The Mountain Resources Commission, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center at the University of North Carolina at Asheville have created a Western North Carolina Vitality Index. The purpose is to provide local governments, various interest groups and the public with easy-to-understand data specific to the western end of the state to promote more informed decisions with regard to resource use and community planning. The Index expands and enhances the Forest Service’s Western North Carolina Report Card on Forest Sustainability.
Mountain bogs are some of the rarest and most imperiled natural habitat in the country. They are generally small and scattered across the landscape often isolated from other wetlands. This isolation can create unique habitats, which in turn create unique flora and fauna. Bogs are home to several federally endangered and/or threatened species including bog turtles, mountain sweet pitcher plant, bunched arrowhead, swamp pink and others.
As one whom is often standing on the shoulder of the road peering through binoculars, I’m accustomed to people slowing down and asking, “What are you looking at?”
Well last Saturday I got to turn the tables. I was zooming down River Road along the French Broad River in Hot Springs marking points for my point-surveying accomplice, Bob Olthoff, when I realized I had just missed my turn, which was the last Forest Service road in North Carolina before hitting the Tennessee line. I decided to continue to the state line, just to be certain and that’s where I saw a small group of people standing below a rock outcropping with binoculars and cameras pointed towards the precipice. I passed and turned around and on the way back couldn’t resist. I stopped and asked, “What did you guys find?”
I’m glad I did. They explained they were looking at some American Indian petroglyphs. I could see the reddish-orange designs on a section of rock about 50 feet up. They explained that the Paint Clan of the Cherokee Indians had created the petroglyphs.
I think I have lamented in this column before that while doing bird points for the Forest Service from Hiwassee Dam to Grandfather Mountain and from Roan Mountain to Mt. Mitchell to Brevard, I often encounter a lot of cool stuff. But alas, the “job” part of this endeavor – having to survey all the points within a six-week time frame – often means there is not much time for following those enticing side trails.
I have traveled River Road at least once a year since 2007. And where you turn onto River Road from N.C. 209 there is an historical marker that states, “Pictographs on cliff face were created by Indians ca. 2500 B.C. & long have been landmark for travelers. 5 1/2 mi. N.W.” But I have almost always turned right on FS Road 468 to get to my points, went in, surveyed and beat it back out to 209 and on to other points, never taking the time to try and track down the pictographs or petroglyphs. But today, someone had found them for me.
I did a little internet research when I got home to learn more about the site. It seems botanist Andre Michaux had made notes about a “red-painted rock” during his travels back in 1796. And as early as 1799, a Tennessee border survey noted that campfire soot was obscuring some of the petroglyphs. Advertising for a stagecoach line in 1859 stated that the line crossed the mountains in full view of the Painted Rocks.
The 1799 comments were from surveyor John Strother, who kept a diary while surveying the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Strother wrote, “Friday 28th. Set out very early and proceeded on the line about 4 m to the Painted rock on F. B. (French Broad) River, about 5 m below the Warm Springs [Warm Springs was the original name for Hot Springs]; measured the height of the rock and found it to be 107 feet 3 inches high from the top to the base; it rather projects over. The face of the rock bears but few traces of its having formerly been painted — owing to its being smoked by pine knots and other wood from a place at its base where Travellers have frequently camped — in the year 1790 it was not much smoked; the Pictures of some human’s — wild beasts fish & fowls were to be seen plainly made with red paint, some of them 20 & 30 feet from its base.”
A study in 2006 revealed the petroglyphs were around 5,000 years old. The pigments used were said to be of superior quality and complex design. All of the ingredients were determined to be local.
The Paint Clan were noted as healers and sorcerers. They were the keepers of ritual and ceremony and the only ones allowed to make a special red paint used for ceremonial purposes.
One explanation for Paint Rock is that it was a stopping point for the Cherokee on their way to the healing hot springs. It was a place for prayer and contemplation – the perfect setting for the Paint Clan’s powerful red dye.
I was in the Grandfather District of the Pisgah National Forest the other morning preparing to go to one of my Forest Service bird points when I noticed two tall white flowers at the edge of the woods. My first thought was fly poison, Amianthium muscaetoxicum, but then I thought it’s a little early for fly poison; I ventured over for a closer look. I found two, nearly 3-feet tall, stalks with terminal racemes of white flowers about 5 inches in length. So at a distance, there is a resemblance to fly poison, but upon closer inspection there were obvious differences.
The lily I had stumbled upon the other morning is known as turkeybeard or eastern turkeybeard, Xerophyllum asphodeloides. It gets its common name from the wiry grass-looking clump of basal leaves that, with a little imagination, could resemble the “beard” that protrudes from the breast of Tom Turkey. The basal leaves of fly poison are a little more lily-like – flat and up to 3/4 of an inch wide. Turkeybeard also has long (4-5 inch) needle like cauline (stem) leaves that are smaller near the top of the plant. The cauline leaves of fly poison are only about an inch long.
The genus Xerophyllum has two North American species, X. asphodeloides (turkeybeard) in the east and X. tenax or beargrass in the Northwest. Turkeybeard is found in two disjunct and, at first glance, totally different habitats. It is found in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey and in xeric (dry) oak and pine communities at mid to high elevations along the Southern Appalachians from Virginia and West Virginia through the Carolinas to Georgia. There are historic records from Delaware and Kentucky.
While these two habitats appear to be opposite ends of the spectrum, they actually have a lot in common. They are both composed of dry, acidic, sandy or rocky soils and share other same or similar plant species like blackjack oak, pitch pine and blueberries.
Turkeybeard is recorded from 41 counties across its range. It is endangered in parts of its range and has been included in the U.S. Center for Plant Conservation’s National endangered Plant Collection.
Turkeybeard is well suited for its dry environment. The genus name, Xerophyllum, means “dry-leaved” and the thin coarse leaves conserve water by minimizing evaporation. In the Southern Appalachians, Turkeybeard is most often found on west or northwest-facing slopes and its primary source of water is from rain and/or fog.
Recent studies by Norman A. Bourg and others at the University of Maryland have shown that turkeybeard seems to benefit from fire and suggests that it could be fire-dependent. The plant’s large rhizome could allow it to store water and become dormant underground where it could survive a fire. Seeds collected in 1988 by the New England Wildflower Society were still viable in 1995, suggesting that turkeybeard is capable of seed-banking, so there would be seed available after a fire or other disturbance.
The fire scenario fits well with the turkeybeard I discovered in Grandfather the other day. I’ve been doing that point since 2007 and I enter the woods at the same point every year and within a week or 10 days of the same date and this is the first year I’ve seen the flowers. I could have walked by the basal leaves without noticing them but there’s no way to miss the flowers. And there was a fire a couple of years ago. I don’t know if it was a wildfire or a controlled burn but there were no flowers in the years before the fire but lily is definitely present now.
Up at 4 a.m. to try and catch up on a little correspondence before I hit the road for the Nantahala Ranger District to search for cerulean warblers, I’m on the road by 5.
I’ve found a neat short cut to get over to the national forest just above Nantahala School. I take U.S. 441 south towards Franklin, then head west on Sanderstown Road, a quick jog at the Little Tennessee and out towards the Macon County airport. Then I pick up Burningtown Road to Tellico Road and once the pavement ends the drive gets really interesting.
I’ve dubbed last Saturday (May 19) “Deer Day.” Just as the pavement ended on Tellico Road, five nervous whitetails came from, seemingly, behind someone’s house, crossed the road in front of me, jumped the fence and headed for the woods across a small pasture.
Next, after a winding, narrow, dirt road climb, crossing the Appalachian Trail near Wesser Bald, I fell out, once more, on pavement near Otter Creek School where I was greeted by two more whitetails on the roadside. After a short drive I turned right onto State Road 1412 and caught the “white flag” of one more whitetail scrambling up the mountain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen eight deer in one morning, in Western North Carolina – thus “Deer Day.”
I found no ceruleans Saturday, but that’s not to say there were no avian surprises. I rounded a curve on a grassy Forest Service road as the morning light was filtering through the canopy and there, a couple of hundred feet in front of me, was a turkey, sprawled in the middle of the road, wings akimbo. I slowed and stopped, trying to figure what this strange behavior was about, when she jumped up and a swarm of baby turkeys, fluttering and chirping, began dashing this way and that. I sat in the truck for a few minutes to let things calm down, and then slowly approached the spot where mom had covered her babies.
Most newborn wildlife have two major defense strategies – run or freeze. When I neared the spot I could see one baby chick frozen in an open area. As I knelt to entice the baby to join its siblings I almost stepped on another baby settled in a clump of grass. I encouraged the two to join their clan and searched the area before driving on.
I finished my survey and headed back to Waynesville, arriving home around 12:30 p.m. The girls had company and they had already been busy that morning – greeting me with what they called a “big boy” of a garter snake. It was a couple of feet long.
As I was retrieving gear from my truck something caught my eye. About 10 to 12 feet up in a dead hemlock right in front of the house were a pair of black rat snakes. And these were indeed a big boy and a big girl – between 5-6 feet long, doing their evolutionary duty and procreating.
It was a gorgeous day and by 3 p.m. after another phone call to another friend, Mom, kids and I decided it was a great day for a hike. We headed up to Flat Creek Trail on the Heintooga Spur Road.
Flat Creek did not disappoint. Kids found salamanders, deer tracks, pig tracks and bear poop. Mom and I enjoyed a healthy colony of yellow-bead lily as we kept listening for a waterfall.
Finally we reached a sign saying we had traversed 1.9 miles and that Heintooga Road was .7 miles ahead. Well there was no waterfall and it was a little after 5 p.m. I sent Mom and the gang ahead towards Heintooga Road and I beat it back to the picnic area and the car. It was pretty good timing. They had had an adventurous creek crossing and came out on the road about five minutes before I got there.
We loaded up hungry hikers, hit Soco Gap and headed to Maggie Valley for pizza and spaghetti. And that’s just a day in the life when you live in Western North Carolina.
Experiments conducted by a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the U.S., Canada and Germany strongly suggest that the fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes White Nose Syndrome in bats, is a recent invasive from Europe. WNS was first discovered in the U.S. in 2006 near Albany, N.Y. Since then it has spread to 19 states (as far south as Alabama and as far west as Missouri) and four Canadian provinces. It has killed an estimated 5.7 million bats.
WNS was named because of a white fungus grows around the muzzle, ears and wing membranes. The fungus causes bats to wake up more often during hibernation, which in turn depletes their fat reserves and leads to starvation and death.
Researchers from the University of Winnipeg and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) reported their findings on April 9 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists were puzzled because bats from Europe had been discovered with WNS but it wasn’t lethal. To try and learn what was going on, disease-free bats were collected from caves across Manitoba and brought to WCVM for study. A third of the bats were inoculated with Geomyces destructans (Gd) from Europe; a third was inoculated with the fungus from North America and a control group was kept fungus-free.
Both inoculated groups of bats soon began showing the same telltale signs of WNS. The bats with WNS were emaciated and near death weeks before the 120-day experiment was scheduled to end and were euthanized. The control group was all healthy after the 120 days.
The research led scientists to believe that the European bats had evolved along with the Gd and developed some kind of immunity, while bats in North America had never been in contact with the fungus until that outbreak in 2006.
Researchers say the study provides a small glimmer of hope. If enough North American bats survive WNS, they will, hopefully, develop some immunity like their European cousins. But it appears to be a race against time as this deadly disease races across North America.
More studies are planned to try and discover how European bats combat the fungus, in hopes of finding a way to slow the spread of WNS in the U.S. and Canada. Some people think of bats as scary things. But a world without bats could, actually, be much scarier. One little brown bat weighing around one ounce can eat up to 1,200 insects per hour. And the little brown is but one of 45 species of bats found in the U.S. In one study, 150 big brown bats surveyed throughout one summer were reported to have eaten enough adult cucumber beetles to prevent the hatching of more than 30 million cucumber beetle larvae. Researchers in the U.S. have estimated that the current die-off of bats in North America will cost the agricultural industry $3.7 billion dollars annually.
I had to take my shoes off to get there, but I believe last Saturday (April 28) was the 13th annual Birding for the Arts. BFA is part of the Haywood County Arts Council’s “Fund Party Series” – entertaining, fun events that help fund the Arts Council and all the wonderful things they provide for our community. You can learn more about the Arts Council and their Fund Party Series plus much more at www.haywoodarts.org.
Gracious and enthusiastic hosts for this annual event are Joe Sam and/or Kate Queen. We meet at 8 a.m. at the Performing Arts Center to get a quick overview of the day and begin our birding. This is where we pad our list. If you’re looking for numbers on a daily bird trip, you have to include the common “yard birds” like European starling, mockingbird, robin, house sparrow, etc.
After the Performing Arts Center we set out for Lake Junaluska, then to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we dine at the Waynesville Overlook before heading on up and then descending down either N.C. highway 215 or U.S. 276, through the forests to the farmlands of Bethel and back to the Performing Arts Center.
Guests are free, of course, to bird for as long or little as they wish. The whole day generally lasts till around 5 or 5:30 p.m., and we wind up with around 80 species. We keep an “official” tally and, of course, not everyone sees and or hears every bird recorded but we do our best to get visuals where we can and point out songs and or calls. We had 13 participants meet at the Performing Arts Center this spring and six plus Kate and I stuck it out for the whole day, recording 83 species.
The thing about birding one day during spring migration is there are always hits and misses. Last Friday, there were Cape May and palm warblers at Lake Junaluska but neither was present on Saturday. However, great looks at a black-crowned night heron at the new wetlands and a common loon in full breeding plumage fishing just 50 feet or so from the shore provided a couple of good hits to make up for those misses. We also got outstanding looks at an osprey perched near Highway 19.
The Parkway started out a little slow but the Waynesville Overlook was productive as usual. We lunched with rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, blue-headed and red-eyed vireos, chestnut-sided warblers and blackburnian warblers.
We didn’t see any peregrines at Devil’s Courthouse, but we did get up close and personal looks at a pair of Canada warblers. We were also able to list golden-crowned kinglets from there, as we heard them but couldn’t get any looks.
We were kinda stuck in the high 70s species wise, but our last stop at a wet area near Bethel gave us the boost we needed by adding yellow warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, great blue heron, blue-winged teal, wood duck and belted kingfisher.
Birding for the Arts is a great low-key yet high quality birding experience for novice and experienced birders. And if you can’t spend an entire day – the morning, through lunch at the Waynesville Overlook, is well worth the ticket price. I believe we tallied 61 species by the time lunch was over last Saturday.
And please support your local arts council and join us for another fund day, next year at the 14th annual Birding for the Arts.
Threatening weather forecasts likely kept many who registered for last Saturday’s (April 21) 5th Annual Spring Hike in Waynesville’s Watershed at home. But we caught a break — cloudy and overcast but the rain held off till around 11:30 a.m. or so and then it wasn’t heavy.
I had a small group for my amble (I don’t hike — too much to see to walk that fast), which is really great for those who like to bird and investigate along the way. We had perhaps the best day birding we’ve had since the hikes began. I’m sure we had 30 or so total species seen and/or heard — beginning with northern rough-wing swallows, barn swallows and chimney swifts at the dam and including voices from the woods like pileated woodpeckers and wood thrushes.
But what made the day great were the great looks we got at some beautiful birds. We had a scarlet tanager and blackburnian warbler in the same field of view for a brief moment. And we got great looks at each of them. Black-throated blue warblers were everywhere and we got good looks at them in several spots. It took us about three hooded warblers before we found a cooperative one — but it was worth the hunt to get great looks. A northern parula provided good looks and for those who were fast enough we had blue-headed and red-eyed vireos together. We also heard one drumming session from a ruffed grouse. I’m not sure everyone in the group was tuned in — but a few got the full effect.
Birds weren’t the only focus. Because of the April date, wildflowers are often hit or miss during our spring hike. But with this year’s early spring there were lots of plants in flower. We saw three species of trillium: Trillium erectum, commonly called wake-robin (we saw the white and red variety of this); Trillium undulatum, painted trillium; and Trillium vaseyi, Vasey’s trillium.
Wild geranium and foamflower were in bloom everywhere along the road shoulder. We saw several nice stands of small-flowered bellwort or wild oats. Not quite popping yet but poised were Solomon’s seal and Clinton’s lily. Some other wildflowers we found in bloom included showy orchis, lousewort or wood betony, star or great chickweed, Carolina vetch, May apple, Indian cucumber root, mandarin, one-flowered broomrape (the name of which I could not dredge up in the field), sweet shrub, star grass and more. We found a beautiful blue violet with streaked white and violet petals that I believe was Viola palmata forma striata.
There were lots of toads out last Saturday, and we were able to compare American toad and Fowler’s toad. American toads have really pronounced cranial crests right behind the eye that separate the eye from the parotid glands. On Fowler’s the crests are less pronounced. Fowler’s also have three or more small warts in the large dark spots on its back — American toads usually have one or two warts per spot. I have to admit I had never seen a toad the color of the Fowler’s we found last Saturday – it had a greenish-olive cast to it. But upon researching it, I found this description at herpsofnc.org – “Highly variable in color and pattern, the Fowler’s toad may be brown, tan, gray, olive, greenish or reddish. Often boldly spotted, it is more likely to have a greenish tint than any of our other toads.”
That’s the thing about getting outside — the more time you spend the more you learn. Thanks to Alison Melnikova, assistant town manager, again, for her hard work, and to Pete Bates from Western Carolina University and Blair Ogburn of Balsam Mountain Trust for making this another great walk in the watershed.
The Haywood County Arts Council will host its annual “Birding for the Arts” event from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 28 as part of the 2012 FUNd Party Series.
The series offers an eclectic array of social events featuring delicious food, unique experiences and entertainment to benefit the arts in our community.
“Birding for the Arts” party sponsors and guides for the day are naturalist Don Hendershot, former state Sen. Joe Sam Queen and Dr. Kate Queen.
Tickets are $25 per person, and participation is limited to 35 partygoers. The registration deadline is April 26. A gourmet boxed lunch will be provided, and attendees should meet at the Performing Arts Center on Pigeon Street in Waynesville no later than 8 a.m.
Bring binoculars and rain poncho. Light hiking is involved.
828.452.0593 or www.haywoodarts.org.
The 62nd Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be April 25 – 28. I was curious if this unseasonably warm, early spring was going to have any impact on the pilgrimage so I talked with an old friend about it. Patricia Cox is a botanical specialist with the Tennessee Valley Authority. She was a botany professor at the University of Tennessee, and she is one of the organizers of the Wildflower Pilgrimage. Cox has led hikes at the pilgrimage since 1992.
Cox said that some of the regular pilgrimage crowd pleasers might be gone or nearly gone this year. She said that fringed phacelia was already in bloom in the park in late March and that “…more than likely those large displays around the Chimney’s picnic area will be gone.” But there could be a new pilgrimage poster child crowned.
“I’ve seen lots of photos of Lady’s slippers this week on Facebook, so they will be out for sure next week,” she said. “We haven’t seen yellow Lady’s slippers in flower for the past several years because we were too early. So, while we may not see some of the usual things, I’m excited about seeing the unusual.”
In keeping with tradition, this year’s pilgrimage offers numerous new programs. They include “Traditional Cherokee Plants” with wildcrafter Ila Hatter. Learn how the forests of the Smokies provided for the Cherokee. There will be a reception for Cindy Carlson, “Featured Wildflower Artist.” And if you want to find out what’s going on in the Smokies, Bob Miller, the park’s public affairs officer, will present the “State of the Park” report on Thursday night. You can also learn about “Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains” with botanist and author Tim Spira.
And of course, the pilgrimage is all about getting outside and there will be new hikes also. Check out the “Birds and Blooms on Alum Cave Trail” with park forestry technician Troy Evans or join the Queen of Ferns, herself as Cox leads an all-day fern hike along Deep Creek Trail – expect to see more than 20 species of ferns.
There are more than 130 programs scheduled for this year’s pilgrimage, many directed towards children. The variety, as usual, is endless – bats, bugs, bears and bugs; ferns, forests, fungi and photography; ecology, elk and environmental education – there is surely something for everyone.
And, as always the main feature – wildflowers. There are more than 1,600 flowering plants in the park. So while some of the old pilgrimage blooms may be MIA, there will be no shortage of colorful wildflowers, and this year’s kick start to the bloom schedule will likely mean new and/or different species will be in flower.
Cox is not worried, she said, “As long as Mother Nature doesn’t hit us with tornados, hail or heavy rain, we’ll be good. There’s always something in flower in the Smokies. It will be a remarkable week, as usual.”
To learn more about this year’s pilgrimage visit their website at http://www.springwildflowerpilgrimage.org/ or you can call the W.L. Mills Conference Center at 800.568.4748.