Caesar’s Head call themselves the Wing Nuts. Wing Nuts are always happy to share with fellow birders and/or interested onlookers.
The mountain passes accessible along the Blue Ridge Parkway offer a myriad of opportunities to find migrating songbirds. While migrants may be found almost anywhere along the Parkway during migration there are some time-tested spots. Ridge Junction Overlook at the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park at milepost 355.5 is one of those spots. This is a great place to spend a morning from now through the middle of October, and it’s easy migrant chasing – just bring a lawn chair and setup shop – the migrants will come to you. Some other notable spots to catch migrants on the Parkway include Craggy Gardens, Craggy Pinnacle, Walker Knob Overlook, Heintooga Ridge Road and Big Witch Gap.
A short trip to Rankin Bottoms in Cocke County, Tennessee, can provide some fine shorebird watching in the mountains. Shorebirding at Rankin Bottoms depends on the water level in Lake Douglas and each fall the Tennessee Valley Authority begins to draw down the lake leaving acres of exposed mudflats attracting weary migrants looking for a place to rest and refuel.
Some recent finds at Rankin bottoms include short-billed dowitcher, lesser yellowlegs, sanderlings, least, western, stilt and semipalmated sandpipers plus shovelers and blue-winged teal. To get to Rankin Bottoms from Waynesville, take I-40 west to exit 432 B. That will put you on U.S. 25/70. Follow U.S. 25 east out of Newport to Rankin Hill Road (I would estimate about five miles, but I have never measured it). Follow Rankin Hill Road to the railroad crossing. At the crossing take Hill Road to the left and follow it to the bottoms.
But even if you can’t sneak away to the Parkway or Caesar’s Head or Ranking Bottoms, you can find migrants by just being aware. As I sat down today (Sun. 9/18) to write this column, I noticed some movement in one of the dogwood trees out my window. I went outside to find a small flock of thrushes stuffing themselves with the bright red berries. In about half an hour from my deck and back yard I counted more than 20 species of birds. There were three different thrushes in the yard – Swainson’s, wood and gray-cheeked. I saw six different species of warblers — black-and-white, magnolia, worm-eating, hooded, black-throated blue and Tennessee. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds and year-round residents like Carolina chickadee and tufted titmouse rounded out the list. Migration will soon be over till spring, but right now, there’s still time.
Friday, Sept. 23, is the autumn solstice. The solstice is about balance and harmony — the day and night are equal. Here in the Smokies, we wave goodbye to summer as Joe-pye and goldenrod fade, apples and pumpkins brighten and leaves begin to turn. We turn our focus to fall and that short spate of time when the mountains will dance in a kaleidoscope of colors while we gather the harvest and make provision for winter. Nature’s own rhythmic cycles are evident as the night skies fill with migrants, squirrels gather mast and bears and other hibernators prepare for their long winter’s sleep. Those are the primordial rhythms of this place (Southern Appalachia) we call home. And what better time than the autumn solstice to join in celebration of this place?
Voices from the American Land along with local partners Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, The Wilderness Society, Tuckasegee Reader, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South, Canary Coalition, Mad Batter Café, Tuckasegee Alliance, New Native Press and City Lights bookstore present Every Breath Sings Mountains, a chapbook of poetry celebrating the Great Smoky Mountains and this place we call home. The celebration will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23, in the community room of the Jackson County Public Library Complex on Main Street in downtown Sylva.
Every Breath Sings a Mountain is a compilation of poems from three local authors with deep and abiding connections to this place:
• Thomas Rain Crowe is an award winning author, poet an essayist. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment for 2006. Crowe’s literary archives have been purchased by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He is a respected, outspoken advocate for the conservation and protection of the Southern Appalachian landscape, her people and her culture. Crowe lives on a small farm along the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.
• Barbara R. Duncan is education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which she co-authored with Brett Riggs, received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Her book Living Stories of the Cherokee received a Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and World Storytelling Award. The singer-songwriter has also written a poetry chapbook, Crossing Cowee Mountain. Duncan lives on a tributary of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.
• Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society. Martin is a recipient of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s James S. Dockery Environmental Leadership Award. Martin has published two collections of poetry, Poems from Snow Hill and A Shout in the Woods. Martin’s poems and essays have appeared in Pisgah Review, North Carolina Literary Review, New Southerner, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. Martin lives in the Cowee community.
Every Breath Sings a Mountain is illustrated by Celo community resident Robert Johnson. Johnson’s work, which focuses on our vanishing natural environment has been exhibited and collected in galleries and museums across the Southeast from Washington, D.C. to Georgia.
Helping these poets celebrate our special place will be Western Carolina University historian George Frizzell, Jackson County farmer and former commissioner William Shelton, and Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe. There will also be “a conversation with authors” featuring authors Charles Frazier, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, George Ellison and Keith Flynn. The Ian Moore Song & Dance Bluegrass Ensemble will provide music. There will also be a meet-the-authors book-signing reception catered by the Mad Batter Café. And all audience members will receive a free copy of the chapbook.
On Aug. 24 Chinquapin soared into the dangerous northeast quadrant of then category 3 Hurricane Irene. The Lockheed Martin C-130 – Hercules, a behemoth of an airplane originally designed for the military to transport troops and equipment like utility helicopters and armored vehicles is the preferred means for crashing through the wall of a hurricane.
Chinquapin, on the other hand, is about 18 inches long and weighs about a pound. Chinquapin is a whimbrel – a sandy-brown shorebird with dark scallops on its wings and back, fine brown streaking on its breast and long decurved bill. Chinquapin is part of a collaborative long-term study sponsored by The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences to study the migration of whimbrels.
Whimbrels are known long-distance migrants, often covering nearly 5,000 miles between their nesting grounds in Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada and wintering grounds in Central and South America. However, little was known about the details of this migration. Researchers alarmed by steep declines in whimbrel populations and buoyed by new technology that allows these long distance migrants to be outfitted with tiny (1/3-ounce) geolocators began capturing whimbrels and outfitting them with the tiny tracking devices to monitor their migration paths.
According to Bryan Watts, director of the CCB, the monitoring is part of an integrated investigation into whimbrel migration. Researchers are learning a great deal about this traveler’s migration habits. Watts said the study is showing the tremendous importance of relatively small areas the birds use for staging and refueling during migration, nesting and overwintering. According to Watts, “Connecting the dots throughout an entire life cycle is something that’s new and just coming over the horizon in the study of migratory birds — the connectivity of places that are separated by such great distances.”
Chinquapin, named after the creek on Little Egg Island Bar, along the coast of Georgia where he was captured in May 2010, already has one amazing migration documented. Chinquapin left Georgia on May 27, 2010, and headed north, possibly breeding in Canada’s Northwest Territories. After the breeding season, Chinquapin meandered over to Coates Island in the northern Hudson Bay where he hung around for 24 days. Then in the early morning hours of Aug. 5, 2010, he was airborne. He flew down the length of James Bay, over Quebec, over Maine and into the open Atlantic. Around Aug. 8, Chinquapin encountered the edge of Tropical Storm Colin and took a 300-mile detour around Bermuda. Chinquapin set down on Playa de Isabela in Puerto Rico on Aug. 10, after five days of non-stop flight covering roughly 3,500 miles.
This year, Chinquapin left Southampton Island in the upper Hudson Bay on Aug. 20 and encountered Irene on Wednesday Aug. 24 after four days of non-stop flight. According to flight data, it looks like Chinquapin made it through most of Irene before taking a hard right and backtracking just a bit to make landfall on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.
Researchers were amazed at the bird’s ability to find a tiny island in the middle of the ocean in the middle of a hurricane. “They seem to have this amazing ability to know exactly where they are at any time. We’ve had birds go 1,000 to 1,500 miles offshore of Bermuda and still be able to navigate effectively,” Watts said. Signals from Chinquapin’s geolocator on Sunday, Aug. 28, suggest Chinquapin is well and foraging on the island. Researches expect he will rest and recharge for a number of days on the island before making the last leg of his flight to Brazil.
I just wanted to shout an amen to brother George Ellison’s Aug. 10 Back Then column, “Late summer is an awesome time to botanize.” I am a big fan of a couple of those late summer beauties – cardinal flower and ironweed.
When it comes to red, few plants can match the intense, rich, velvet-red of the cardinal flower. Lobelia cardinalis was named after the Belgian botanist Mathias de L’Obel who often used the “Latinized” form of his name — Lobelius. The species name, cardinalis was inspired by the red of the Roman Catholic Cardinals’ robes. It was officially named from specimen collected in Canada in the mid 1620s.
Cardinal flower grows from 2- to 4-feet tall. The flowering spike that tops the plant can reach two feet or more in length. The crimson blossoms open from the bottom up, and blooms can continue for weeks. The petals are united to create a two-lipped corolla.
The Cherokee and other Indian tribes used cardinal flower both medicinally and for ceremonies. One of the common names for the plant is Indian tobacco. While it does have medicinal qualities it can also be quite toxic. Extracts from the leaves and fruits of cardinal flower can cause sweating, vomiting, severe pain and even death. So, unless you know what you’re doing, it’s probably best to just enjoy the beauty of this wild jewel.
Cardinal flowers make great additions to hummingbird and/or butterfly gardens. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are one of the primary pollinators of cardinal flower.
I have had my eye on a small stand of cardinal flower growing at the edge of the woods on the road to my home for several years. When I first noticed it years ago, there were two or three plants. It would occasionally double in size but then return to just a couple of stalks. But this year the size of the stand has more than doubled and there are a dozen or more of the rich velvet-red spikes glowing from the forest shadows.
Cardinal flower is often marketed as a perennial, but it isn’t. Individual plants may live for a number of years but they eventually die. However, new shoots generally grow, from the axils of the lower-most leaves and usually put down roots before the original plant dies. It is, of course, also propagated by seeds.
Another favorite of mine that George mentioned in his column, New York ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, is also found in a couple of spots along the shoulder of the road to my house, but it is much more common in meadows, open fields or waste areas, especially those that are moist. New York ironweed can grow 6- to 10-feet tall and instead of a spike, its flowers are found in a kind of round, flat-topped inflorescence called a corymb. The flowers at the outside of the corymb open first and then blooming progresses to the center. New York ironweed, like cardinal flower blooms for a long period. The flowers are most often a deep rich purple but, occasionally, can lean to the bluish-lavender side. Ironweed is also a great plant for butterfly gardens.
A great place to see cardinal flower and ironweed together with some Joe-pye and goldenrod thrown in as lagniappe is at the intersection of Bethel Road (U.S. 276) and Raccoon Road just outside of Waynesville.
I can always count on Rankin Bottoms Wildlife Refuge when I need a Loosiana Delta fix. This musky backwater with its willow groves, bald cypress, cottonwoods and buttonbush is the antithesis of the cool clear, swift mountain streams common to the Western Carolina mountains.
Situated at the confluence of the Nolichucky and French Broad Rivers at the eastern end of Lake Douglas just north of Newport, Tenn., in Cocke County, Rankin Bottom swells in the summertime behind the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Douglas Dam to flood most of the 1,255-acre Rankin Wildlife Management Area.
The flooded willow groves of Rankin Bottoms are great places to explore by canoe or kayak from late spring through Labor Day, while TVA keeps the water level up (992 feet target level) during summer. The wet and wild habitat is home to prothonotary warblers, willow flycatchers, Baltimore and orchard orioles, eastern kingbirds, yellow-throated vireos, osprey, common egrets, wood ducks plus a large colony of cliff swallows under the bridge across the French Broad at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s boat launch and many, many more.
TVA begins to lower Lake Douglas around Labor Day and as the water recedes exposing mudflats, Rankin Bottoms becomes a hotspot for migrating shorebirds, waders and waterfowl. Various species of sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, yellowlegs and others can be seen in fall and spring migration. I have also seen white pelicans and tundra swans at Rankin. Different species of terns and gulls are also commonly found at Rankin Bottoms from fall through spring.
My birding buddy, Bob Olthoff, and I took a trip up to Rankin Bottoms recently (Aug. 7). It not only looked like Louisiana, it felt like Louisiana. It was around 77 degrees Fahrenheit when we got there at about 8 a.m. and it just got hotter and muggier.
The water was still high. There was a bit of exposed shoreline but we didn’t find any shorebirds.
It was still a great day. We must have seen a couple of hundred common egrets. There were lots of great blue and green herons around also. And ospreys were hanging around on a couple of nests. There is quite an impressive nest on an old railroad trestle just up the French Broad a few hundred yards from the bridge. It looks like it has been refurbished continuously for a number of years. It’s at least 3-feet high and 3-feet across.
We stood along side the railroad track at one point, overlooking the bottom and recorded about 20 species. These included a good cross section of water birds and passerines like common egret, great blue heron, green heron, wood duck, double-crested cormorant, eastern kingbird, prothonotary warbler, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, red-eyed vireo, Baltimore oriole and others.
We also encountered my first of the year, monarch butterfly and a beautiful fresh male black swallowtail nectaring on buttonbush. Bob and I have found zebra swallowtails at Rankin bottoms in the past.
To get to Rankin Bottoms from Waynesville, take I-40 west to exit 432 B. That will put you on U.S. 25/70. Follow U.S. 25 east out of Newport to Rankin Hill Road (I would estimate about five miles, but I have never measured it). Follow Rankin Hill Road to the railroad crossing. At the crossing take Hill Road to the left and follow it to the bottoms.
If you go looking for shorebirds as the water recedes this fall, you may want to go in the late afternoon. Most of the mudflats are east of the road and it can be a difficult sun field in the morning. Shorebird viewing is best when Douglas Lake is between 980 and 990 feet. When the level drops below 975 feet all of Rankin bottoms is exposed and shorebirds begin to move downriver. To get reservoir elevation call 800.238.2264, Douglas Reservoir is #07.
I was all set to write about the annual summer fireworks displayed every August on that really big screen above our heads, brought to us free of charge by the comet Swift-Tuttle and sponsored by your universe.
Then I looked at a lunar table — arrrggghh, not much dampens a meteor shower like light. And a big ole full moon is going to be with us from before sunset on August 13 — supposedly the peak of this year’s Perseid meteor shower — till after sunrise August 14. And to make matters worse, some Internet sleuthing discerned that the best time to peek at Perseids this year would likely come just before dawn, today, August 10, before this week’s edition of the Smoky Mountain News hits the streets.
But, wait, there’s still hope. There will be a decent viewing window Thursday morning, since the full moon will set around 4:30 a.m. but sunrise isn’t until around 6:45 a.m.
Friday morning will offer the same type of scenario but with only about an hour of decent viewing time.
But remember, as we approach the peak of the Perseids, there could be 20 or more meteors or “falling stars” in a single hour. Also remember that August 13th is the peak, the Perseids will continue, though in smaller numbers, through the end of the month and that pesky ole moon will be down to a sliver by August 21.
Between midnight and dawn are the best times to search for Perseids, even on moonless nights as they radiate from the constellation Perseus the Hero, which rises into the northeastern sky around 11 p.m. in August.
Think of the earth as your sleek sports coupe and the night sky is your windshield. Between midnight and dawn you’re screaming down the Autobahn pointed at Perseus, and the Perseids are like love bugs on a Florida interstate headed straight for your windshield. When these tiny bugs — usually pea-sized bits of cosmic comet debris — strike your windshield (the Earth’s atmosphere) at thousands of miles per hour the friction ignites them like flares. The friction is so great it actually breaks the molecules, both of the meteoroid and the molecules of the atmosphere. These glowing, ionized particles then recombine, releasing light energy, behind the meteoroid, which is traveling at 40 miles per second so the tail can stretch behind for miles.
Now some astronomers like to take their coupe for a cruise earlier in the evening. At this time, the radiant is lower on the horizon and instead of striking your windshield head on, the cosmic bugs will slide by, past your side windows.
Astronomers call these glancing meteors “Earthgrazers” and they can produce exceptionally long and colorful tails.
And if you’re determined to watch for Perseids during their peak on August 13th, in the glow of the full Green Corn Moon, the EarthSky website offers this advice:
“Sprawl out in a moon shadow. The best viewing on any date is from about 2 a.m. until dawn. As seen from mid-northern latitudes, the moon will be shining low in the south to southwest sky on the peak nights. That means the moon will be casting looooong shadows. Find a moon shadow somewhere that still provides a wide expanse of sky. A plateau area with high-standing mountains to the south and southwest would work just fine. If you can’t do that, find a hedgerow of trees bordering a great big hay field somewhere (though obtain permission, if it’s private land). Or simply sit in the shadow of a barn. Ensconced within a moon shadow and far from the glow of city lights, the night all of a sudden darkens while the meteors brighten.”