Wednesday, January 30, 2013

in decline: ruffed grouse

Ruffed grouse are darn handsome birds. But, coming in at number 20 on Audubon's list of 20 Common Species in Decline, they are a species on the ebb not the flow. To make the list, a species has to have lost 50 percent of their overall population since 1967. 

A local population of ruffed grouse is cyclical to begin with: they go through highs and lows, roughly every ten years. In some places, every 20 years there's a super high. It seems to be tied to predator/prey availability cycles.  If a great horned owl is hungry and it cannot find anything else, cannot locate a hare or rabbit, boom there's an unassuming ruffed grouse like a roister chicken, warm and ready to eat at Kroger's.

Consequently, ruffed grouse weren't very good at staying alive. They live longer than New Year's Resolutions, but not by much.  

Born on the ground, they are vulnerable from the get go. Few survive past age three. A study carried out in Minnesota revealed that if you start with 1,000 ruffed grouse eggs in the spring, you will only have roughly 250 young grouse alive in the fall. By the following spring only 120, only about 50 one year later and only 20 the next. Less than two dozen out of 1,000 in just three years. It's hard to sustain a population with that kind parsimony. 

If you factor in habitat loss and other human-related causes, it could spell doom with a troubling disco beat.

Ergo: (cue the Bee Gees) ruffed grouse just aren't very good at ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin' alive, stayin' alive. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Audubon's raven

my favorite Audubon's: 

The Raven

A bird not perched upon a pallid bust of Pallas above a chamber door but a hickory tree. This portrait came 12 years before the famous poem by Poe. John James Audubon knew better where to find them.

"Their usual places of resort are the mountains, the abrupt banks of rivers, the rocky shores of lakes, and the cliffs of thinly-peopled or deserted islands ... There, through the clear and rarefied atmosphere, the Raven spreads his glossy wings and tail, and, as he onward sails, rises higher and higher each bold sweep that he makes, as if conscious that the nearer he approaches the sun, the more splendid will become the tints of his plumage," writes Audubon, the naturalist, in his Ornithological Biography.

Why is Audubon relevant? Because in addition to his artistic talent, perseverance and derring-do, he was a d--- good naturalist. A lot of what we know today about birds, the audacious, yet often farouche, John James Audubon was the first to put in print.

And "from my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore /For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore/Nameless here for evermore," a poem by the same name, first published on this date in the New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845.

The Raven by  Edgar Allan Poe read by American actor Christopher Walken.

Monday, January 28, 2013


The most recent issue of Audubon (January February 2013) has the winners of the 2012 photo contest. It's on sale now at local newsstands.

The grand prize winner, taken by Carol Cahil at Montaña de Ore State Park located in Los Osos, California, shows a Northern flicker emerging from his nest hole.

And because it was in the west, it's  a "red-shafted" flicker not the "yellow-shafted" variety we have here in the east.

Just look at those salmon-colored wing linings. Beautiful. Oh, to go on a road trip to see such.

And to the left, by comparison, a similar photo of the eastern yellow-shafted flicker, part of the photo exhibit "The Owl and the Woodpecker" by wildlife photographer Paul Bannick that was on display this past summer at the Frank H. McClung Museum on the campus of the University of Tennessee.

The two color morphs meet in the middle of the country, roughly a broad curved zone that runs from Alaska to the panhandle of Texas through the Great Plains. In this zone, the yellow and red intermingle, get to know each other in a biblical sense and produce clutches of hybrids that have traits of both color forms: red and yellow, yellow and red. 

Ooh la la, Mardi Gras. In a word: Wow!
And to bring closure to this, for those of us in the east that do not get to see the western version visit our suet feeders, here's another photo: red-shafted

Saturday, January 26, 2013

crane spotting

Now that the 23rd Annual Wilderness Wildlife Week held each year in Pigeon Forge has been wrapped up—and congratulations to the organizers of this 8-day event for a job well done—let's go Crane Spotting!

Weather permitting, Saturday, February 2 @ Noon, I'll lead an Ijams Road Trip to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge to see sandhill cranes overwintering at the Meigs County location. Golden and bald eagles, wintering ducks and whooping cranes also a possibility. $5 for Ijams members, $10 for non-members. Ijams will provide hot cocoa. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register. Meet at Ijams Visitor Center.

- Above photo by Manjith Kainickara, video by Mark Vance.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Audubon's sandhill crane?

The raucous, trumpeting sandhill cranes were once called Canada cranes, hence the Latin name: Grus canadensis. Although establishing nomenclature/taxonomy can be a fluid process, even the best of us get it wrong occasionally. I know I do. Is it Baltimore or Northern oriole?

John James Audubon, the naturalist, believed that sandhill cranes and whooping cranes were the same species. He called them both "Hooping crane," even though other early American naturalists at the time referred to them separately. (Remember they were making it up as they went along. There were no books to consult. Audubon was working on that It wasn't like he could run back home and check his Sibley's.)

Audubon writes, "The young are considerably more numerous than the old white birds; and this circumstance has probably led to the belief among naturalists that the former constitute a distinct species, to which the name of Canada Crane, Grus canadensis, has been given. This, however, I hope, I shall be able to clear up to your satisfaction. In the mean time, I shall continue my remarks..."

"The trachea of this bird confirms my opinion that the Canada Crane and the Whooping Crane are merely the same species in different states of plumage, or in other words, at different ages; and, in truth, the differences are not greater than those exhibited by many other birds, both aquatic and terrestrial." 

Yet, Audubon perhaps had some doubt on the topic because he ultimately produced a separate watercolor/etching for each.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Audubon's Pileateds

my favorite Audubon's:

Pileated woodpecker

"It would be difficult for me to say in what part of our extensive country I have not met with this hardy inhabitant of the forest. Even now, when several species of our birds are becoming rare, destroyed as they are, either to gratify the palate of the epicure, or to adorn the cabinet of the naturalist, the Pileated Woodpecker is every where to be found in the wild woods, although scarce and shy in the peopled districts."

"Wherever it occurs it is a permanent resident, and, like its relative the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, it remains pretty constantly in the place which it has chosen after leaving its parents. It is at all times a shy bird, so that one can seldom approach it, unless under cover of a tree, or when he happens accidentally to surprise it while engaged in its daily avocations," writes John James Audubon, the naturalist, in his 
Ornithological Biography.

Why is Audubon relevant? Because in addition to his artistic talent, perseverance and derring-do, he was a d--- good naturalist. A lot of what we know today about birds, the audacious, often farouche, John James Audubon was the first to put in print.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

in decline: grosbeaks

And speaking of bird species in decline. Nature is always in a state of flux.

There was a time in the 1980s, when flocks of evening grosbeaks would spend their winters in the Tennessee Valley and foothills of the Great Smokies near my boyhood home in Gatlinburg. But, not any longer. Nope.

In 2007, the Audubon Society reported that their population had declined 78 percent in the past 40 years. Yet, this is not the first significant change in their numbers as the Audubon article penned by Greg Butcher continued, "The evening grosbeak teaches us how bird populations can change dramatically. Virtually unknown east of the Mississippi River until 1850, it expanded east—peaking in the mid-1980s—then plummeted. It's future will depend on maintaining healthy habitat in the boreal forest."

Historically, the eastern spread of the large, chunky yellow finches is possibly due to plantings of Manitoba maples and other trees and shrubs around farms and the availability of bird feeders in winter.

Their decline? In part, it is believed that the "chemical control of spruce budworm and other tree pests reduces this species' food supply and may cause secondary poisoning." 

Here one day, gone the next, such is the case with us all.

- Photo by Simon Pierre Barrette

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

in decline: grackles

At the local CBC ten days ago, Shearwater and I watched as a flock of 30 or so common grackles flew into a tree off Ginn Road. We estimated their number and marked them on our tally sheet.

Yesterday, I was surprised to be reminded that the shiny, iridescent black birds with intense yellow eyes log in at number 14 on the list of Audubon's 20 common species in decline, having lost over 50 percent of their total population in the past forty years. This means that the gregarious common grackle may become the not-so-common grackle if this trend continues.

For other species on the list go to: In Decline.

- Photo by Howard B. Eskin

Monday, January 14, 2013

Audubon's Carolina Parakeet

my favorite Audubon's:

Carolina parrot, (today, Carolina parakeet)

If the whooping crane almost went extinct, this one surely did. The last documented Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. But in Aududon's day they existed in great flocks. Sadly though they had a fondness for maintained orchards and their young fruits, he writes:

"Do not imagine, reader, that all these outrages are borne without severe retaliation on the part of the planters. So far from this, the Parrots are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from the stacks, the husbandman approaches them with perfect ease, and commits great slaughter among them. All the survivors rise, shriek, fly round about for a few minutes, and again alight on the very place of most imminent danger. The gun is kept at work; eight or ten, or even twenty, are killed at every discharge."

"The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies, screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition. I have seen several hundreds destroyed in this manner in the course of a few hours, and have procured a basketful of these birds at a few shots, in order to make choice of good specimens for drawing the figures by which this species is represented in the plate now under your consideration," writes John James Audubon, the naturalist, in his  Ornithological Biography.

Why is Audubon relevant? Because in addition to his artistic talent, perseverance and derring-do, he was a d--- good naturalist. A lot of what we know today about birds, the audacious, often farouche, John James Audubon was the first to put in print.

I'll be making a presentation about Audubon's "Birds of America" this afternoon at 2:30 at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge. Admission is free.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Venable keynotes

Wilderness Wildlife Week begins today in Pigeon Forge. Eight days of outdoor and regional cultural presentations and outings.  

Tonight at 7:45 p.m., WWW presents keynote speaker Sam Venable. Noted as a local storyteller, humorist, author and long-time columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Sam's talk: How to Tawlk and Rite Good: An Introduction to the Native Tongue of Southern Appalachia will be in the Dobro/Harp Rooms.

On a personal note: Sam wrote the introduction to my first book: Natural Histories. He was the first to read the manuscript, albeit in rough form.

For more information about the event, go to: WWW

Thursday, January 10, 2013

fresh greens!


My ancestors lived in the foothills of the Great Smokies (Roaring Fork and Baskins Creek watersheds). Horace Kephart referred to them as highlanders, I prefer mountaineers, but most of the world simply called them hillbillies. 

In the fall, they canned, pickled, sulfured, salted, dried, buried and squirreled away every bit of food they possibly could. It was important because it would be all they had to eat for months. There wasn't a supermarket down the street; not that it mattered since they had little money. Needless to say, they had to be self-reliant. Times were hard but they were even harder.

During the long cold winter, all they ate came from their stored larder. You have to imagine, they longed for the taste of anything fresh. At this time of the year, their yearning was such that they bundled up and went exploring. They were looking for something vibrant and green. They were looking for watercress.

As the name implies, watercress grows in water. It prefers slow-moving shallow limestone-based streams—something we have a lot of here in the valley.

On a recent damp walk through a local wetland—muddy, muddy, muddy—down Toll Creek looking for signs of beaver, the bright green of watercress glistened like a verdant beacon, a most welcomed sight, a sign of the coming spring; for my mountaineer ancestors, it would have meant something fresh for the supper table.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Wilderness Wildlife Week

Cabin fever?

This year, Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge runs from January 12 through January 19. During that time, visitors choose from more than 100 presenters sharing their knowledge of the outdoors and Smokies' culture in more than 175 seminars, lectures and workshops. (Pack your lunch, Sunday, January 13 has 33 sessions alone.)

So much is crammed into the event’s eight-day run that it’s impossible to do it all. Perhaps this is what keeps people coming back year after year.

And even though it’s in January, all of the activities are not indoors. This year’s schedule offers many guided walks and hikes.

This will be the 23rd year of the event that has no equal in the country.

Below are a list of my talks, all programs are free:

Sun. Jan 13, 12:30 - 1:30 p.m. 
Chickadee: Bringer of Truth: 20 plants and animals important to the Native Americans of the Tennessee Valley.

Mon. Jan 14, 2:30 - 3:30 p.m. 
The making of John James Audubon's monumental Birds of America 

Tues. Jan 15, 3 - 4 p.m.
Identifying Local Birds of Prey 

Is that a hawk or a falcon, a golden or bald eagle? How many species of owl can be found in the Tennessee Valley? Join me for some quick tips on how to identify the local birds of prey.

Plus, attend the talk by my friend, Paul James.

Sun. Jan 13, 5 - 6 p.m.
Explorers of the Smokies in the 1920s. 
H.P. Ijams, Carlos Campbell, Dutch Roth, Paul Adams, Jim Thompson, Brockway Crouch and Camp Margaret Townsed, all had a role in the early days of the national park. Want to learn more?

All four programs are at the Music Road Hotel Convention Center in Pigeon Forge.

Don't forget to stop by the Ijams table in the Exhibit Hall. For a complete list of all programs go to: WWW.

- Photo of a red-tailed hawk

Sunday, January 6, 2013

what's in a name?

Just a moniker musing: not all red-tailed hawks have red tails, not all ruby-throated hummingbirds have ruby throats, not all bald eagles are bald or even white-headed, not all black-throated blue warblers have black throats and not all pied-billed grebes have pied bills. However, all three-toed woodpeckers DO have only three toes (on each foot), or at least I think so, I've never actually seen one and counted their digits. 

I do have it on good authority that sharp-shinned hawks do have sharp ridges that run the length of their leg bones.

These curiosities come to mind because yesterday, on the local Christmas Bird Count, Shearwater and I found six pied-billed grebes. None had noticeable spots on their bills because in their winter non-breeding plumage the spots are negligible, which reminded me of other birding caveats: immature red-tailed hawks have brown tails; female and juvenile ruby-throated hummingbirds have white throats; for the first two years, bald eagles have brown heads; and female black-throated blue warblers have olive throats.

To paraphrase the Bard: So what's in a name? That which we call a pied-bill by any other name would still be a pied to me.

Friday, January 4, 2013

a duck with teeth?

As flashy as a gadwall is plain, don't let the Hollywood looks and diminutive size fool you, hooded mergansers are intense. Essentially they are small ducks with teeth. Well, actually they have sawbills that allow them to catch their meals: fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects, which they find underwater by sight. They are great swimmers as Eliot and I observed the other day at Cove Lake.

These dynamos are fascinating to watch as they dive below the surface and disappear from sight, you never know where they'll pop up next. The one we watched made the gadwalls look sluggish and so duck-like. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

e-gad walls

Some bird names are simply fun to say. Grebe. Phalarope. Sora. 
Ouzel. Magpie. Gadwall.

The origin of the last one is obscure, coming into being when British ornithologist Francis Willughby named the duck in 1676. Where the name gadwall came from is a mystery. 

As a palate-cleanser after Christmas, my tradition for seeing out the old year and ushering in the new is doing something low-key and unhurried, preferring to slip not stumble into the change of calendar.

Even though it was cold, Eliot and I chose to go birding at Cove Lake. And the most interesting thing we found was a raft of perhaps 40 gadwalls, not a particularly easy bird to ID from a distance. Like mallards, they're dabblers perhaps best noted for their nondescriptness.

Plain is plain. Soft gray-brown overall, except the males have black rumps. That's the first clue. Also, their heads are not sleek like a mallard but oddly shaped. "Pouffy," said Eliot. 

The maraschino on the top of our gadwall sorbet was a lone male hooded merganser—as flashy as the rest were bland—swimming along with the group. While the rest merely dabbled, the merganser dove deep into the water showing off his adroitness at not being surface-bound.

"I've got no strings, So I have fun, I'm not tied up to anyone, They've got strings, But you can see, There are no strings on me," sang Pinocchio.