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Wednesday, 25 April 2012 13:22

Scarlet tanagers, maroon trilliums and green toads

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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.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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