No, I’m not talking about those of us who stay in the warm confines at Cataloochee, nursing Ninja porters, while the kids hit the slopes. These cold-weather wimps are ruby-throated hummingbirds. As most of you hummer-watchers know, our ruby-throats, basically the only nesting hummers in the eastern U.S., have generally all departed for warmer climes by the end of October. But are the times and maybe the climes changing?
My recent (Jan. 8-16) weekly installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond” titled “Winter Hummingbirds in the U.S. (Ruby-Throats & Global Warming)” raised some really interesting questions. This Week at Hilton Pond is a weekly e-newsletter produced by Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History’s executive director Bill Hilton Jr.
Hilton is no stranger to winter hummers. He has banded more than 80 winter hummers since 1991. I met Hilton back in 2002 when he came to the residence of Ted and Ann Kirby in Waynesville and banded a rufous hummingbird that had taken up residence — see www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/ 11_02/11_27_02/out_lola.html.
Hilton noted in the newsletter that despite all the vagrant hummers he had banded he had never banded a ruby-throated after Oct. 18 or before March 27. But according to Hilton’s account all of that changed this past December when he got a call from a friend from Buxton. This friend, who lives between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, reported that she had at least a half-dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds coming to feeders in her yard.
Hilton said they arrived in Buxton around 1:30 p.m. and that by 2 p.m. they had their first ruby-throat (a female) in the trap. In two days at Buxton, Hilton banded nine winter ruby-throats, seven (five females and two immature males) in his friend’s yard and two other females at an alternate site. Hilton noted that all the hummers were healthy and one was even going through its annual mid-winter molt.
Hilton, like any good scientist, is never more than a reflective moment away from “why” and/or “how.” And like any good scientist he would never posit one event as proof of anything, but keen anecdotal observations are the precursor of any hypothesis worth more study.
Hilton reflects that the warm Gulf Stream is only about 10 miles offshore of the Outer Banks and that it helps to moderate winter temps. But, “… even though the Gulf Stream has been this close for millennia there were NO reports of winter ruby-throats in North Carolina before about 1995 or so,” writes Hilton. He believes that ruby-throats on the Outer Banks may be benefiting from ever-so-slight increases in annual winter temperatures – gasp! “Climate change.”
Hilton writes, “… Mountaintop glaciers melting … polar ice fields shrinking … droughts worsening … severe storms increasing … ocean levels rising (and even affecting dunes and beaches at Cape Hatteras National Seashore) … and now “cold weather wimp” ruby-throated hummingbirds wintering where they never have before …” and wonders out loud, “… if – because of their recently acquired ability to survive WITHOUT migrating to the neotropics – ruby-throated hummingbirds are THE species that finally drives home the point that global warming is for real?”
To read Hilton’s entertaining narrative regarding the winter ruby-throats (along with his usual outstanding photography) and/or to learn more about Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History visit www.hiltonpond.org.
Thanks to a head’s up from Tim Carstens last Sunday morning (1/15), I saw a drake northern pintail, Anas acuta, at Lake Junaluska. This “nomad of the sky” is cosmopolitan in distribution, breeding in northern Europe, Asia and North America. Its range has been estimated at more than 11 million square miles and it is known to overwinter as far south as Panama, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Some even make it to Hawaii and other Pacific Islands for their winter break. Not even oceans can deter this sleek strong flyer. One pintail tagged in Labrador, Canada, was found nine days later in England and several pintails tagged in Japan have been recovered from the U.S., as far east as Mississippi.
In North America, the northern pintail breeds from the prairie pothole region of the Upper Midwest across Canada and Alaska. Nearly half of this population migrates through California. Many overwinter in California’s Central Valley but others continue south to the west coast of Mexico. Northern pintails in the Central Flyway overwinter from the Texas Panhandle down to the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, most of those in the Mississippi Flyway spend their winter in Louisiana with smaller numbers spread throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. The primary wintering range for northern pintails in the Atlantic Flyway is along the Atlantic coast of New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. North Carolina generally accounts for 50 percent or more of this population.
The drake northern pintail is one handsome dude. The head is chocolate brown with a clean white stripe that snakes up from the white breast and neck. The back and sides are slate-gray with black highlights and it has a bright white rump patch. The “pin” tail is long. It can account for a quarter of the total length of an adult mail in breeding plumage. The middle two tail feathers are black and the outside ones are gray with white margins. An iridescent green speculum is displayed in flight and the bill is blue with a black stripe in the center and black margins.
The female is more muted with a tawny head and a mottled brown and white body. Her bill is dark blue-gray, usually with darker blotches. The female has a rather long pointed tail as duck tails go, but nothing comparable to the male’s pin.
The drake’s tail accounts for most of the colloquial names — like spiketail, sprigtail, sprig, etc. but I knew them in Louisiana as snakeheads. I’m not sure of the origin of this name, but I’ve heard two accounts. One is the white stripe that “snakes” up the drake’s head and the other is in reference to the bird’s habits. Pintails are a skittish lot and when they’re on the water and they become alarmed they raise their heads up on their long snake-like necks to get a better look around.
Because of the pintail’s immense range and global population it is listed as a species of least concern. However, the northern pintail’s North American population has been in a tailspin since the late 1950s. Numbers have dropped from an estimated 10 million in 1957 to around 3 million today. Disease has played a part in the loss of North American pintails, both in the past and more recently. Two outbreaks of avian botulism in Canada and Utah in 1997 claimed close to a million pintails. But loss of habitat and changes in agriculture appear to be the most serious threats to North American pintails.
Numbers from the Atlantic Flyway mirror this dramatic decline. The Atlantic Flyway Midwinter Survey recorded an average of about 250,000 birds in the late 1950s. Today’s survey records about 50,000 pintails.
North Carolina joined South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Florida in 2004 to create a multiagency project committed to finding ways to reverse this population decline.
Cranes are cool. These big beautiful graceful birds jolt the souls of non-birders and birders alike. At five feet tall, the snow-white adult whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. The whooper has a red patch on its face and the top of its head. The wingtips are black.
The whooper has been teetering on the brink of extinction for years. Fossilized evidence of whooping cranes dates back to the Pleistocene, when whoopers ranged from Canada to Mexico and from Utah to the Atlantic seaboard. Biologists believe whooping cranes numbered in the tens of thousands when European settlers arrived in North and Central America. Early explorers documented whooping cranes from 35 states in the U. S., six Canadian provinces and four Mexican states. But these big, impressive birds were big targets and over-hunting and loss of habitat quickly decimated the population. By 1941 there were only 16 of these majestic birds left in the world.
Today, the population of whooping cranes hovers at around 525 individuals. About 300 of those belong to the only native migratory flock of whoopers in the world that nest in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and overwinter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf coast. There are two non-migratory reintroduced flocks of about 50 birds each in Florida and Louisiana, and the last 100 or so are part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s (WCEP) efforts to re-establish an eastern migratory flock. The WCEP flock nests in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and overwinters in Florida.
North Carolina birders got a thrill this year when a pair of WCEP whoopers took up residence in December in Clay County. As word of the presence of these visitors spread the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a press release asking birders and other onlookers to respect the birds’ privacy so they can go about their daily routine without being disturbed. The agency asks that onlookers not approach closer than 600 feet by foot and/or 300 feet by vehicle and if possible to remain in your vehicle when viewing the birds.
I am sure they don’t want a replay of 2004 when a group of whoopers migrating back to Necedah made a stopover in Macon County and curiosity seekers got too close, flushing the birds and causing one to fly into a power line. The bird apparently wasn’t injured and was able to continue its flight, but it was a close call that could have been easily avoided.
Continue farther west and the 2011 crane jazz gets even jazzier. Hiwassee Refuge near Birchwood in southeastern Tennessee is a well-known winter haven for thousands of sandhill cranes and since the WCEP started its eastern project whoopers have regularly stopped over at Hiwassee. Then, this December about the same time whoopers were spotted in Clay County, N.C. an even rarer sight appeared at Hiwassee — a Hooded Crane. The hooded crane is an Asian species, that nests in northern China and southeastern Russia. Most hooded cranes winter in southern Japan, a few winter in China and Korea.
Any way you map it, a wild hooded crane showing up in the States under its own power is one, really stray bird. Some private collectors in the States have hoodeds, as do some zoos and it will be left to rare bird committees and the American Birding Association to decide if this hooded crane will be classified as a wild — therefore “countable” bird for all the listers out there who have traveled from more than a dozen states to get a glimpse.
But even if it’s not countable — as the whoopers aren’t because they are from a captive population — there is nowhere else in the world where you can go to see a hooded crane, whooping cranes and sandhill cranes standing wingtip to wingtip in the wild.
And it came at a great time for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Hiwassee Refuge and its supporters as they prepare for their annual free Sandhill Crane Festival on Jan. 14-15.
This year’s ninth annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was held Friday Dec. 30. As I was driving home from work at 7 a.m. that Friday morning things were looking good. By the time I got a nap and met Paul Super, who had graciously agreed to help out, and his friend Patrick Flaherty beating the bushes around Autumn Care, it was about 12:30 p.m. and the wind was bllloooooowwwwiiinnggg!
Now wind is a terrible obstacle for birders. Birds are prone to sit tight rather than be buffeted around and you can’t here a chip note or song unless you’re within 50 feet or so of the source. But after last year’s 10 hours in the pouring rain, wind wasn’t so bad.
Paul and Patrick had already done the yeoman’s work, recording more than 30 species.
We left Autumn Care and went down to the vicinity of Barber’s Orchard to an area that had historically been very good for sparrows. Much of the landscape was altered due to the EPA cleanup or arsenic from the old orchard. While we were lamenting the lack of sparrows we looked up to see a gorgeous adult bald eagle, right overhead, flying low across the open spaces. That made us feel a little better about the lack of sparrows.
We kicked around a little more and flushed a pretty rufous-looking sparrow-sized bird from the brambles. We were all on the same page, thinking fox sparrow. But try as we might we could never coax the bird up again and, of course, no one got a fox sparrow for the count.
In fact the count total, 65 species, tied the record low for species. It was the same number we recorded last year and I, for one, would much rather be dry and wind-blown with 65 species than soaked to the bone with 65 species.
And while we tied our low record for bird species, we may have set a record for participation. I think Bob Olthoff, count compiler, said we had nearly 30 participants for this year’s count. It was a great mixture of tried and true troopers plus a good dose of new blood.
Paul, Patrick and I left the orchard and made a couple of short stops before making it to the Waynesville watershed. The reservoir was vacant of waterfowl for the second year in a row.
We did get to add golden-crowned kinglet, brown creeper, ruffed grouse and common raven to our list at the watershed. We still dipped on what one would think would be an easy find in the watershed — pileated woodpecker. We also didn’t have a regular winter resident in the area — hermit thrush. We decided to leave the watershed and head back to an area near the Waynesville Rec Center where we frequently find hermit thrushes in the winter. We dipped again.
By this time it was getting late and Patrick needed to go. I dropped Paul and Patrick and made one more mad dash to the watershed hoping to call up an owl at dusk. Once again — the best laid plans of mice and birders — not an owl around. But the bird gods smile and as I was dashing around the watershed, I spooked a hermit thrush that flushed and flew across the road right in front of me. It was the only one recorded on the count.
The lies, I mean stories, warm, tasty food and cool libations at Bocelli’s were as enjoyable and congenial as ever. And when we counted down the list we had two brand new species for the count despite the overall low total. Our group and one other nearby had seen the adult bald eagle and the Lake Junaluska group had an immature so we recorded two bald eagles (new species), and the Lake Junaluska group also recorded a greater scaup which was new for the circle.
As usual the Balsam CBC wishes to thank the staff and management at Bocelli’s for putting up with a bunch of noisy birders and to also thank the Town of Waynesville for access to the watershed and Waynesville residents Jim Francis and Glen Tolar for access to their private property.
The 22nd Annual Wilderness Wildlife Week is scheduled for Jan. 7-14 in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. This year’s Wildlife Week boasts 288 programs and activities. Likely due to the time of year (winter in the Smokies), the bulk of Wildlife Week’s program (240) are indoors. But these programs run the gamut from educational – Learn to use Map and Compass; Rock Formations of the Smokies; Geological Past of Smoky Mountains; Civil War in the Mountains; You & Me: Coexisting with Bears; Predator Paradox: Conflict & Conflict Resolution in Modern America; Saving the Endangered Whooping Crane: The Tennessee Connection and Current Status; to cultural - CADES COVE HERITAGE! Cades Cove Teachers! War within the Family: Civil War Gregorys; Marking Time: A Guide to the Historical Markers in East Tennessee; HERITAGE! Basket Making; Echoes of the Smokies: Epic of Elkmont; to entertaining - Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: A Hysterical History of Words; A Tennessee Music Sampler: Stories & Songs: Hills-N-Hollows; Old Time Music Concert: Boogertown Gap; Ballads of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Vicinity: Boogertown Gap; APPALACHIAFEST!
A Free Musical Celebration of Our Heritage.
But not to worry, 48 expert-led hikes provide ample opportunity to go walking in a winter wonderland. Some of the hikes scheduled include Metcalf Bottoms, Albright Grove, Old Sugarlands Trail, Ramsey Cascade, Owl Prowl, Elkmont Historic District, Llama Trek - Big Creek and birding Cades Cove.
This year’s event touts 120 new programs plus 20 programs aimed at kids. Some of the “Kids’ Track” programs include, “Whoo Did This?” (all about owls), “The Smoky Mountain Adventures of Bubba Jones” (hiking and camping for kids and adults), “Batteries NOT Included” (Appalachian toys and games) and “Photography for Kids and Parents.” “Kids’ Tracks” programs are available throughout the week, with multiple programs scheduled for Thursday Jan. 12 and Saturday Jan. 14.
Nature photography is also highlighted in this year’s Wildlife Week. The annual Wilderness Wildlife Week Photography Contest has been expanded this year to include seven divisions; amateur, professional, wildlife, landscapes/seascapes, youth & young adult (17 and under), Great Smoky Mountain Landmarks and Nature’s Wonders in Black & White.
Peggy Callahan, founder and executive director of the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minnesota will be this year’s keynote speaker. Callahan began her biology career in Forest Lake in 1985 working with the (then) “Wolf Project.” Federal funding for the “Wolf Project” dried up and the program ended but Callahan’s passion and work didn’t as she created the non-profit Wildlife Science Center at the same site and went to work providing wildlife education and research, with an emphasis on wolves. Besides greeting more than 25,000 visitors annually, the center also trains wildlife biologists from around the world. Their trainees included the Yellowstone Wolf Recovery Team prior to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
Callahan will present two programs, along with her keynote address. The first will be “Update on Ecology and Politics in the Upper Midwest” at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 7, in the Dobro/Harp Rooms and the second will be “Conflict & Conflict Resolution in Modern America at 6:45 p.m. Jan. 8 in the same venue.
Wilderness Wildlife Week is a free event. All workshops, programs and lectures are held at Music Road Hotel & Convention Center, 303 Henderson Chapel Road Pigeon Forge, Tenn. All hike and field trip sign-ups will be at the Holiday Inn Express right across the street from the convention center.
For information regarding Wilderness Wildlife Week visit http://www.mypigeonforge.com/events_winterfest_wilderness.aspx or call 1.800.251.9100.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), Wild South, the Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA) and the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition (SAFC) announced last week that they had reached an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to protect nearly 50 acres of old growth forest that had been included in a timber sale known as the Haystack project, in the Nantahala National Forest, near Franklin.
The Nantahala Ranger District has agreed to abandon two sections of the sale that included trees 100 to 200 years old. Parts of the Haystack project are near some of the same area that old growth researcher Rob Messick had delineated as the Topton Cluster back in 2000, while working with WNCA. According to Messick, old growth forest types in the Topton Cluster include dry oak, submesic oak, rich cove (mixed mesophytic), acidic cove, high elevation northern red oak, northern hardwood, and dry oak-pine.
Only about 7.5 percent of the million or so acres of forest in the Nantahala and Pisgah National forests are old growth. These old growth forests (from 100 foot-plus lush canopies, to the one to three acre forest gaps created when one of these behemoth falls, to standing dead snags and to the rich organic topsoil and woody debris created by hundreds of years of decomposition) create a unique and diverse ecosystem that can never be mimicked by younger forests.
Bob Gale, ecologist with the Western North Carolina Alliance noted, “We are really pleased that the Forest Service is continuing to recognize old growth forests in the Nantahala National Forest as important ecosystems in need of protection. The remnant primary forest stands left virtually untouched for centuries and the recovering areas that are in a mature — to — old growth condition make up a tiny percentage of public lands and merit such protection. We praise the Nantahala District for this agreement.”
According to the press release, the Forest Service also scaled back the length of one of the planned logging roads due to concerns about road building on steep terrain. Amelia Burnette, staff attorney for SELC said, “Old-growth forests in the mountains of North Carolina provide important habitat for a variety of wildlife and plant life, but they are rare. We commend the Forest Service for working with us to protect this significant resource.”
For those who follow the Naturalist’s Corner you know that I have been extolling the Forest Service for its move toward stewardship contracting, but have also warned that stewardship contracts must still be scrutinized. The best I can tell from Forest Service websites is that the Haystack project is a stewardship contract, although I haven’t been able to determine who the partners are. And at a glance of the project there appears to be a lot of good restoration work planned for the project.
Thanks to Wild South, SELC, WNCA and SAFC for not allowing the baby to get lost in the bath water. I don’t think any amount of restoration could ameliorate the wanton destruction of old growth forest. I concur wholeheartedly with Wild South’s associate executive director Ben Prater, “Our commitment to protect our last remaining old-growth forests is unwavering, and while we applaud this agreement, Wild South believes all old-growth should remain wild and never be threatened by logging.”
A North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) press release from Dec. 9 announced that work was underway, “… to restore habitat by promoting new forest growth for wildlife,” on the Catpen project. The Catpen area is on the south side of Bluff Mountain in the Appalachian Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, just north of Max Patch in Madison County.
The Catpen project is unique. It’s the first project to be implemented via the master stewardship agreement between the USDA Forest Service and the NCWRC, which is the first master stewardship agreement in the country between the USDA Forest Service and a state agency.
Smoky Mountain News (SMN) first reported on these innovative stewardship contracts in the Jan. 19 edition in the article “Logging for cash versus long-range forest health.” That article can be seen online at www.smokymountainnews.com/advertise/item/3072.
Some of the differences between conventional timber bids and stewardship contracting pointed out in that article include:
“The new approach means the forest service can award bids based on the ‘best contract’ rather than the most money, Remington [Dale Remington, sales forester for the National Forests in North Carolina] said. The contract could go to a timber company, but could likewise be awarded to an environmental group or hunting club.
“Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service could lay out the goals and objectives and let the contractor tell them how they planned to achieve those goals, he said. And unlike the traditional timber sale, those goals could even include wildlife diversity and protecting old growth stands.
“Stewardship contracts can also be spread over a larger area than conventional timber sales. Most conventional timber sales are confined to only the specific area the logging will be done. Most of them impact around 150 to 250 acres. Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service designates the stewardship area and it can range from a simple stream corridor to an entire basin encompassing 2,000 or more acres.”
Another difference between conventional timber sales and stewardship contracting was pointed out in SMN’s Feb. 16 Naturalist’s Corner, “Time to shift gears” -www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3268-time-to-shift-gears - ; “… most of the money stays in the region rather than going to the U.S. Treasury and can be used for other restoration projects across the forest.”
The first phase of the Catpen project affects about 15 acres and according to NCWRC’s Gordon Warburton, will “…benefit deer, turkey, grouse, bears, neotropical songbirds and other species.” The second phase of the project is designed to enhance Max Patch Pond.
I commend NCWRC for capitalizing on this new tool for forest management. I spoke with Dale Remington back in February when I did the Naturalist’s Corner column and he assured me then that he and the Forest Service were open to stewardship contracts with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Wild South and others and that the focus of such contracts was the overall health of the forests of North Carolina and beyond.
I hope to have the opportunity to write about such a project soon.
As too often happens, in this whirlwind life, I lost my roundtoit. I received an email from the Western North Carolina Alliance at the end of November announcing public information meetings that would be held across the region regarding the settlement between the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the state of North Carolina over air pollution from TVA’s coal-fired power plants in neighboring states. These meetings were scheduled for this week. The closest one was last evening (Dec. 6) at Haywood Community College. There will also be one this evening at 5:00 p.m. in the Broyhill Conference Center at Appalachian State University in Boone. There was one Monday (Dec. 5) in Murphy, and while I regret not getting this information out in advance of these meetings, I still think this settlement is (in today’s political climate) important to note.
The settlement announced earlier this year was finalized in late June when U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan of the Eastern District of Tennessee signed a consent decree. The decree ends a round robin of lawsuits initiated by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper in 2006 claiming that pollution from TVA’s coal-fired plants in neighboring states created a public nuisance because of their detrimental impacts on the health of North Carolina citizens, its natural environment and the state’s $12 billion tourism industry.
In 2009, Federal Judge Lacy Thornburg ruled that the TVA should clean up four of its coal-fired plants situated closest to North Carolina’s border. Thornburg found there was insufficient evidence to prove seven other TVA plants located farther from the state were a nuisance.
However, TVA appealed and in 2010 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Thornburg’s ruling. Cooper was petitioning the Supreme Court to hear the case when TVA agreed to the settlement. The settlement is actually more comprehensive than Judge Thornburg’s initial ruling, impacting 11 TVA plants in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. The settlement calls for TVA to invest between $3 billion and $5 billion in new pollution controls plus invest $350 million in clean energy and efficiency projects.
The impetus for the original lawsuit was North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act, which was signed into law in 2001. This act required utilities operating in the state of North Carolina to reduce emissions. The problem, especially for Western North Carolina (WNC) was that the largest polluters were not in state but rather those coal-fired plants just to our west. Prevailing winds and weather patterns made WNC a toxic dumping ground for these plants, whose emission standards did not come close to those required by N.C.’s Clean Smokestacks Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes this settlement could prevent as many 3,000 premature deaths, 2,000 heart attacks and more than 20,000 asthma cases annually. The total savings in annual health costs would be more than $25 billion.
The impact on tourism dollars is hard to quantify, but imagine the Smokies where you could see peaks from horizon to horizon rather than silhouettes shrouded in brown haze, and when you decided to hit the Mt. LeConte trail in July there wouldn’t be “ozone alerts” posted at the trailhead.
I believe it’s important to note this settlement in this political climate when national, state and local leaders cite onerous environmental regulations and call for the dissolution of the EPA and exalt free market capitalism as the solution for any/all environmental, economical and socio-political dilemmas. The truth is that free market capitalism doesn’t care one whit about your health, about your children’s health, about your grandchildren’s health, or about the environmental health of the planet. Free market capitalism cares about the bottom line. And as it is practiced today, capitalism cares only about today’s bottom line, not the bottom line 100 years from now.
So I salute the North Carolina General Assembly that passed the Clean Smokestacks Act and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper for fighting the good fight, and I hope that my little girls feel the magic of these mountains in their bones the way I do. And that when their children hit the trail to Mt. LeConte, they can breathe in draughts of clean mountain air as they climb.
That’s bird-Friday of course. And bird-Friday got off to a pretty chilly start.
It was 26 degrees Fahrenheit when I got to Lake Junaluska at around 8:45 a.m. Not much has changed species-wise at the lake for the past couple of weeks or so except the red-heads were gone. At least I didn’t see any Friday. There still were plenty of ring-necked ducks, ruddy ducks, pied-billed grebes and coots. There were a couple of lesser scaup and I also saw one bufflehead, four hooded mergansers, one great blue heron, three horned grebes and one double-crested cormorant. I also found a Cooper’s hawk keeping a close watch on the coots in the little channel between the wetlands and the narrow island. Counting a few passerines, I wound up with 27 species for the hour I spent around Lake J.
Next I headed for Kituwah to get my sparrow fix and see what else I might find. I got to Kituwah around 11 a.m. and it was still cool, mid-30s, but warming nicely. I was greeted at the entrance to Kituwah by an immature red-tailed hawk perched in a small tree. I recorded three red-tails for the morning but suspect there were five. It’s hard to tell after an hour or so if you’re seeing a different hawk or the same one. But I know I saw two adults and at least one immature. I also had one immature red-shouldered hawk near the wetlands.
The railroad track at the entrance also provided one of my target sparrow species as I found three adult white-crowned sparrows. Next, I was treated to a splash of late autumn color when I found four brightly plumaged eastern meadowlarks – their lemon-yellow breasts shining in the morning sun against the short green grass they were foraging in.
Song sparrows were everywhere and field sparrows were fairly common but after nearly an hour I still hadn’t found any white-throated sparrows. When I finally found some white-throateds, I found two groups in proximity that probably had at least 50 birds between them. I didn’t investigate too long because a flash of rufous leaving the cornfields for a nearby woody tangle alerted me to the possibility of another target sparrow. Sure enough, I approached the tangle and pished and up popped three dapper fox sparrows. These large handsome sparrows are one of my favorite winter birds and Kituwah almost always provides a few. There was one other sparrow that I expected to find at Kituwah so I headed to the wetlands and slogged around, much to the chagrin of a great blue heron looking for a meal, in search of swamp sparrows. It was there I stumbled upon the rarest bird of the day. I saw a lot of sparrow activity in a brushy clump at the edge of the soggy area. As I approached to investigate I heard the distinctive, dry double chit or chat call of a sedge wren. I circled the clump about three times from as close as 10 feet, flushing at least a half-dozen song sparrows but never getting a look at the chatterer. I left it chattering and slogged on around the wetlands finally flushing three swamp sparrows.
I wound up with six species of sparrows – song, field, white-throated, white-crowned, fox and swamp and good looks at another one of my favorite winter birds the hermit thrush. The total count for a couple of hours at Kituwah was 36 species. Not a bad B-Friday and I didn’t have to stand in a single line.
Friends of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge just finished waving goodbye to the Navy, its fighters and their outlying landing field only to turn around and see seeds planted that would sprout 500-foot tall wind turbines, each with a blade sweep of about one acre, in almost the same location as the proposed landing field.
The Friends of Pocosin was created in 2008 from the outpouring of grassroots support garnered by North Carolinians Opposing the Outlying Landing Field. One would think it would be simple to rekindle the passions of those myriad and diverse supporters that included individuals, elected officials, town and county governments, hunt clubs, businesses, civic organizations and environmental organizations that faced down the Navy. But there are some wild cards to consider.
One is timing. This industrial wind project dubbed the Pantego Wind Facility is apparently on the fast track. If things click the way corporate interests would like, 49 acres of cuisinart blades could be churning in the skies next to Pocosin Lakes when hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, including about 60 percent of the entire population of tundra swans, return to the area in 2012.
Another factor is marketing. The NAVY is the NAVY, and the Navy is an integral part of the nefarious government and there’s little difficulty in stirring up opposition to almost anything government-related. However, for many in rural eastern North Carolina, Pantego has a nice ring to it. After all Pantego is a small, rural community in Beaufort County with a population of around 170, according to the 2000 census. But what is Pantego Wind Energy LLC? It is a subsidiary of Invenergy, a Chicago-based energy corporation that is one of the five largest (and the No. 1 one independent) owners of wind generation plants in the U.S. This corporation with more than $130 million in assets wants you (and me) to subsidize their Pantego Wind Facility. This might be a good time to interject that there are at least 14,000 abandoned wind projects across the U.S. It seems that after subsidies were exhausted and profits didn’t materialize, these farms were simply abandoned.
So in these money-strapped times Invenergy (AKA Pantego Wind Energy LLC) is intimating that Beaufort County government could see $1 million annually in tax revenue. Plus there would be lease agreements with a few local farmers and after 100 jobs during construction, Invenergy is promising a whopping 5 full-time jobs to tend the turbines. But money is money and according to local news reports Tom Thompson of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission is already endorsing the plan and Invenergy reports already having signed at least 20 leases with area farmers.
And about all that energy, it’s a drum I intend to keep beating until wind developers and their supporters decide to come clean and be honest with the public. The Pantego projects calls for 49 1.6 MW (megawatts) turbines to be built. They are touting 80 MW of electricity — enough, they say to power 15,000 homes. The fact is, the actual generating capacity will be much closer to 26 MW and perhaps the ability to power 5,000 homes.
Some that helped de-wing the Navy are still on alert. Derb Carter of the North Carolina Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center and Robert Scull of the Cypress Group of the North Carolina Sierra Club spoke out against the proposal at a Nov. 17 meeting of the Utilities Commission in Washington, D.C.
From my point of view, however, we are missing one of the strongest players that took the lead in aborting the Navy’s plans to infringe upon what many biologists and environmentalists call North Carolina’s Serengeti — that part of eastern North Carolina that rivals the majestic migrations of Africa’s Serengeti. Audubon North Carolina (ANC) was at the forefront in protecting Pocosin Lakes and its environs. To date, I have found one mention of ANC’s stance regarding the Pantego facility. It was a very thoughtful and clear pronouncement from ANC’s, Curtis Smalling, Important Bird Areas (IBA) Coordinator (39 of the 49 planned turbines are sited on ANC IBAs). in a brochure from Friends of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The brochure can be seen at www.pocosinlakesfriends.org.
In a kind of summation, Smalling writes: “Area is highly sensitive and if permitting moves forward, the bar must be very high on showing that impacts are minimal, mitigated, and that adaptive management is in place to correct any problems that arise (if the facility makes it to construction).” Searches of ANC’s website and blog site, however, (as of early Nov. 21) made no mention of the Pantego Wind facility.
National Audubon appears to be quite fervent in their support of wind power. But the caveat has been responsible siting. Pocosin Lakes is the perfect place for Audubon to step forward and show unequivocally that their support of wind power does not supersede their support of wildlife, wildlife habitat and wild places.