On one level, the natural history of a region consists of its terrain, habitats, plants, animals and how they interrelate. I also believe that no full understanding of the natural history of a region can be realized without coming to terms with its spiritual landscape. And when we consider the spiritual landscape of the Smokies region, we enter the realm of the ancient Cherokees.

This past weekend, May 6-7, was the 34th annual installment of the Great Smoky Mountains Birding Expedition (GSMBE.) The expedition began in 1984 as the brainchild of author, naturalist George Ellison of Bryson City, master birder Rick Pyeritz of Asheville and East Tennessee State University ornithologist and field guide author Fred Alsop.

I was reconnoitering the Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens on Monday March 27, with Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian regional director at The Wilderness Society, for an upcoming field trip with the Franklin Bird club on April 24. The Serpentine Barrens is located along Buck Creek in Clay County, off U.S. 64 about 17 miles west of Franklin. The barrens is a botanically distinct area created by the dominant serpentinized rock types — dunite and olivine. The area is home to many rare and/or endemic plants because of the rare soils created by the serpentinized rock and two decades of prescribed burning by the Forest Service.

A low guttural croak comes out of the fog hanging over the French Broad River. I turn and look towards the noise. A silhouette starts to form. I can see the shadowy outline of a large head and beak. Long wide wings row through the fog and long legs trail behind.

What me chase?

Regular readers of “The Naturalist’s Corner” may remember that I’ve decided to keep a 2017 year-list of birds. I noted, when I wrote about the list that I was not much of a “lister” nor “chaser.” My list would be made up of birds encountered in my backyard and during my Forest Service point counts and maybe a day of birding during our summer vacation to Isle of Palms.

The 2011 movie “The Big Year” — a comedy starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson — didn’t ruffle a lot of feathers. According to Wikipedia, the movie with its $41 million budget only grossed $7.4 million.

Essays and columns are difficult to categorize. Dividing them into the formal and informal is about all anyone can agree upon, if that. In retrospect, I can see that this one is a fine example of a type within the informal category I think of as the “ramblin’ disquisition;” in other words, it doesn’t  have a central theme (except that, for the most part, it’s about birds); and it wanders around … here and there … getting nowhere much until it ends of its own volition. You’ll see what I mean.

Granddaddy of ‘em all

This year will mark the 117th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC.) The CBC is the longest-lived and largest citizen-science project in the world. 

The count began in 1900. It was the brainchild of Frank Chapman, one of the officers of the fledgling Audubon Society. Chapman created the “bird census” as an alternative to the traditional Christmas “side-hunt,” a contest where groups would shoulder their arms and hit the fields and/or woods — the team that came back with the greatest number of corpses would be declared the winner.

Our elementary school primers were populated by robins pulling worms out of holes. They appeared on television screens on Saturday mornings, hopping about in Disney cartoons that represented “the idea of a bird.” We know what a robin looks like in outline, but do we know much about the real thing?

When you’re out chasing fall migrants and you either have a good internal compass or you’re somewhere it’s pretty easy to orient yourself to the cardinal directions, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, it’s not unusual to find mixed flocks of migrants moving in what appears, intuitively, to be a “wrong” direction. You may find groups of birds moving north, or east, or west rather than the general southwest route we expect here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. These early morning flights — usually just after sunrise — are called “redetermined” flights.

Page 2 of 14
Go to top