Invited for tea
I opened the door around 7 a.m. last Saturday and spring hit me square in the face. Actually a cold misty breeze hit me square in the face but I got an earful of spring. “Drink your tea – ea-ea-ea-ea!” wailed an eastern towhee from the brambles at the edge of my yard.
Now chickadees have been singing and so have Carolina wrens and cardinals and some song sparrows’ teakettles have started to boil. But these troubadours are likely to loosen up their vocal chords anytime during the winter if we get a couple of warm sunshiny days. And while you may hear an emphatic and prolonged “drrriinnkk” or “driinnkk teaaa” or “tea-ea-ea” from a wintertime towhee, the bawdy, lascivious, full-throated “Drink your tea-ea-ea-ea-ea!” is generally reserved for karaoke night at the local singles bar after a long cold winter.
Towhees in the yard aren’t the only signs of spring.
A walk around Lake Junaluska last Thursday produced 20-plus tree swallows. An unidentified shorebird was also observed at the lake. I didn’t have binoculars and the distance was too great and the lighting too bad to make out more than a silhouette working the edge of the small channel that’s left in the middle of the lake. The bird was foraging like a sandpiper and from its size and posture, I would guess pectoral.
Pectorals are early migrants and commonly seen around the lake in migration when it’s drawn down. Wayne Forsythe reported pectorals along with American golden plovers, killdeers, horned larks and American pipits along Hooper Lane in Henderson County last Sunday.
Birds aren’t the only winged harbingers of spring. Butterflies are being reported across the region. Question marks and mourning cloaks have been reported from Kingsport, Tenn. And mourning cloaks have also been reported from Catawba County. Of course one look up at the red maple buds should clue you in that the brown leaf litter will soon be parting as the green shoots of trout lily, bloodroot, toothwort, trailing arbutus and other spring ephemerals claw their way to sunshine.
This is not to say that Ma Nature won’t dust us with another snow or two. I remember back in April 2005 when I was surveying for migrants at Balsam Mountain Preserve. It was 30 degrees, snowing, and some places had half an inch of the white stuff on the ground. But when I could find sheltered places out of the wind, early migrants like northern parula warblers, blackburnian warblers, black-and-white warblers, blue-headed vireos and rose-breasted grosbeaks were singing in the snow. So go ahead and fire up your teapot because before you know it, it will be time to sit on your deck and “Drink your tea-ea-ea-ea-ea!”
White Nose Syndrome just miles from WNC
The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) announced in mid-February that two bats from Worley’s cave had tested positive for White Nose Syndrome (WNS).
The cave, officially designated Morrell Cave by the U.S. Board on Geographical Names in 1980 but more commonly known as Worley’s or Morril’s cave, is located just southeast of Bluff City, Tenn., only about an hour and a half from Asheville.
Two tri-colored bats (formerly eastern pipistrelle) tested positive for the fungus (Geomyces destructans). While scientists are still not one hundred percent sure that the fungus is the sole causative agent, bat-to-bat-transmission of the fungus has been observed.
Whatever the cause, the malaise is clearly catastrophic. Mortality in some affected hibernacula has exceeded 90 percent. It is estimated that somewhere between one-half million and one million bats have succumbed to WNS, including at least 25,000 endangered Indiana bats.
Six species of bats — Indiana bat, little brown bat, big brown bat, northern long-eared bat, small-footed bat and tri-colored bat (formerly eastern pipistrelle) — are known to be susceptible to WNS.
Tennessee joins New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Virginia to become the tenth state to document WNS. Worley’s cave is the most southern and most western site, to date, where WNS has been recorded. The cave is only about 65 miles from known infected sites in Virginia.
But the prospect of further western and/or southern spread is a scary prospect for biologists and bat fanciers. Tennessee may have more caves than any state in the nation and a single cave in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hibernaculum for nearly nine percent of the total estimated population of endangered Indiana bats.
And now for things that make you go hmmmmm....
You and I and all the taxpayers across this great land have paid about $14 million for ivory-billed woodpecker conservation since 2005. Never mind the fact that not one ivory-billed woodpecker has been conclusively documented since the late 1930s early 1940s.
Bat researchers are overjoyed that the Obama administration has secured $1.9 million in funding for the study of WNS. Maybe if we glued feathers to their wings and took fuzzy videos, we could get some dollars to study this devastating disease.
Wait a minute! That would be forethought — what am I thinking?
ake J eagle
Not a winter has passed in the last four years or so that a bald eagle — mature, immature or both — has not been sighted at Lake Junaluska. Usually they’re here today and gone tomorrow, but this winter a visitor has lingered.
A mature bald eagle has been hanging around Lake Junaluska for about a month. Last I heard — last week — it was still there. I believe the drawdown of the lake probably accounts for this bird’s decision to linger.
Eagles around the world are divided into four general groups — fish eagles, harpy or buteonine eagles, true eagles or booted eagles (the golden eagle is in this group) and snake or serpent eagles. The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is a fish eagle.
A large portion of the bald eagle’s diet, as the name implies, is fish. Another bald eagle staple, especially here in the south in the winter where they tend to congregate in large numbers, is the coot — you know, that gangly dark bird that looks (acts) like a cross between a chicken and a duck, found around the lake in the winter. I believe the drawdown concentrated both of those food sources in small areas making a meal a little easier to come by.
There are two recognized subspecies of bald eagles — northern, Haliaeetus leucocephalus alascanus, and southern, Haliaeetus leucocephalus leucocephalus. The southern bald eagle is a smaller bird and I believe the bird at Lake Junaluska is a southern. Now, bald eagles like most raptors exhibit a “reversed” sexual dimorphism, meaning the female is larger than the male. In some cases, the size difference between a female southern bald eagle and a male northern bald eagle can be minimal, and since southern bald eagles have been found in Canada and northern bald eagles have been found in Mexico, the “southern” moniker is just a guess.
Protection of the bald eagle actually precedes the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed in 1940 and the bald eagle was officially listed as endangered in 1967 under the Endangered Species Act of 1967, the predecessor of the current Endangered Species Act.
There was much fanfare in 2007 when the bald eagle was officially removed from the ESA. The big whoop-de-do at the Jefferson Memorial noted the 40-year, 25-fold increase in nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states to an astounding 10,000 pairs. Today it is estimated that there are between 70,000 and 80,000 bald eagles in North America.
Before our forefathers arrived here and cleaned up the desolate old growth forests with their clean air and pristine water to create the urban utopia we know today, more than half a million bald eagles lived in North America.
To restore that population to roughly 15 percent of its former status is a rousing success?
Enough already with the “Enough already!” I know it’s snowing again. Yep school is closed again. I’ve got an idea — call in well.
To paraphrase Blowing Rock’s mountaintop yogi, Tom Robbins, from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, it would go like this.
“Hi, I haven’t missed a day in three years. It’s a terrible malaise. I’ve come to think that work is all there is. But it’s snowing and there’s no school and my kids are well and I am well and I won’t be in today.”
Now prepare some hot oatmeal. Don’t scrimp on the brown sugar, butter or cinnamon, and if you’re adventurous drizzle a little honey over it. Let the kids pick out their favorite movie and cozy them up in front of the TV.
Now you’ve got 45 minutes or so to get busy. Make a plan. Go ahead and start the hot chocolate. You’ll want it after you come in from your romp in the snow.
If you’ve got a mudroom, great, if not designate an area near one of your doors. We have a great quilt rack that we drag out of our bedroom and put near the kitchen door. It’s great for hanging wet snow clothes on. Oh, and you’ll need extra mats (bathmats) or doormats for the boots.
If you’ve got a fireplace that’s cool, get the troops to help you start a roaring fire. With someone to wad up newspaper and someone to pass kindling and help drag the logs over, a five-minute chore can easily turn into a rousing half-hour “perfect-fire” building seminar.
And you know, while you’ve got em there hypnotized by the flames it’s a great time to whip out Dr. Seuss, or Junie B. Jones or even Tuck Everlasting, get some comfy pillows and read a bit.
Lunch can be leftovers, lunch can be soup, lunch can be PB&J or apples and peanut butter or carrots and dip — something quick and informal. Remember it’s a snow day, we’re flexible today, we’re improvising today and we’re watching through our children’s eyes.
You’ll get outside. It doesn’t matter if it’s before lunch or after lunch. Now you’re outside. This is a critical time. This could be the biggest challenge of your day. You have one charge now and it is diametrically opposed to every parental fiber in your body. What you do now is LISTEN.
“So you don’t want to sled on your $200 Eurosled snowblazer? You want to sit in the snow and throw fistfuls up in the air, OK.
“How about now? Oh, you just want to chase the dog around the yard ...”
Go with it. It’s a snow day and you’re well, remember. And don’t be surprised, if you let em go full tilt for 45 minutes or so then remind them that the hot chocolate is already waiting, it could be time to go inside while there is still some feeling in your toes.
And, with a tummy full of warm hot chocolate, some graham crackers and peanut butter and another “most favorite movie in the whole wide world” cued up, they may not even notice when you slink away and crawl stealthily under the covers.
Which takes us, once again to Yogi Tom, “There are only two mantras, yum and yuck, mine is yum.” – Tom Robbins.
Snow day! Yum!
And the dam - came tumblin’ tumblin’
The Dillsboro Dam story is as twisted and convoluted as the Tuck itself. You had Jackson County commissioners who made property rights one of the underpinnings of their election campaigns voting in favor of eminent domain to wrest the dam out of Duke’s hands. You had one recently elected commissioner trying to get the county to drop its lawsuit, who, while a member of another county board, said Duke wasn’t doing nearly enough and that if they didn’t do more, lawsuits would be filed.
Current Jackson County Chairman Brian McMahan called the Tuckasegee River Cooperative Stakeholder process flawed and commissioner Joe Cowan called it a farce. Both are right and wrong to some extent. The process was flawed to the exact extent that stakeholders did not come informed and prepared to play hardball with Duke.
The process was never a farce. Duke was using all angles and all available resources to get the best relicensing agreement it could get. Agencies like U.S. Fish and Wildlife, North Carolina Division of Water Quality, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and other agencies that have actual relicensing authority were there to let Duke know they had concerns. In a traditional relicensing process, these entities and Duke would have been locked behind closed door until time for public comment.
Cowan was also quoted in the Sylva Herald as saying, “... I know they’re [Duke] in cahoots with the whitewater people ...” I imagine this is reference to some of the concessions garnered by American Whitewater through the stakeholders’ process.
American Whitewater was the one stakeholder group, with no licensing authority, who had done their homework and had a game plan and was dedicated to it. And they received concessions from Duke. Sadly the county and other participants were not so well prepared.
And remember, any and all stakeholders could have and should have come armed to the teeth. The worst that could have happened would have been for them to be asked to leave the stakeholder meetings. In which case they would’ve had the avenue to become interveners, as Jackson County and others did as the FERC process moved forward. But all that is water over the dam, so to speak.
The dam is coming down, so what does that mean for the river? According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there are 11 species of fish found in the nearly mile-long impounded reservoir behind the dam. The stretch of river immediately below the dam has 38 species of fish. The river above the impounded reservoir has 24 species of fish.
The federally endangered elktoe mussel is found below the impoundment and above it. Removal of the dam will help reconnect these populations and expand the overall range of this endangered animal. The imperiled sicklefin redhorse is also found below the dam and removal of the dam will allow the sicklefin to extend its range upriver. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife report states, “Restoring the reservoir to a free-flowing river will make this portion of the river usable to a suite of native fish and other aquatic animals,” and that’s good news.
The Sylva Herald report noted a “conciliatory” tone among commissioners with reference to Duke and the dam. It’s worth a try. With adequate funding, the land alongside the river in Dillsboro could make a beautiful riverside park. And maybe they could talk Duke into dropping a couple of giant boulders in the river there so T.J. Walker’s Dillsboro Inn could enjoy the nice rippling sound of the river without having to view the debris atop the dam.
And let me say that I totally concur with Cowan and other Duke dissers that say Duke is not doing all it could or should. But sadly it’s a sign of the times. Cowan mentioned that Duke was not being a “good corporate neighbor.” I submit that, in these socio-economic times, good corporate neighbor is an oxymoron.
And then there were none
Atlee Yoder’s purple martin houses are in storage, out of the raw Ohio weather, awaiting spring and the first scout of the new season. But herein lies the rub — Yoder’s houses did not come down until last week.
Yoder, an Amish farmer from Apple Creek in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country is, like many of his Amish neighbors who eschew most of our modern contrivances and conveniences, quite partial to these organic bug zappers.
Last August just as Yoder’s breeding colony was departing for the balmy climes of South America, a female martin with a late fledgling showed up at his houses. Being neighborly, Yoder left his houses up and the birds stayed — and stayed. September passed, then October and finally in November the fledgling disappeared. But the adult female lingered.
According to posts from the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s Web site forum and their Facebook site and from Ohio birds listserv, the female martin stayed until Jan. 10, 2010. Reports say that Yoder fed the bird on Jan. 10 by tossing mealworms into the air for her to catch as he had been doing for the last month or so. According to those reports the bird appeared healthy at that time, but failed to reappear the next day, or the next and thus appeared to have flown the coop.
And now for the official disclaimer — a purple martin overwintering anywhere in the U.S. should be big news for birders in general and the ornithological community in particular, yet documentation of this bird is sparse and sometimes contradictory. I have no reason to doubt Su Snyder’s (a member of the Greater Mohican Audubon Society) photo, which she so graciously provided for this story but other pieces of the story are puzzling.
According to the Ohio listserv the bird was supposedly reported on the Wilmot, Ohio, Christmas Bird Count. But when I go to Audubon’s Web site and pull up that particular CBC there is no mention of a purple martin. But then the bird is mentioned in a Dec. 22, 2009, Ohio statewide “rare bird alert.”
I have emailed a member of the Ohio Birds Record Committee, the Ohio Ornithological Society and the compiler of the Wilmot CBC but to date have received no replies. I imagine these people are being cautious and working to cross all “t”s and dot all “i”s before commenting in public. There might be questions of the birds’ origin i.e. were they captive reared?
Hopefully, this will be sorted out and I will be able to update you on this seemingly “first ever U.S. overwintering purple martin.” In the meantime if you’re interested in purple martins check out the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s website at purplemartin.org or their Facebook site.
At least it’s not an ivory-billed woodpecker, right?
It was one of those rare winter mornings when Haywood County Schools were on a two-hour delay. Izzy, my second-grader, and I dropped her sister, Maddy, at First Methodist’s outstanding daycare center, blasted by Smoky Mountain Coffee Roasters, grabbed a cuppa joe for me and a cuppa jack (hot chocolate) for her and struck out for Walker in the Hills and the nether reaches of Old Fiddle Road to feed Thomas the cat.
It was mostly clear and sunny, a few high clouds here and there and cold, around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Looking up from The Great Smoky Mountains Expressway, the trees on the mountaintops looked like they had been flocked. They were just gleaming white. I thought it was rime.
But as we ascended Old Fiddle Road we began to notice little twinkling in the air like fairy dust in a Disney movie. By the time we reached the end of state maintenance on Old Fiddle, the twinkling had turned to sparkling flakes, slowly falling through the air, reflecting the sunlight like tiny mirrors.
I hesitated to call the flakes snow because they were clear (at least translucent). But they were large and definitely crystalline. The ones touching down on the windshield when we stopped at Thomas’ house were one-fourth to one-half inch in diameter. These crystals were flocking the trees and the mountaintops.
I don’t know who exclaimed, “Wow! Cool!” first, Izzy or me. But Izzy had the best description. She said it was like we were trapped in a snow globe and someone was shaking it.
The flakes bugged me because all the snow I had ever seen was white. So I did an Internet search and found “diamond dust.”
The best description I found – though a little technical and some European spelling was from “The Weather Doctor” at http://www.islandnet.com/~see/weather/elements/ddust.htm.
Here are some excerpts:
“... At very cold temperatures, 40 degrees below zero (C or F) and colder, snow can actually fall out of the cleanest, clearest blue sky without intervening clouds. Temperatures need not be so cold if there is dust, or other minute particles, in the air on which the water vapour may deposit. When condensation nuclei are present, diamond dust may form at temperatures just below minus 20 degrees C (0 degrees Fahrenheit). At such temperatures, the water vapour in the air spontaneously forms ice crystals which slowly settle earthward. When these falling crystals are caught in the light, they sparkle like gemstones, a weather condition known appropriately enough as diamond dust.
“... At such low temperature, ice crystals form as irregular hexagonal plates, or as unbranched ice needles or ice columns directly from water vapour in the air. The formation of hexagonal-plate crystals is favoured at air temperatures from minus 10 degrees C to minus 20 degrees C (14 degrees F to minus 4 degrees F). Ice plates resemble dinner plates with a hexagonal pattern in their long dimension and are thin relative to their width. Ice columns, on the other hand, look like minute stubby pencils. Columns typically form in temperatures below minus 25 degrees C (minus 13 degrees F). They are long in comparison to their hexagonal cross-section. Larger column crystals fall with their long axis paralleling the ground, but at times, the falling columns may rotate like slow, miniature helicopter blades.”
It was definitely the hexagonal-plate crystal that Izzy and I observed at Thomas’ house the other morning.
Another great Web site for looking at snow crystals is Mark Cassino’s Snowflake gallery at http://www.markcassino.com/newsite/portfolios/snow/index.htm.
Happy winter-weather watching!
Birrrrrding the big chill
The annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count was scheduled for last Saturday (Jan. 2). However, scary weather conditions — snow, high winds and temperatures in the low teens — especially in the northern count area, caused the count to be canceled.
My birding partner, Bobby Wood, had already made the trip over from Stecoah and I had been up for a couple of hours trying to rouse some owls before we received the news. The truck was loaded and we were in birding mode so we decided to enjoy Mother Nature’s cool offering and kick around the count circle for a while on our own.
We decided to start our morning at Lake Junaluska. The closer we got to the lake, the harder the snow was falling. The roads had a light dusting that rose and swirled at the beckoning of the north wind.
We glassed the back of the lake from the pull-off along U.S. 19. A few coots were present along with some Lake J mallards, a couple of ruddy ducks, some of the feral Canada geese and some hooded mergansers. We flushed a great blue heron from the tall grasses along the wetlands, at our second stop. We watched through our binoculars as the big blue-gray bird launched with deliberate wing beats and cut a swath through the falling snow as it lumbered across the lake.
The lake was productive, as usual, providing 14 species of gulls and waterfowl. The best finds were a lone canvasback that’s been hanging out at the lake for a while, a horned grebe and a pair of lesser scaup. Of course the colorful hooded mergansers and dapper buffleheads are always a treat to see. Plus it seemed uniquely apropos to watch ducks bobbing in the snow on a Christmas count.
We left Lake Junaluska for the Waynesville watershed. The windswept reservoir was the antithesis of Lake J, not a bird to be seen. We cruised the roads around the watershed where we found hermit thrush, white-crowned sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet, hairy woodpecker and red-breasted nuthatch among others. The winter wonderland mystique was reinforced in the watershed as we stood in a small clearing, drenched in sunlight, looking past the occasional snowflake at the dazzling white peaks above us.
We made a few other stops before wrapping up between 1:30 and 2 p.m. We wound up with a respectable winter’s morn birding total of 44 species.
While the official count was canceled this year, I want to thank the town of Waynesville and local farmer Jim Francis for once again supporting the Christmas Bird Count by allowing access to their properties. We’ll see you guys again next year.
2010-to be continued
Will 150-foot long fiberglass wands magically spin electricity from mountaintop zephyrs across Western North Carolina in the near future? The issue of industrial-sized wind turbines along the ridgetops of Western North Carolina is sure to blow up again when the General Assembly reconvenes in May.
District 57 Rep. Pricey Harrison has vowed to reintroduce legislation promoting the pursuit of large-scale wind power production along the ridgetops of WNC after Senate Bill 1068, amended to discourage such production, passed the Senate and House last August. Sen. Joe Sam Queen, newly elected President Pro Tem Martin Nesbitt, and other mountain senators appear committed to the bill in its new form and dedicated to preserving what they feel is the intent and language of North Carolina’s Mountain Ridge Protection Act.
Opponents of industrial-sized wind farms across the mountains of Southern Appalachia may have a new bat in their arsenal. On Dec. 9, 2009, U.S. District Judge Roger Titus granted an injunction stopping construction of a wind farm in West Virginia, noting that the developer, Beech Ridge Energy LLC, should have sought an Incidental Take Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because their project was likely to kill federally endangered Indiana bats.
And speaking of bats, biologists and scientists across the Smokies fear the winter of 2009-2010 will be the winter white-nose syndrome shows up in the Smokies. White-nose syndrome, named for the white fungus that appears around the muzzle of infected animals, was first documented from Schoharie Cavern, near Albany, N.Y., in 2007. The disease has spread rapidly and is moving south. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Virginia have been added to the list of states reporting white-nose syndrome bringing the total to nine states. More than a million bats, including 25,000 endangered Indiana bats have succumbed to white-nose syndrome and biologists believe the jump from Virginia to Tennessee and/or North Carolina is inevitable.
It’s been a long and winding road from “nowhere” to a cash settlement. But does a paltry $12.8 million settle anything. The money, buried deep in this year’s omnibus spending bill was secured by former Swain County resident Congressman Heath Shuler. Swain County residents seeking a cash settlement had arrived at a more substantial $52 million settlement figure. Shuler calls the $12.8 million a “down payment” and promises to keep working for a more equitable settlement. In a county basically bereft of property tax revenue (over 85 percent of the land in the county is federally owned), it seems only fair the Feds should pony up a little more. I hope Shuler shows the same kind of conviction and courage he did standing behind Mike Ditka’s porous offensive line for the New Orleans Saints.
Everything old is new again – happy (old) new year!