Monday, May 30, 2016

going home again

It was Asheville novelist Thomas Wolfe who said, "You can't go home again." He meant that as soon as you leave, it begins to change. Because change is the natural order.

Last Saturday, I led a Memorial Day Weekend hike for 19 people back into my ancestral fountainhead: Baskins Creek and a waterfall that is located only a few miles upstream from my boyhood home. The trip was hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Association and GSMA Executive Director Laurel Rematore and Marketing and Membership Associate Marti Smith went along on the adventure. Lynne Davis, Ijams volunteer and wildflower aficionado, i.e. ardent devotee, was a surprise guest but her expert knowledge is always welcomed.

Great Smoky Mountains Association supports the perpetual preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the national park system by promoting greater public interest and appreciation through education, interpretation and research. 

Baskins Creek Falls is a two-tiered, 40 foot waterfall that often goes overlooked. It was only 1.7 miles into the site but mountain miles can be deceiving. The trail is rated "Easy," but I'd rate it "Easy, f.a.b.g." Or, easy for a billy goat. Oddly, it's mostly downhill going in, dropping approximately 335 feet in elevation (2580 to 2245 feet) from the Roaring Fork Trailhead. But what goes down the mountain has to climb back up. So we did. 

Ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora)
But, we were in no real hurry. It was a beautiful day, a "stop and smell the roses" kind of day, meaning it was leisurely. Mountain laurel was in bloom at the top of the ridge we had to go up and over, and the Catawba rhododendron (purple) was just beginning to flower. Most of the ephemeral spring wildflowers had come and gone, but we found two of the park's oddest plants: ghost plant, a.k.a. Indian pipe and bear corn.

Ghost plant is pale white, like a corpse. Unlike most plants it is not green, it also does not produce its own food through photosynthesis, but rather it's a parasite that steals its food from the roots of trees, most often beeches. Bear corn is another non-photosynthesizing, parasitic plant that surreptitiously siphons its food as well, usually from the roots of oaks or beeches. Both are not dependent on sunlight and can grow in very dark environments, shaded by their host trees. 

Here's my ancestral connection: Just about everywhere you look in the Roaring Fork or Baskins Creek watersheds there are ghosts: old rock walls, wagon roads, remains of stone chimneys, cemeteries. Lives were lived there, scratching an existence out of steep mountain slopes with little flat land for gardens. Granddad Homer Bales told the story of a cow that once fell out of its pasture and broke its neck. On the way into our destination, we walked past the Bales Cemetery, where several of my ancestors are laid to rest. And since a mountaineer's life was a hard-scrabble life, they were indeed at peace in the quiet setting. We stopped for awhile to pay our respects. 

The Baskins Waterfall was where my grandmother Pearl Mae Ogle Bales took showers when she was a barefoot girl, as did all of the rest of the large family.

Preston Columbus Ogle family. Circa. 1918. Front: Clifford, Elizabeth, Luther, Homer, Preston, Stella, Fred. Back: Walter, Russell, Pearl (Bales), Arlie.

In the late 1920s, great grandfather Preston Columbus Ogle sold 124.6 acres along Baskins Creek that included: a 3-room frame house, 4 tenant houses, 2 barns, a mill, 200 apple trees and a waterfall for $3,500. P.C. sold the family property, as did all of his neighbors, to become part of  a greater good: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

And a greater good it is.

Last September, I led a driving tour of the cabins along the park's Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail for the GSMA. For a look back: Click: Heritage Tour. 

Thank you, GSMA's Judy Collins for inviting me to lead both. And thank you, GSMA's Laurel and Marti.   

Baskins Creek Falls
Photographing ghost plant before it disappears
Paying respects at the Bales Cemetery
Bear corn (Conopholis americana)
Galax (Galax urceolata)
Hiking group, left and right beyond the creek
Best guess: Silvery glade fern (Deparia acrostichoides)
The hike out
Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Thank you to all! It was great fun. Photo by Linda Hintze.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

club moss

Club Moss species, probably Flat branch ground-pine (Lycopodium obscurum)

Here's the odd thing. I have been writing about nature since 1992, that's 24 years; newspaper columns, magazine articles, blogs and two books with a third in the incubator. And until my post of last week, I had never written about club moss.


Well then, I haven't paid proper respect to our village elders.

Club moss, or more correctly, clubmoss, or more scientific: lycopodium, (lika-poe-de-um) is one of the most fascinatingly curious green things on Earth. They often go overlooked simple because they look like baby trees. They're not. The fossil record tells us that their lineage is ancient, they have been on Earth for roughly 410 million years, give or take a few millennia, far longer than flowering plants. The club mosses reproduce by spores, not seeds. Consequently, they are placed in a group known as fern allies. Ferns are very antediluvian plants as well.

After my last post, I heard from my friend and Ijams volunteer, Rex McDaniel

Rex is a supreme photographer. Here is what he wrote about an encounter with club moss he had several years ago.

"Yesterday I visited Big Ridge State Park. As I was walking on the trail to Norton's Cemetery this first scene caught my eye. I made the first picture, then went on to the cemetery. As I came back I was again attracted by this section where the ground under the trees was covered by Club Moss. I realized that this was a beautiful world. The Club Moss makes a fantastic setting for the forms and colors that can be found there," wrote Rex.

Here is a link to Rex's wonderful photos he took that day: Big Ridge Club Moss.

Thanks, Rex. Yes, this is a beautiful world.  

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Let us remember

With an American kestrel. The smallest bird-of-prey in the Tennessee Valley. Photo by Chuck Cooper.

Let us all remember all of those we morn this weekend for Memorial Day and what is traditionally Decoration Day in the Great Smokies.

Drop by Ijams Nature Center tomorrow afternoon. The forecast is great for a short hike around the park. Plus, I'll be doing a free Animal Meet & Greet: presentation & chat at the top of every hour: Noon, 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m.

What will it be? A bird, a snake, a spider or a sleepy opossum?

Could be either or all.

With barred owl (Strix varia)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Baskins Falls

Baskins Creek Falls

Since Ellie has a few days off from classes, we headed to the mountains, hiking "down" into Baskins Creek Falls in the Great Smokies. It's rare in the national park to leave the trailhead and descend down the mountainside to see a waterfall.(Elevation loss going in: 767 feet, elevation gain climbing out: 767 feet)

We each had a separate agenda. For me it was reconnaissance; for Ellie it was birds. We accomplished all things considered. I got to reconnect to a trail that I haven't walked in 18 years in my natal watershed, and Ellie got dueling red-eyes, really multiple vireos, plus ovenbirds, hoodeds and a worm-eating warbler; the latter was a lifer.

And adding a lifer makes everything else, including juvenile American politics, i.e. men behaving badly, seem so trivial. Plus we got to see the waterfalls where my Grandmother Pearl Ogle Bales showered when she was a barefoot mountain girl.

So, it was a trip back in time, in more ways than one.

Flat-branched tree club moss (see below) also has the common regional names 'princess pine' and 'ground pine' due to its resemblance to tiny pine trees. It's a very old, old plant form, that predates flowering plants by millions of years. Club moss represents nature's early attempt for a vascular plant to gain "height." Club mosses have been on Earth for roughly 410 million years, give or take a few millennia. While millipedes (see below) date back that far as well. They were among the first animals to have colonized the land probably feeding on the early club mosses. 

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Worm-eating warbler (Helmitheros vermivorus)
Best guess: Silvery glade fern (Deparia acrostichoides)
American giant millipede (Narceus americanus)
Club Moss species, probably Flat branch ground-pine (Lycopodium obscurum)
Galax (Galax urceolata)

Monday, May 23, 2016


Northern brown watersnake

Thank you to all the naturalists who attended the Snake-ology @ Ijams workshop yesterday. For more detailed account, go to the Ijams blog post: Snake-ology

The -ologies are light-hearted and informative for the young and young at heart, so mark your calendar: Turtle-ology will be Sunday, June 26 at 2 p.m.

For the WBIR Channel 10 story about yesterday's Snake-ology class, click: Snake-ology!

Thank you, WBIR's Jerry Owens!

The great snake hunt begins

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Hurrah for the Herps

Thank you to all who attended yesterday's TN Naturalists @ Ijams class "Hurrah for the Herps!" 

Dr. Louise Conrad taught the reptile portion in the afternoon and I taught the amphibian segment in the morning. And on our walk and dip-netting activity we found lots of tadpoles (by their size, probably gray treefrogs and bullfrogs) and Eastern red-spotted newts.

TN Naturalists @ Ijams is a year long series with 40 hours of classes and 40 hours of volunteer time. If you are interested in enrolling call 577-4717 and ask for Peg.

Friday, May 20, 2016


Cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus)
Do you have an unusual fear of snakes? Then my program at Ijams this Sunday might help you get over your ophidiophobia. Pronounced: Oh-fid-E-Oh-phobia (long O, long E, long O) i.e. the fear of serpents. Here's the Ijams description of the program: 

Sunday, May 22, 2 p.m. 
Snake-ology 101 at Ijams

So, do you really have a fear of snakes? Well, let's get over it. They are more afraid of you than vice versa. Join Ijams naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales for this fun and lighthearted look at 12 of the common snakes species that live in East Tennessee. The "-ology" programs are great for families and the young-at-heart. We will even get to meet a couple of the scaly residents of Ijams. If you’ve been to our -ology programs before, you know there will be some fun, snake-themed food. Feel free to bring something to share, or just come partake in our scaly snacks! The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members $8 (Children under 3 are free). Space is limited; to register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

Here's the WBIR story, click: Live@5@4

Gray Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

WWW 2016

The 2016 edition of Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge begins today and ends on Sunday, that is May 18 through 22, at LeConte Center.

Dozens of programs, walks and talks at no charge.

I'll be doing three bird talks at LeConte Center:

Wednesday, May 18 at 3:30 PM
Top of Old Smoky: The Birds of the High Country.

Thursday, May 19 at 4:30 PM
How to Identify Local Birds of Prey.

Friday, May 20 at 10:00 AM
Secrets of Backyard Birds

Stop by for a visit. For a complete list of activities, click: WWW

Thank you to the good people that organize this wonderful event!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

tanager first springer

The one that got away. The blank spot on the branch is where the first spring tanager had been before it flew out of my life forever.

BAM! First spring male summer tanager stopped by my second-floor aerie this morning. Very different from a mature male, but still with the tanager profile and bright plumage. One of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen, just off my screened-in porch. More or less, UT orange on front half, yellowish aft.

Did not have my camera and it was a real poiser. In the parlance of today: My bad. By the time I retrieved it, the bird had flown. But for great photos of what I just saw, go to the blog of John Briggs:  First spring

Monday, May 16, 2016

rosy maple

To be a naturalist is to be curious about all things outdoors, and, if so, you are never bored, a 10-year-old at heart. After all, there is an estimated 8.7 million species on the planet and Homo sapiens is only one of these. The real world is so much more interesting than the virtual world. Television simply cannot compare, just people talking about or to other people, unless it's Nature on PBS.

This is the fourth year of the TN Naturalist @ Ijams classes, part of a state wide program. Jennifer, Peg, Dr. Louise and I teach the series of 40 hours of classes. And this year we have one student who drives all the way from north Georgia, so the word is getting out. Last Saturday, I taught the first birding class. It began at 9 a.m. and our Georgia student left home at 4:30 in the morning to get there. That is dedication!

Another memorable moment from that gathering was when Nick Stahlman, a student in the class, showed me the above photos he had taken in the Smokies on May 8 at 10:22 a.m. on the Grotto Falls portion of the Trillium Gap Trail. I'm from the Smokies, I thought I knew the basic flora and fauna of the mountains, but I had never seen this flower before.

But guess what, it's not a flower! 

Nick figured it out. It's a rosy maple moth, (Dryocampa rubicunda). Pink and yellow, this psychedelic—so does anybody remember the Strawberry Alarm Clock?—colored moth's caterpillars feed on sugar, red and silver maples. The adults do not eat, they reproduce. Oh, so sixties.

Nick writes, "The Wikipedia article is the only thing I could find that might explain the curved shape of the wings. It mentions that when the adult first emerges it has to pump it's wings full of fluid."

For the rest of the wiki article go to: rosy maple.

"I'm never at a loss for things to study or topics to write about: everything in the natural world is fair game. If I'm not intrigued and excited every time I step outside, it just means I'm not paying attention." - from Feathers by Thor Hanson

 Thanks, Nick!


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

rain crowing

Yellow-billed cuckoo. Photo by Stephen Ramirez, wiki media

True to form and right on schedule, early this morning from the back porch with rain on the way, I heard my first "rain crow," i.e. yellow-billed cuckoo of the year. 

It seems to always be early May when they return to the woods behind the house to spend the summer. They arrive just when the canopy fills with tent caterpillars and other insects—by July it will be cicadas—all their favorite bill of fare.These are high canopy birds. You rarely see them but their cough-like calls are an essential part of late spring and summer. 

Grandma Mary Jane taught me the name rain crow because their rapid ka ka ka ka ka kow kow kow calls seem to forecast an approaching storm as it did this morning.

If the wood thrush are the flutists in the forest behind me, the cuckoos are the percussionists. 

And, if that weren't enough, late in the afternoon. A pair of male summer tanagers passed by the back porch as well. Singing their little avian hearts out. 

Sigh. Cue Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "Ode to Joy." 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tremont birding class

Road to Tremont
Thank you Tiffany Beachy for inviting me to talk last Saturday night to your master birding class at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. I speak there annually, and for me it's like a trip back home to the Smokies. Yes, I am an official Tremonster.

Tremont's "Birds of the Smokies" weekend workshop is part of their Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program. 

Our topic Saturday evening was "Secrets of Backyard Birds," a look into the lives, courtship, parental roles and even divorce within the birds you commonly see in and around your home. Species like the ever present robins, chickadees, wrens, cardinals, goldfinches and blue jays. There's a lot going on in your backyard. They do more than just come and go from your feeders.

Beachy is the Citizen Science Coordinator at Tremont.

Thank you again. Great group of birders.

Class of 2016

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mommie & Me

Join me today for a Mommie & Me Hike. 
Below is the Ijams listing.

Sunday, May 8, 2 p.m. 
Mommie & Me Hike at Ijams

(All Ages) Psst. Kids. It’s a secret! To celebrate Mother’s Day, why don’t you take your Mom on a nature walk to the Keyhole at Ross Marble with Ijams’ own naturalist and storyteller Stephen Lyn Bales? We’ll look for flowers and butterflies and birds and have a good time just being outside with your Mom. Doesn't that sound fun? And here’s the best part: it’s free. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110. (And it’s OK if Mom calls.)

In honor of my mom, Mary Helen. who passed away last year.

Sunday, May 8, 2 p.m. 
Wildflower Walk at Ijams 
Also, join Ijams volunteers and wildflower enthusiasts Lynne and Bob Davis as they explore everything blooming at William Hastie Natural Area. Lovely blossoms such as jack-in-the-pulpits, yellow pimpernel and many others dot the landscape with color along the trails of the Urban Wilderness. We’ll wander where the wildflowers take us!

Spaces are limited, so pre-registration is required for this event. 
Please call 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.
Meet at the Ijams Quarry Parking: Overflow Lot. Due to limited parking availability, we will likely have to caravan to William Hastie
This event is free.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

a nest for a song

Hidden in plain sight. Can you see her on the nest?

Song sparrows often go overlooked because they are common and, after all, just streaky little brown birds. But they are wonderful singers, even joyful. And they hide their nests in plain sight.

But sometimes being plain has its advantages.  

 "Song Sparrow pairs search for nest sites together. Nest sites are usually hidden in grasses or weeds, sometimes placed on the ground and occasionally as high as 15 feet; often near water. Not afraid of human habitation, Song Sparrows may nest close to houses, in flower beds."

"The female builds the nest, working mainly during the morning. It’s a simple, sturdy cup made of loose grasses, weeds and bark on the outsides, then lined more tidily with grasses, rootlets, and animal hair. Construction takes about four days. The finished nest is 4-8 inches across," says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

And true, the song sparrow nest above is in weeds, very close to the ground, near flower beds and she's not afraid to be near human habitation.

Let's hope all goes well.