Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Smokies Life: winter wren

In May and June, if you park your car along Newfound Gap Road at the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead and begin to climb the steep southern flank of Mt. LeConte, you pass through an old northern hardwood forest that features buckeye, beech and birch, towering giants still. If you listen closely above the roar of Walker Camp Prong that flows into the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, you’ll hear an avian chorus that features the chit-chatty red-eyed vireos, flute-like wood thrushes, the hollow swirling song of veery and the high buzzy thin notes of blackburnian and black-throated blue warblers, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zee. All add a lithe sweetness to the damp vernal air.

The understory here is thick, often sodden, with rosebay rhododendron, blooming dog-hobble, primordial looking ferns and moss. It’s lush with life; in the spring it’s wet and fecund.

Still you climb, past Arch Rock, past the rock hugging heath balds, past Alum Cave Bluffs and the screaming peregrine falcons, kak, kak, kak, that dominant the rocky spur, the Eye of the Needle, that points west to the cove hardwoods far below and Sugarland Mountain beyond. 

Yet, still you climb higher, passing through the zone of Eastern hemlocks and above 5,000 feet you’ll find a taste of the Canadian woodlands pushed south by the last Ice Age. You are now in remnants of spruce-fir forests long since left clinging to the tops of the Smokies like castaways on isolated isles.  

Here in the high country it gets quiet, almost spookily so. Yes, occasionally you hear the deep-voiced gurgling croak of a raven as it flies overhead and if your ears are so attuned they grasp the high-pitched whistled three-notes of the black-capped chickadee, hey, sweet-ee and the barely audible kinglets, tsee, tsee, tsee. But, beyond this, if you are lucky, you soon hear one of the longest, most melodious songs, as spiritual and zealous as any Gregorian chant ever quavered by any Benedictine monk. Yet the songs are not solemn or mournful, their joyousness is unmistakable. It’s life affirming and sweet. Dr. Fred Alsop calls it a “musical series of bubbling warbles and trills that may last five seconds or more.” You are in what Alsop calls “the dark haunts of the spruce-fir forests,” the high domain and lofty cathedral of the winter wren...

For the rest of my article about the winter wrens of the Smokies, check out the current issue of Smokies Life magazine. 

Thanks to editor Steve Kemp, Lisa Hortsman and all the rest!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


In the speak-easy days before spell check, heck I'll go one better, before Mr. Webster's dictionary, spelling was more an art form than a science.

Case in point: the Native American Catawba tribe lived in the Southeast along the border of what is today North and South Carolina. Beautiful country, I've been there.

The Catawba were primarily an agricultural people that were friendly towards early European colonists but constantly at war with other Indian tribes. (Big mistake! If the tribes had worked together and driven us out, we'd all still be living on the moors.) 

Today, roughly 2,600 Catawba still remain, mostly in the Palmetto State. The group has a tribal totem: a tree with showy white flowers. The tree bore their tribes’ name: catawba but because of a spelling error, the describing botanist—a man named Scopoli—recorded the name as “catalpa,” and that’s the moniker we use today.

Catalpa or catawba, misspelled or not, it’s still a beautiful tree when it’s in full bloom as it is now. With large heart shaped leaves, it's a fine example of southern treedom, which really isn't a word but in the spirit of freestyle spelling, I'll use it anyway.

- Photo taken along Baskins Creek in Gatlinburg

Friday, May 22, 2015

Broadwing Farm

Broadwing Farm in Hot Springs, North Carolina

Just perfect.

A special thank you to Mary and Pete Dixon. We rented one of the cabins on their organic Broadwing Farm in Hot Springs, North Carolina the past several days and as the name suggests, it's a wonderful place to watch migrating broad-winged hawks pass on their spring and fall migrations, albeit we got there a little late this year.

Karen Sue and I enjoyed the quiet, solitude and peace of the most secluded cabin. A wonderful place to get away from it all and recharge, watching the clouds pass overhead. Last night we listened to the spring peepers by the pond and a lone enthusiastic whip-poor-will calling from the hillside.

Oh, did I mention every cabin comes with fresh produce from the garden, a dozen eggs from, well...the chickens, and a hot tub filled with 85-degree mineral water pumped straight from the ground. Hot water from the ground, imagine that.

Good luck with your purple martins, Pete!

5 Stars (Well, actually I counted more than that drift over the hot tub in the dark.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

attention span?

This story made the rounds last week. 

It seems that the average goldfish (Carassius auratus) a relatively small member of the carp family native to East Asia, has an attention span of 9 seconds. But a recent Microsoft survey discovered that because of smart phones, the Internet and other quick electronic ways of keeping in touch and informed, the average well-connected human's attention span has dropped to 8 seconds. 

This is such an insul 

(I've already moved on to something else.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Return to Tremont

Going to Tremont is like a trip back home.

For a time, my ancestors lived in the next watershed over at Elkmont on Jake's Creek. Heck, they lived with Jake. (Jacob Houser's second wife was my great, great, great grandmother Anna Bales who begot Caleb, who begot Jim, who begot Homer, who begot Russell, who begot me. That's a lot of begetting.)

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is so comfortable it IS like going home. Thank you, citizen science coordinator Tiffany Beachy for inviting me to speak to your birding class about the "Secrets of Backyard Birds." It's always great fun. Courtship, territory selection, choice of mate, divorce, all that avian amour (pair bonding), angst and aggression. Backyards can be lively places; sometimes even "Peyton Places." So, who knew? 

And yet, they still have time to make a lot of baby birds, multiple clutches even. That's a lot of begetting.

See you next year, Tremonsters!

Tiffany Beachy speaks to the group

Tremont is so cozy, even the speaker gets to go barefoot.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Birding & Brunch

Thanks to all who attended my May Birding & Brunch @ Ijams program this morning.

Eastern kingbird
This is a monthly series. Today's topic was Summer Birds or the birds found at the nature center and Knox County only from late spring through summer. 

They also nest here in local environs but choose to spend their winters farther south. Most are insectivores. The eastern kingbird specializes in eating bees. That's quite a niche. (Perhaps that's why their Latin name is Tyrannus tyrannus! Long live the king!)

Great crested flycatcher
The great crested flycatcher likes to decorate its nesting cavity with a shed snakeskin. A wood thrush sings with dual vocal cords. Other spectacular summer species we looked at were the indigo bunting, common yellowthroat, white-eyed vireo, green heron, yellow-breasted chat and the diminutive blue-gray gnatcatcher. 

Thanks Kodie, for preparing the brunch!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

barn as art

This reminded me of the work of British sculptor and environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. You could call it, "Tennessee barn floating in yellow."

That's Bluff Mountain in the background.

- Photo taken in Sevier County

Sunday, May 3, 2015

place of peace

Ijams staff members Dr. Louise Conrad and Rex McDaniel

Thank you to all who joined me for a sunset picnic at Chota, the Cherokee Peace Town. The site is sacrosanct and spiritual. It remains as it was to the Native Americans so long ago, a place of peace.

We visited the Chota Memorial and paid our respects at the grave of Oconastota, the great Cherokee Warrior Chief who died of old age at Chota in 1783.

Our group also hoped to hear male Chuck-will's-widows and whip-poor-wills calling in the twilight. Both are possible. I write about it in my book Natural Histories.

In the end, we heard only Chucks, and ironically the closest was in the parking lot where our picnic began.

In the dark, Jason made an audio recording of that one greeting us as we arrived back at our cars guided by our flashlights. Click: Jason's chuck. 

Thank you, Amy and Jimmy for providing the picnic!