Archive | Natural History

Tis the Season to be Counting

 

Braving the cold for the CBC - Amy Kovach photo courtesy National Audubon Society

Braving the cold for the CBC – Amy Kovach photo courtesy National Audubon Society

This year marks the 115th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC.) Frank Chapman, an officer in the fledgling Audubon Society proposed the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900 as an alternative to the traditional “side hunt,” where groups would choose sides and go afield, guns a-blazing and whoever came home with the greatest number of dead animals was declared the winner. Twenty-seven participates held 25 CBCs that day and a total of 90 species were recorded. The 2012 CBC had 2,369 counts with 71,531 participants and included counts in Canada, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. The number of birds tallied in that 113th annual CBC was 64,133,843.

CBCs are the grandfather of “citizen science.” And while citizen science may be sloppy science, it has also proven to be valuable science. There will not be 50,000 bespectacled scientists in white lab coats followed by their statisticians evaluating and recording all the nuances observed afield. There will be you and I and some birders better than we and some birders not so good. Not every birder participating in a CBC will be able to differentiate between a female sharp-shinned hawk and a male Cooper’s hawk. But 99.999 percent of CBC participants do know what a robin looks like and a cardinal and a chickadee and most can count. And learning about population and distribution trends of common birds is just as important (if not more so) as noting how many European wagtails show up on this year’s CBC.

With more than 110 years under its belt, the CBC is the longest running ornithological database on the planet. Scientists at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which has joined with Audubon to make CBC data more relevant and more accessible note that, “The CBC’s current relevance is as a comparative historical source of information on bird changes, a coarse means of capturing large bird changes, and a conservation-oriented recreational pursuit by birders. There are better ways of measuring changes in wintering bird populations. On the other hand, since the CBC system is already in place at no cost to anyone but those who participate and over long periods of time interesting trends are documented, the running of CBC’s by birders should not be discouraged.” Add to that a bibliography of scientific papers and articles that lists well over 250 titles that have incorporated CBC data and it becomes apparent that the science aspect of this citizen-science project, albeit primitive and unwieldy is of significant value.

CBCs help track the range-expansion of introduced species like Eurasian Collared doves. These birds began appearing on CBCs in the late 1970s. We had our first on the Balsam CBC back in 2005. creative commons photo

CBCs help track the range-expansion of introduced species like Eurasian Collared doves. These birds began appearing on CBCs in the late 1970s. We had our first on the Balsam CBC back in 2005. creative commons photo

But it was the citizen or social aspect of the CBC that got the ball rolling back 115 years ago and still sustains it. The camaraderie of being afield with like-minded souls probably rousts more CBC participants out of bed on those cold winter mornings than any thoughts of scientific contribution. And when darkness begins to envelope count day and participants gather to share lists and swap stories of the ones that did or didn’t get away it’ll be that camaraderie that takes center stage. And it’s that camaraderie that’s integral to conservation.

We didn’t create DuPont State Forest or preserve the Needmore Tract because we read, in some scientific journal, about the need to preserve biodiversity. We protected these areas because we were connected to these areas. We had experienced them. As the number of people who experience CBCs or other citizen-science projects increases the number of people who become connected increases. And the more people who are connected to more wild places, means more wild places will be protected.

For more info and a schedule of local and regional counts visit North Carolina Christmas Bird Counts and South Carolina Christmas Bird Counts.

 

 And, in the spirit, please enjoy:

 The Night Before Christmas Bird Count

by Don Hendershot

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas Bird Count and all through the house

Was the whirr of computers and clicks of the mouse.

Maps and notes were clipped to the copy stand with care

In hopes the long-billed curlew still would be there.

Compilers and counters tossed in their beds.

Visions of grosbeaks and palm pilots danced in their heads.

The GPS lay nestled and ready on the map;

Spotting scopes, binoculars all covered with lens caps.

Then all of a sudden, quietness — not clatter.

No mouses were clicking, what could be the matter?

On the screen was nothing, not even a flash.

How could it be — the computer had crashed.

There it was, quiet, not even a glow.

But wait, a laptop on the table below.

Quick type in birdsource.org and see what appears.

Whew, trogons and titmice, flickers and finches all are still here.

So reassuring to know; what a great trick,

Technology and nature merged with a click.

BBSes list CBCs, too many to name,

Bits, bytes and modems all part of the game.

On checklists, on palm pilots, listers were listin’.

On PCs, on Macs, ordinary citizens

Were lurking and threading, following it all.

Cyberspace packed as thick as the mall.

All the birds will be counted, most before they fly.

The rest will be IDed as they take to the sky.

Field guides perused by more than a few.

Sibley’s and Peterson and National Geographic too.

No source will be spared and that is the truth.

Wingbars and eyerings will be noted as proof.

Whistles and chirps and other bird sounds,

Properly noted and all written down.

Birders afield in boats and afoot

Will first count and then prepare to input

Data on species, data on numbers, in fact

Data all about birds; their presence — their lack.

Data on birds that eat seeds and eat berries;

Birds that nest in trees or in eyries.

Data spread across the WWW, high and low,

Just click on a hypertext and away you go.

There are cables and wires and plugs with teeth.

Some go over, around, or come up from beneath.

Small screens and big screens, the size of a telly,

All sitting on tables that wobble like jelly.

And placed carefully and safely away on a shelf,

A wireless computer one can use by oneself.

Into the field the counters are led,

Armed with technology from their feet to their head.

With Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss hard at work,

Birders count birds with barely a jerk.

Then off to Compaq or Dell or Macintosh they go

To key in their data under the computer’s soft glow.

When suddenly amid all the bells and the whistles,

A first year goldfinch clings to last year’s thistle.

And suddenly high tech or low tech, even no tech’s alright

It’s you and a bird sharing the same winter sunlight

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are regular winter visitors to Western North Carolina - Lewis Scharpf photo courtesy National Audubon Society

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are regular winter visitors to Western North Carolina – Lewis Scharpf photo courtesy National Audubon Society

0

M & M’s on the River

Our last blog for our mammalian march along the French Broad will focus on two smaller furbearers, the muskrat (yeah, like Suzy & Sam) and the (don’t tell him he’s small cause he’s got as big ego) mink.

Muskrat swimming - creative commons

Muskrat swimming – creative commons

Muskrats top out at around five pounds and while beavers often go 30 pounds and sometimes 60 there is, occasionally, a little confusion. Sometimes people talk of seeing tiny or “baby” beavers around a beaver lodge – but the small critter they are seeing is actually a muskrat. Beavers often allow muskrats to set up an efficiency apartment of their own within the den. The thought is that beavers have nothing to fear from muskrats and having them around actually provides extra eyes, ears and/or noses to aid in the detection of predators.

Adult muskrats are about two feet long and up to half of that can be the long, bare, vertically-flattened (keeled) tail, which helps propel them in the water. These thick-furred brownish black rodents are highly adapted to their aquatic environment. Besides the keeled tail, their hind feet are partially webbed, their ears can be closed off with a membrane and they can easily stay underwater for 15 minutes.

The muskrat is found across most of North America from Canada to the Deep South (except for Florida where it is replaced by the Florida water rat, Neofiber alleni,) all the way to northern Mexico. Muskrats are promiscuous and may reproduce anytime of the year, they often produce up to three litters per year in North Carolina. While primarily herbivores, feeding on cattails, grasses, sedges, and other aquatic vegetation, muskrats are not averse to augmenting their diet with a little fresh meat, especially fresh-water mussels.

On the other hand, our next riverine rascal, the mink, is totally carnivorous – unabashedly so! This small predator, sometimes called “water weasel” is only 2 – 3 feet long, including 6-8 inches of tail, and weighs about three pounds. It’s primary diet includes fish, shellfish, crayfish, snakes and large insects, but it will sometimes prey on muskrats, nutria, rabbits, geese and swans.

American mink - creative commons photo

American mink – creative commons photo

The natural range of the American mink, Neovison vison, is from Alaska to the southern tier excluding drier parts of Arizona, California, West Texas, New Mexico and Nevada. It has been released, sometimes accidentally, in Europe where it has, unfortunately, thrived and become an exotic nuisance. It can be found across North Carolina and while the population is greater and more secure in coastal marshes and piedmont swamps it is found along the French Broad and other rivers and streams in the mountains. Protecting wetlands, especially wetland riverine ecosystems, is paramount to protecting mink populations.

Mink, like muskrats, are also promiscuous but they are not rodents and they only produce one litter per year. Minks breed in January and February but because they exhibit delayed implantation the fertilized egg is not implanted in the womb for nearly a month and they usually give birth to four or five kits in May.

Because of their small size, excellent senses (and desire not to be noticed) and the fact that they are primarily nocturnal, mink are some of the least-seen critters along the French Broad. You should consider yourself quite fortunate if you get to cross paths with this elusive “water weasel.”

0

An Otter by any other Name

River otters

River otters

Following our furry thread from last post we will discuss another semi-aquatic quadruped occasionally encountered along the French Broad. The river otter, Lontra canadensis, formerly Lutra canadensis, is a sleek muscular creature well adapted to its aquatic lifestyle. Adult river otters grow to 40 – 55 inches in total length. A third of this is usually tail. The tail is thick at the base and tapers to a point at the end (not the flat paddle-tail of the beaver) and helps propel the otter through the water. They can range from around 10 to 30 pounds with average weight being between 15 and 20 pounds. The feet are fully webbed and its thick fur provides insulation and efficiently sheds water.

They are streamline – the thick neck is as wide as the head. The otter’s eyes and small round ears are set high on its head so it can cruise rivers, lakes and streams and still see and hear. Maybe, especially hear, as the river otter is pretty nearsighted. People in boats often think otters quite bold because they approach so closely but it’s more likely a result of their poor vision. But under water their nearsightedness becomes an attribute as it allows them to see better, particularly in murky water. A nictitating membrane covers the eye allowing them to keep their eyes open under water. River otters also have extremely sensitive whiskers on their muzzle called vibrissae, which are sensitive to vibration and touch. Add to that dexterous and sensitive paws and it’s easy to see that the river otter is quite adapted for its submerged foraging.

The river otter, like the beaver, had been extirpated from North Carolina by the 1930s due to hunting and/or trapping. The last documented sighting being in Haywood County in 1936. A reintroduction effort started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park led to the release of 49 river otters between 1990 and 1995. A group was also released in the French Broad in the spring of 1991. The river otter appears to be doing well and increasing in numbers across Western North Carolina. The swift swimming river otter preys on fish and aquatic invertebrates like crayfish, crabs (in the marsh) mussels, frogs and other amphibians and occasionally birds and/or small mammals.

River otter with lunch. NPS photo

River otter with lunch. NPS photo

Even staid scientists are pushed to explain some otter behavior in terms other than play and/or playfulness. These critters create long mud and/or snow slides (depending on environment) and appear to revel in sliding and splashing into the water. They have also been observed playing with sticks and dropping stones into the water, then retrieving them from the bottom.

Should you happen upon a river otter while paddling, swimming, fishing or simply enjoying the French Broad, consider yourself lucky on two fronts. While the river otter is making a comeback, it’s not extremely common, so you are lucky to get a view. Plus, perhaps in a larger sense, river otters are indicators of good water quality – the fact they are in the French Broad attests to the work done to make the French Broad a cleaner, healthier ecosystem.

Next post will be M&M – muskrats and minks!

0

From the Backwoods to the Backstory

atsign14

Last week, I treated myself to a birthday run along the Appalachian Trail (AT). While traversing a steep switchback, I slowed to a walk and began reflecting on the past. My mind played a revolving slideshow of frames, memories, photographs and experiences. During the nostalgic tour, it dawned on me that the historic trail has been part of my life for 50 years!

I was seven years old when I took my first step on the trail—a wonderful beginning to a life-long relationship with the outdoors. That day, my friend and I rode on horseback above Georgia’s Vogel State Park through a beautiful cove forest. Years later while in college, I spent weekends day-hiking sections in north Georgia. After I graduated, I started section-hiking the 2,100-mile trail in 1982. My future wife, Candace, and I tackled the climb along the strenuous approach trail in the dark. We camped at Nimblewill Gap and we hiked up to the AT’s southern terminus on Springer Mountain.

Thirty years later, I’ve covered more than 800 contiguous miles through four states. On my recent reflective journey, I rambled along one of my backyard hikes along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. During my two-hour adventure, I ran through an open meadow adorning Turks Cap Lily, Wild Bergamot, Queen Anne’s Lace and Great Lobelia. A rufous-side towhee sang in the thicket, and a ruby-throated hummingbird hovered above.

turks

Even though it was early August, I could detect the early signs of a changing season. At 4,000 feet above sea level, the constant breeze revealed the sizzling sound of drying leaves. Birch and cherry trees began to turn, and their yellow leaves littered the ground beneath them. Earlier in my run, I had seen bear scat chock-full of cherry pits, their fruit providing the mammals with one of summer’s last natural sweet treats. Food becomes scarce for bears between the berry and mast season. During this transition, bear sightings in backyards become more common as they search for convenient food sources such as bird feeders and trash cans.

Whether I’m on the trail for a couple of hours or a few weeks, the AT always treats me well. After all, the trail, whose path travels through 14 states, ultimately led me to my 25-years-and-counting side trip to Asheville. Like many others, I find the journey more interesting than the destination. But sooner or later, we all have to settle down long enough to generate funds for our next great adventure, build an abode, raise a family or grow a garden.

Next month, Asheville Pocket Guide is introducing an exciting series entitled The Backstory. We’ll share the entertaining lives and stories of others who have landed in Asheville after a life-changing adventure, personal quest or an intriguing cross-cultural experience. In some cases, these sensational exposures and experiences have inspired local Ashevillians to open up boutique nurseries, outdoor adventure businesses and exotic teahouses. Others have committed their lives to making a difference in the region they live in. Some have become community leaders, directors of nonprofits or successful professionals in their field. What they all share is a vagabonding spirit and a deep-rooted sense of adventure. Come join us for these fireside chats, storefront discussions and heartfelt testimonials.

0

Leave it to Beaver

Beaver swimming - creative commons photo

Beaver swimming – creative commons photo

We’ve watched birds dive, glide and wade in and along the French Broad and we will surely watch more but for now we would like to turn our attention to some of the furry critters that one may happen upon in and along the river.

The American beaver, Castor canadensis, was common along and in the rivers, streams, bogs, swamps and marshes of the Eastern United States before European settlement. But for trappers they were just swimming bundles of money – an easy target. Legend has it that the last native beaver in North Carolina was trapped in Stokes County in 1897.

The state of North Carolina, at the urging of trappers and other wildlife enthusiasts, began reintroducing the giant (35lbs.–55lbs.) rodent about 40 years later. In the absence of large predators like red wolves and cougars – and the presence of good habitat the beaver population rapidly expanded and they can now be found across the entire state.

This compact, rotund rodent is covered with luxuriant brown to black fur and can reach lengths of 2–3 feet plus another 12-18 inches of flat, hairless, paddle-shaped tail that propels them in the water and serves as an alarm. When a beaver feels threatened or senses danger it will slap the water with its tail creating a thwack that can be heard at great distances both above and beneath the surface of the water. Their hind feet are large, webbed and clawed. The front feet are smaller and not webbed. Its four large yellowish-orange, ever-growing and ever-sharpening incisors provide the perfect tools for felling trees for food and shelter. The beaver is awkward and clumsy on land but in the water – sublime.

That large flat tail is both paddle and rudder in the water making beavers powerful agile swimmers. Valves seal their ears and nose while underwater and a clear membrane closes over their eyes giving them built-in goggles. Their lips close behind those incisors allowing them to gnaw underwater. They can stay underwater for as long as 15 minutes.

The beaver is second only to Homo sapiens in its ability to manipulate its habitat. And as the Bard would say, “…therein lies the rub…” The beaver’s hard-wired penchant for damming running water can sometimes flood low-lying areas, both agricultural and residential. And its tree-felling abilities sometimes put it at odds with landscapers and/or timber concerns.

But this same penchant makes the beaver a keystone species and its dams create more, ever-decreasing, wetlands, boosting biodiversity by creating habitat for a host of critters – fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds (wading birds, waterfowl and others) and other mammals like river otters, muskrats and minks. Beaver ponds also help control erosion and sedimentation plus recharge groundwater resources.

Beavers live in these dams but in other situations like deeper lakes and larger rivers (like the French Broad) they build lodges and/or burrow into the banks. All beaver domiciles have underwater entrances that lead to dry

Beaver lodge - creative commons photo

Beaver lodge – creative commons photo

living/nesting chambers.

These nocturnal rodents mate for life. They live in colonies that include the adult pair, kits (newborn) and yearlings. The yearlings are driven away usually after a year or so and left to establish territories of their own. The size of the territory depends largely on suitable habitat and food supply and can range from a pond of a few acres to a half-mile or more of riverbank.

Next month we will talk about the river otter another semi-aquatic mammal that has made a comeback in the rivers of North Carolina.

0

Dinosaurs on the River

Great Blue Heron Burg Ransom photo

Great Blue Heron Burg Ransom photo

The early morning sun is a fuzzy red ball in the dense fog. It’s hard to tell where the fog stops and the water starts. Your eyes strain to pick out the next rock or riffle before you’re upon it. The boat glides silently on the water; the only sound is the water dripping off your paddle as you scan the river.

Gggrrrruuuaaannnkkk! The bellow shatters the silence, followed by loud splashes, then the rhythmic thuds of large wings in the foggy abyss; a dark shadow approaches in the fog. The archaeopteryx – oh, wait, that can’t be an archaeopteryx – it’s much too large! It can only be one thing – a great blue heron.

This modern-day avian dinosaur, which can reach a height of four feet, is more than twice as large as its eons-old ancestor the archaeopteryx and in flight the great blue might evoke images of that other flying lizard the pterodactyl, with it’s slow deep wingbeats, long trailing legs and it’s big-headed appearance. The heron gets that exaggerated head look because it flies with its head close to its body, its long neck curved “S” like. Cranes, on the other hand fly with their necks extended.

This large blue-gray wader with its black and white head can frequently be seen stalking the shallow waters of the French Broad looking for prey. Prey could be anything from frogs, to insects, to small mammals and/or reptiles to fish. The heron has a long, strong, sharp beak. It will grab smaller prey in its mandibles but it often uses its spear-like beak to impale larger fish. Great blue herons nest in the area and can be see year round on the French Broad.

Green Heron Burg Ransom photo

Green Heron Burg Ransom photo

Its smaller cousin, the green heron, may be seen along the French Broad from late spring till early fall. Green herons nest in the region but they overwinter from South Florida all the way to northern South America. This crow-sized little heron might, if stretched, reach two feet tall. The adult’s back is a rich teal color and its neck and face are a rich chestnut – the throat is white and it has a dark cap.

The green heron, formerly “little green heron” is also known by a couple of descriptive colloquial names, both related to calls. Skeow is one and relates to its loud “skkeooww” alarm call. To the Cajuns of South Louisiana the green heron is known as “kop – kop” for another common call it makes when flushed from its marshy habitat.

The green heron is an expert fisherbird. It will use baits, both live (insects, earthworms) and artificial (twigs, feathers) to attract fish, which it either grabs or spears. The green heron feeds in very shallow water (four inches or so) and feeds on crustaceans, amphibians, fish, reptiles and insects.

Either or both of these avian dinosaurs may be found along the French Broad. To enhance your chances of seeing one or both try hitting the water in the early morning or evening when these stalkers are more active.

0

River Rendezvous

Urban infill, greener pastures and Elvis sightings were discussed during the monthly RiverLink bus tour.

Urban infill, greener pastures and Elvis sightings were discussed during the monthly RiverLink bus tour.

A dozen or so curious guests and I spent the first full day of spring touring the river district—an adventure I highly suggest you sign up for (details below).  Karen Cragnolin, executive director of RiverLink, guided us along the informative bus tour, which featured the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. Even though I’ve lived here for nearly 25 years, I soon discovered several new chapters about the local history, recent riverside developments and future plans along the corridor.

Cragnolin shared intriguing stories ranging from a mystery bystander named Rockefeller to a close encounter with Elvis. In between these tales, we learned news about the bridge-to-bridge development of New Belgium Brewery, crossed over a stream with no name, and heard about a trolley era transportation system that was once powered by a hydroelectric plant on Hominy Creek.

The French Broad has a life of its own, and there are many ways to interpret the people, places and events along its historic past. It was fascinating to connect Asheville landmarks with their origins. When we dig a little deeper into the past, we better understand the present world we live in. The way we historically move people is a stellar example.

The first street railway in Asheville operated in 1898 and ran from Depot Street to the Public Square (Pack Square). In its heyday, the expanded operations carried over three million passengers annually along 18 miles of tracks in 43 streetcars. Once, the trolley lines extended west of town as far as the present location of The Asheville School. Eventually, around 1934, buses replaced streetcars.

During the tour I noticed our present-day system, an Asheville Redefines Transit bus, as we turned down Clingman Ave., passed the RiverLink office, and headed into the River Arts District (RAD). As we entered the RAD, Cragnolin reminisced about the district’s vacant buildings and warehouses when she first moved to Asheville. Today, she shared, the district includes one of the highest densities of artist-owned properties in the country.

Current riverside development features the shipping container architecture of The Smoky Park Supper Club.

Current riverside development features the shipping container architecture of The Smoky Park Supper Club.

The tour included historic sites as well as unsightly scenes along the riverfront. Abandoned warehouses, brownfields, steep slope development and former landfills became part of the discussion. She pointed out that our river faces ongoing challenges including poorly managed steep slope development, habitat degradation and urban runoff. RiverLink’s  “Forever Option” guides the nonprofit’s long-term land-use strategy and conservation efforts. These conservation easements permanently protect riparian corridors and water quality along waterways.

The tour continued with an eastbound journey along the Swannanoa River, a major tributary of the French Broad. The river’s course meanders 22 miles through Buncombe County, with land uses along it ranging from antique warehouses to a reclaimed recreational park. As we traveled near the WNC Nature Center, Cragnolin revealed that Thomas Wolfe often retreated nearby to a rustic cabin on a knoll above the river. Asheville’s native son maybe best known for looking homeward, but he also wrote a sequel to the classic entitled Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth.

Today, we enjoyed our time along the river. The Asheville Pocket Guide is all about connecting you to these unique places and stories, both old and new! Take a tip from us and experience the river up front and personally. Connect with your hometown river and the French Broad watershed on these monthly two-hour guided tours of the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan. $/Members Free. For more info, visit: riverlink.org.

0