The Birds have Arrived on Naked Mountain!

Bluebird eggs in the Naked Mountain nest box.

What a day for the birds on Naked Mountain!  This morning I sat out on my deck with a mug of coffee and listened to a very intent Scarlet Tanager singing in the top of trees about 50 feet away right in the middle of the fabulous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can see that view on the blog header.  The oak and hickory trees are about halfway leafed out so their color is a fresh, yellow-tinged green. I looked through my binoculars to find the bird and there he was – sitting amongst the new leaves, brilliant red with striking black wing feathers against the backdrop of blue mountains.  What a picture!

Also singing and announcing their presence were several very loud Ovenbirds, a Yellow-throated Vireo, Rufus-sided Towhee, my favorite singer — a Wood Thrush and a new singer and song I wasn’t familiar with. The bird was working the brushy growth around the deck. It was easy to see in my binoculars – beautiful bright yellow throat and chest with black stripes curving back toward the wings and black markings around the eyes.  The olive green back had rusty colored streaks on the upper part of the back and neck. What was it?  I grabbed my Sibley Guide to Birds and flipped through the warbler pages.  And there it was – a Prairie Warbler!  I think this is the first time I have seen a Prairie Warbler on Naked Mountain. As I watched the bird in my binoculars, I picked up views of two other birds working the brush – a Worm-eating Warbler and a Yellow-rumped Warbler.  Those are common on Naked Mountain, but it was great fun to see all three of these warblers feeding together!

Then I checked on the Bluebird nesting box I erected in February (See the February 18th post.)  I took a step ladder with me so I could peer down into the box from the top opening.  When I opened the box, the female Bluebird was there, sitting on her eggs, but before I could get a picture, she flew out.  I quickly snapped the picture you see above, latched the opening, and scrammed out of there.  I later saw the pair feeding on crawling bugs in my yard, so I am sure she went back to the nest and is still incubating her eggs.  I will have to disturb her again next week when I will attach the protective cage to keep snakes from eating the hatching babies.

Firepink blooming on Naked Mountain.

I also snapped a few photos of wildflowers that are blooming now on Naked Mountain.  The Firepink blooms in ten small patches in the dappled woods right next to my upper road.  The Bluets

Bluets blooming on Naked Mountain.

bloom along the middle and sides of the lower road, and the Perfoliate Bellwort blooms in many locations on Naked Mountain, but there is an easily viewed two acre patch of it about half way up my road.   I love the bellworts; the stem pierces the leaves so they move in the wind like little, fringed yellow church bells. I imagine I can hear them ringing!

Perfoliate Bellwort blooming on Naked Mountain.

Stunning Spring Ephemerals in Great Smoky Mountains

Upper left – Carolina Spring Beauty, photo by Sharon Samford; lower left – Sharp-lobed Hepatica, photo by Sharon Samford; right – Trout Lilly, photo by author

Earlier this month, I spent a glorious week with the Virginia Native Plant Society in Great Smoky Mountains National Park gaping at what may be the most stunning display of spring wildflowers the temperate zones of planet Earth offers up!  Walking carefully laid out trails along river cove forests, hardwood cove forests and limestone sinkholes, the diversity of the flowers and their numbers, size and robustness astounded the professional botanists among us right alongside the dazzled amateurs.

Our first morning we walked the Cove Hardwood Trail in the Chimney’s picnic area. The cove contained large examples of Yellow Buckeye and Carolina Silverbell trees just beginning to bud out with a literal carpet at their feet of Sharp-lobed Hepatica!  In Virginia, in the Dutch Creek area (see April 1st post) near the base of Naked Mountain, wildflower admirers consider ourselves lucky when we see thirty Round-lobed Hepatica blooming in one area. This first walk in the Smoky Mountain National Park was a display encompassing literally acres of hepatica blooms!  Also blooming were hundreds of Catesby’s Trillium as well as beautiful examples of White Trillium (grandiflorum), Trout Lilly, Lettuceleaf Saxifrage (Saxifraga micranthidifolia), thousands of Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), Walking Fern, and Wild Ginger.

The next day we visited the Tapocca Trail, a little known walk that is in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness adjacent to the North Carolina side of the park. We were led on this walk by Dan Pittillo, retired curator of the herbarium at Western Carolina University.  Here the diversity of both the tree and herb species was outstanding.  Blooming along a trail that ran 100 feet above and along Calderwood Lake, created when the Little Tennessee River was dammed up in the 1920’s, we saw dozens of five different trilliums in bloom:  Red (Trillium erectum), Yellow (Trillium luteum), White (Trillium grandiflorum), Sweet White (Trillium simile), Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum). We also saw many clusters of pretty white Canada Violets, Purple Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnitifida), a few examples of blooming Yellow Mandarin (Disporum lanuginosum), drifts of blooming Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and drifts of False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum).  We also saw many examples of Carey’s Saxifrage and Slender Toothwort (Cardamine diphylla).

Triple Trilliums: Red (Trillium erectum), Yellow (Trillium luteum), Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum); photo by Sharon Samford.

After that spectacular, diverse display Prof. Pittillo next took us to the big tree section of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness area. This national treasure has an interesting history. Early in the twentieth century, as loggers began to rapidly cull the big, old growth trees in the Smoky Mountains and in the areas nearby along the Slickrock Creek watershed, their operations were stopped cold in 1922 with the completion of the Calderwood dam and the resulting flooding of the logging railroad. This prevented a sizable old growth area from destruction. A decade later, the Veterans of Foreign Wars sought to establish a forest memorial to Joyce Kilmer, a poet and journalist who had been killed in WW I.  After considering millions of acres of forest across the U.S., the Forest Service chose an undisturbed 3,800-acre area of old growth trees along the Little Santeetlah Creek in the Slickrock Creek watershed and established the reserve in 1936.  It was this area that we visited. The tree species were very large, sometimes six feet in diameter and 100 feet tall, and diverse. We saw, along a three mile walk, hemlock, yellow buckeye, red and white oaks, basswood, beech, silverbell, poplar and sycamore.

Here is Kilmer’s poem that inspired the dedication of the reserve in his memory:

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

Prof. Pittillo standing between two giant poplars in the Joyce Kilmer Reserve

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer

You can read more about the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness area here.

Blooming Fringed Phacelia; photo by author. Click on the photo to enlarge the scene and feel immersed in the fairyland!

The next day we hiked three miles along Porter’s Creek Trail to visit a fairyland.  But first we had to cross a troll-like bridge over a raging creek. The bridge, dubbed “the bridge of death” by some in our group, was only 15 inches wide, had just one leaned out railing to grasp, and took a little turn to the left halfway across.  The test of nerves only made the fairyland visit more rewarding.  On the other side of the bridge were several acres of blooming Fringed Phacelia – millions of little lacy white blooms forming a soft carpet under mature trees hungrily reaching for the sunlight before their tall hosts leafed out and cast them into shade.  The bees and butterflies were everywhere.

Fringed Phacelia and bee; photo by Sharon Samford.

The next day of trail walks took us along Middle Prong Trail next to a beautiful, white water river and a logged over area that is in the middle stages of growing back to maturity. Along this trail, we saw Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus) in bloom and a patch of 40 or 50 Puttyroot leaves! That will be a spectacular orchid display in a couple of months.  I have never encountered more than two or three wrinkled Puttyroot leaves together on Naked Mountain, or anywhere else in rich woods

On the final day we visited the Siegrists, a couple who are miniaturist artists that live next to the Smoky Mountain National Park. We visited their studio in their home and saw their amazingly intricate artwork done in opaque watercolors with brushes that are thinned to a width of three hairs.  We also toured their thriving native plant garden.

They led us on a walk down a trail in the park that is not yet formally marked on park service maps. The trail led to a series of limestone sinkholes and surrounding valley floor covered with a thick matt of Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata).  The phlox was not yet in full bloom, but was starting its show in many sunny spots flanked by thousands of shiny new May Apples. Here and there among the phlox were white Shooting Stars. They were just as robust as those on Naked Mountain, although not numerous.  Botanists have estimated that at least 10,000 pink Shooting Stars bloom in the barrens on Naked Mountain.  That show will begin very soon.

It was hard to finish this trip to the Smoky Mountains, my first, and leave behind the beauty of the most diverse, stunning display of spring ephemerals I will probably ever see.  I hope you will get a chance to experience a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains in April. In the meantime, visit Sharon Samford’s website here for more fabulous photos of our trip.

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Shock and Hope Featured at State Wildflower Society Meeting

The shock part of the meeting was presented by the first speaker, a geologist (of course!), at the Virginia Native Plant Society’s annual workshop held on March 16th at the University of Richmond. The general topic was, “Piedmont:  Places and Plants.”  The geologist, Dr. Callan Bentley, Assistant Professor of Geology at Northern Virginia Community College, discussed, “Geologic Roadkill:  The Deep History of Virginia’s Piedmont.”  In one short, fascinating hour he described the evolution of the Earth, basically billions of years of plate tectonics, or continental colliding and rifting, and how this activity is manifested in the rocks and soils that make up the Piedmont we see today. You can see a map and geologic information about the Virginia Piedmont here.

About two-thirds of the way through his lecture Dr. Bentley showed a slide depicting fault lines that underlie the Piedmont, particularly one that runs right under the North Anna Nuclear Plant in Louisa County! A Wikipedia search notes, as did Dr. Bentley, that although informed in 1977 of the fault by consulting geologists, Dominion (the power company that owns the site) went ahead and built the entire plant right on the fault line and then lied about it to the public. Their argument to scientists raising concerns was that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had assessed there had not been an earthquake in the area for probably thousands of years. This was followed up in 2010 by an NRC report which estimated the risk each year of an earthquake intense enough to cause core damage to the reactor at North Anna at 1 in 22,727. 

Those of us who live in Virgnia know what happened next.  On August 23, 2011 a 5.8 magnitude earthquake occurred in Mineral, Virginia a mere 11 miles from the North Anna Nuclear Plant. The plant lost power and shut down for over three months. It suffered cracks to several buildings and on-site spent-nuclear-fuel long term storage canisters shifted. Dominion denies any of this damage compromised safety.  In fact — right now — Dominion is planning to expand the plant’s facilities.

It was a little hard to focus on the rest of Dr. Bentley’s talk — especially for those in the audience who live near the North Anna Nuclear Plant!

Smooth Coneflower — USDA Photo

The hope part of the meeting was offered by the last speaker, Dr. Ryan Klopf, Mountain Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage, and the steward for the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve – my home. Dr. Klopf’s topic was, “Piedmont Community and Ecosystem Restoration.”  He began by providing a history of the ecology of the Virginia Piedmont. During the Hypsithermal period, which occurred for several thousand years beginning around 10,000 years ago, North America experienced an unusual, extended period of drought which caused a lot of fires.  During this time, prairie and savanna plant species spread eastward from the great plains of the Mid-West. From 4,000 BCE until the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the Piedmont of Virginia was characterized by open canopies of oaks, hickories and pines. The understories were a rich herbaceous layer of at least 277 different species. As the climate changed and became more temperate with increased moisture, the prairies and savannas were maintained, ecologists believe, through regular burning by Native Americans. It is surmised that this was done to help these early Americans hunt and travel.  When Europeans arrived, they altered this landscape significantly through their agricultural practices, reducing Piedmont prairies to the sunny edges of farmed fields and naturally dry places that inhibit tree growth. Reforestration of much of the Eastern United States over the past century has also pushed out these prairie and savanna species.

For more than a decade, the Division of Natural Heritage has been invested in restoring the ecology for these disappearing prairies species. The Division has employed a process of prescribed burning in several of the state’s Natural Area Preserves where these species were found in remnant communities. Dr. Klopf presented the findings for two of these sites, Difficult Creek NAP and Grassy Hill NAP.  At Difficult Creek in Halifax County, an area of 819 acres that contains hardpan forest, remnants of prairie, and an underlying mafic geology that supports species diversity, Heritage Division stewards resolved to replace a loblolly pine plantation on the site with historic Piedmont savannah species. Using prescribed fire, tree thinning and invasive species management, the effort has produced a very positive outcome:  Oaks have increased from 11 percent to 27 percent; hickories 8 percent to 25 percent; native grasses have increased from 16 percent to 28 percent and the native herb layer has increased from just 0.5 percent to 9 percent.  One example from the latter statistic, Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata),has increased from 211 plants in 2002 to 866 plants in 2008. 

At Grassy Hill Natural Area Preserve in Franklin County a similar effort has had comparable results. The native grassland herbaceous layer is reassembling including increased presence of Andropogon viginicus, also known as Broomsedge, and  Parthenium auriculatum, or Wild Quinine. 

In between the shock and the hope lectures, two other presenters, Christopher Ludwig, chief biologist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage and co-author of the newly published Flora of Virginia, and Dr. Tim Spira, professor of botany at Clemson University rewarded the rapt audience with eye candy – beautiful slides of endemic wildflowers of the Piedmont and their dwelling places and pollinators.

You can learn more about the Virginia Native Plant Society, the sponsor of this excellent workshop, and its many other programs and benefits for the native plant lover here.

Bluebirds Need Your Help!

It’s time to put up the bluebird nesting box. It’s still winter, mid-February, but the bluebirds will begin checking out housing in a few weeks.

Bluebirds are one of my favorite bird species. They are about seven inches in length and the males have bright, truly blue heads, backs and wings, an orange-red throat and breast and white belly.  The females have a grayish head, back and wings, but edged with blue. They are members of the thrush family, the finest singers in the woods. Their song is a soft, melodious warble that finishes on a slightly lower pitch and with just a hint of sadness to the tone. I love the sight and song of bluebirds so much that I can pick out just a fragment of a song, or a call note, a quarter mile away.

Bluebird Photo from Wikipedia

There are three kinds of bluebirds in North America – the Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird and the Eastern Bluebird which inhabits areas East of the Rocky Mountains. Once plentiful,  North American Bluebirds were in decline through much of the 20th century and their numbers  had dropped by an estimated 70 percent by 1970. The reason was largely due to the proliferation  of nonnative bird species that were cavity nesters like bluebirds. These species, the European Starling and English House Sparrow, outcompeted bluebirds for nesting sites by aggressively attacking them, driving them off their nests, destroying eggs, killing nestlings and sometimes even the adults.  

To reverse the decline of bluebirds, in 1978, Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, founded the North American Bluebird Society to promote the preservation of bluebirds. The main focus of Dr. Zeleny’s efforts was the provision of nestboxes and managing of bluebird nestbox trails. He designed a nestbox that had a small enough entrance hole to keep the larger starlings out, and a hinge on the top so the box can be viewed. The English House Sparrows can still get in the boxes, but Dr. Zeleny stressed monitoring of the boxes and removal of English House Sparrow nests and eggs. The combination of educating the public about the needs of bluebirds, providing them with nestboxes and information for monitoring them has had positive results. In 2005, the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory reported sitings, once rare, of bluebirds all across the southern United States as part of its Backyard Bird Count conducted by thousands of citizen scientists. You can read more about providing and monitoring bluebird nesting boxes here.

Yesterday, I erected a bluebird nesting box on a six foot smooth, round metal pole, attached a baffle designed to keep raccoons from reaching up and destroying eggs or nestlings, and will later affix a metal cage with sharp wire points to keep out snakes. I tried it out on the box, but will screw it in place only after the box is being used by a bluebird, or

Author shows snake guard for bluebird nesing box

other native cavity nesting bird. The birds may be scared away by the cage, but once eggs are laid and nestlings hatch, they will not abandon the box.

I placed the pole and nestbox on the edge of a natural opening in the woods near the summit of Naked Mountain. It is not far from my house and deck, so I can spy on activity, using binoculars, from a distance. I will also monitor weekly to ensure English House Sparrows do not use the box. The spot I picked is exactly the spot bluebirds themselves chose twenty years ago. There was a hollow tree on the edge of the clearing with woodpecker holes on its south-facing side, the preferred direction. The clearing provides the birds with an open area to locate and pounce on crawling bugs. It also provides an intermittent drinking and bathing water source via a bowel effect in the rock formation. A shallow puddle forms there and stays for a few days after a rain shower. I have secretly spied on many kinds of birds, including bluebirds, bathing in the rock puddle. It is totally fun to watch this!  I also provide additional water in a birdbath near the house for those hot, dry weeks in July. 

Author puts up bluebird nesting box on Naked Mountain

The bluebirds fledged two broods for two consecutive summers in that old hollow tree. Then it blew down in a storm. That’s when I started putting up the nestboxes. But two summers ago, my resident pesky bear that I have nicknamed Chobani because he seems to prefer Greek yogurt, predated the nestbox. You can read more about Chobani in the January 28th post on “How To Be Bear Smart On Naked Mountain.” I didn’t put a nestbox up last spring, but Chobani didn’t bother me all last summer, so I am going to try again.

We’ll see what happens this spring. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

How To Be Bear Smart On Naked Mountain

Chobani was not done with his (or her) visits to my house on Naked Mountain.  A few weeks later, early on a Sunday morning, a strange sound woke me up.  I opened my eyes to see a big black head looking in my bedroom window and two black paws pushing on the screens.  I jumped out of bed and ran toward the bear yelling at the top of my lungs.  Chobani scrambled back down off the Gravely mower that he had used to climb up to get up to the level of the window.  But then he just hung around in the yard.  My stepdaughter, who was visiting at the time, heard my yelling, saw the bear in the yard and raced out onto the screen porch yelling and waving her arms. That finally scared him (or her) and he ran into the woods.

Chobani’s claw imprint on porch screen

This incident frightened me enough to contact a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The biologist told me the bear’s behavior was not normal since I had removed all enticements in and around my house months ago, including all bird feeders and bird seed containers. The bear had destroyed my bird feeders and a blue bird nesting box, in addition to invading my screen porch.  He encouraged me to warn my neighbors not to “feed” bears by leaving bird seed and pet food around.  He also encouraged me to get a small gauge shotgun which would stun the bear, but not seriously harm or kill it.

I had no intention of doing that.  I have never owned or operated a gun and never wanted to do so.  Naked Mountain is a rocky place and I am very sure I would simply injure myself with ricocheted gunshot. Not to mention that the kickback would probably knock me over.  I would also want any gun safely under lock and key to prevent accidents through mishandling by visiting friends or family.  Guns are dangerous, especially in the hands of amateurs.

Instead, I did this — got a slingshot and practiced, located my can of bear spray given to me by an Alaska-dwelling relative, and readied a very loud air horn for use.  But Chobani never showed up again that season.

Ten months later in early June, I went out for a walk down my long road and left every one of the bear-protection items at the house.  This, of course, was the day I met Chobani walking up the road!  He (or she) was bigger than the last time we met, probably by a good thirty pounds.  I stopped in my tracks.  I was a quarter mile away from the house and safety.  Chobani was about 150 feet down the road. I started yelling, loud, low, and angry!  Chobani stopped, looked and looked and looked.  I kept yelling. Chobani kept looking.  Finally, I started backing up… uphill, still yelling.  Then I flapped my arms up and down. That seemed to do it.  Chobani probably decided this was that, crazy woman from last summer – “I don’t want to mess with her.”  He turned and scrambled up the mountain into the woods. I never saw Chobani again all summer.

I intend to run a “bear smart” home on Naked Mountain which means I only feed birds between November and March and then remove all feeders and seed.  I also keep my recycle bins in the house and empty them frequently. In the summer, I keep my screen doors and windows open during the day to allow breezes through, but close and lock all of them at night and turn on the air conditioning (yuck.. but no choice; I miss the night sounds of cicadas). I avoid using the charcoal grill.

All of this is annoying, but I have chosen to live in the middle of a natural area preserve which means I am fortunate to see bears up close and personal now and then.  This is scary, but also very rewarding.  Bears are on Naked Mountain because I am ensuring they have good habitat for their survival.

So, Chobani, go out there and enjoy it and leave me alone!

Chobani

 Does anyone have other ideas on how to be bear smart and prevent adverse bear encounters?