Friday, May 12, 2017

Stone Door

The Cumberland Mountain Plateau runs north and south from eastern Kentucky into north-eastern Alabama. It is a beautiful stretch of land with forests, rivers, falls, and valleys. At the north end in Tennessee is Big South Fork Natural Wild River. At the south end is a series of parks and gulfs that make up the southern Cumberland Plateau: rock-climbing country, rivers and falls, long vistas. Tennessee is a lucky state.

 I-40 cuts across the plateau at one end from Knoxville to Nashville. Or you can take I-24 from Chattanooga towards Nashville and enjoy some really scenic views with some equally interesting turns and twists on the road. Between the two interstates is a vast part of Tennessee populated with small towns and farms and pastoral countryside.

Among many interesting places is the “Stone Door,” part of the Savage Gulf Wilderness Area. For a reference, find Beersheba, Tenn., on your atlas and you are at the roadway to the Stone Door and the north end of Savage Gulf. The Stone Door is a very short stair case through a crack in the rock ledge that allows access to Collins Creek below. From atop the Stone Door is a view worth the drive. The plateau goes forever. It is mottled in green and rock. It looks like a fierce place to have to cross and I can never imagine what it must have been like when the natives and settlers tried to explore such and endless up and down.

A word of caution, the treads and risers are rock and sharp and uneven. There are no hand rails or cables. It looks benign and for many younger people Stone Door is not at all a challange.

From the bottom of the Stone Door you just keep descending and the old man in me kept reminding himself that he had to walk all the way back up, too!

“Gulf” is loosely used term in those parts for the wide open expanses viewed from the rims. If you could raise the water level in the valleys much of the topography would disappear.

Plateaus are, of course, a product of time and water. A person could get to like this part of the state.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cumberland, Okee, & Congaree

Cumberland Island National Seashore is located in the very southeastern corner of Georgia. From the headquarter’s town of St. Marys you can look over the river and see Florida. From Johnson City the drive is about 400 miles and is all interstate.

St. Marys is lovely small town that has been sort of pushed to the back. Nice homes and quiet streets with a few places to eat and visit. Mostly, it is worth it!

CINS is accessed only by boat. The ferry is inexpensive and runs twice daily but is not run daily during some holidays or parts of the seasons. Check ahead and make reservations. Access onto the island is nominal. The best deal for entrance fees are the National Parks passes. Remember, Cumberland Island is a park and not privately accessible.

If you’re lucky you’ll see dolphins in the river and if you are really lucky you might spy a submarine!

This trip was crowded with campers. Spring break had just started the weekend we visited but all that youthful enthusiasm went one way and we went another.

The beach is pretty much like any beach of course. The two trails out to the beach are well maintained although the southern trail has a long slug out across the dunes. There is water but has a slight salty taste to it and the toilets are flush toilets. The island is not quite as remote or wilderness as advertised.

What Cumberland does have is great nature: birds, armadillo, horses. Our count of island birds was well over my 33 species.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is west of St. Marys about 30 miles and is huge. Almost 400,000 acres makes for a really, really big place. And a lot of it is only inches deep. Essentially Okefenokee is one large lake. Not stream fed but instead feeds the surrounding creeks and rivers. We took an evening tour out into the swamp with a clear sky and some great views of night-heron and wood stork and a calling and sighted barred-owl, my first.

We have had barred owl in our forests and they can really light the evening sounds. But this one was sighted by someone in our boat and we hung around it for a while watching and listening. It was fun! The swamp at sun down takes on this beautiful and scary place. You are aware of the alligators and the water and having watched to many “swamp thing” movies or “Cool Hand Luke” spinoffs made the place come alive but not terribly welcomed. I would not want to live out here if only because it would be too lonely for me. I need people.

Congaree National Park is east of Columbia, S.C., about fifteen miles. it is relatively small (26,000 acres) in comparison to Okefenokee or the Smokies. But, you would never know it. It is quiet. You are blanketed by some of the tallest and oldest trees in the east. It is very inviting. The boardwalk about 1.5 miles and each season would show you a different forest. We were there of course in sort of a pre-spring. The grasses and low flowers had started to bloom and struggle. The trees were not much into green yet. Sort of like my back yard, still. Columbia is not all that far south of us.

For the trip, there were 15 of us and we sighted 109 species over four days and 900 miles on the odometer. The weather was mild, cool enough for a hoodie, but warm enough to go without a jacket after a short walk. All three of these places have been and will likely be for a long time, highly recommended.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Cackling goose

We get lucky over the winters to have several different geese grace our viewing presence. So far this winter, I believe, we’ve had snow goose, Ross’s goose, and a cackling goose. The white-fronted goose has yet to show up.

We’ve had the cackling, the Ross’s, and the white-fronted all at one time or another at the pond at Northeast State Community College, Elizabethton, Tenn. The best times to catch any of them are early morning or late afternoon otherwise they move off to the other side of the airport, not a mile away but in an area that is nearly impossible to use.

The cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii) is the hard one to spot, for me. We had one cackling goose two years ago at Middlebrook Pond and my fellow birders that day had to go to great lengths to help me distinguish it within the huge flock of Canada geese. Middlebrook Pond does not usually attract any species in ones or twos but in flocks of fifties or hundreds. In the winter, the gulls will number easily 400 or more.

As you can see from Roy Knispel’s picture the cackling is easily mistaken for a miniature Canada. Which doesn’t help a lot when the cackling goose is out away from the flock. We waited until it and this particular Canada goose were close enough to make the difference in size obvious. Check the perspective. The giveaway is that the cackling goose appears smaller when closer. We also felt like maybe the Canada geese avoided the cackling goose. They must have known it was not quite like themselves so they kept their distance.

The cackling goose will stay for the winter. The Ross’s goose appears to be gone already and the snow goose was sighted for one day. The white-fronted goose hasn’t shown up yet this year. But the cold season is not quite to a peak. We can expect another month of cold weather and it’ll take until March for many species to begin to go back north.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

2016 Winter/Christmas Bird Count

The Herndon Chapter of TOS conducts four bird survey each year. Two summer and winter are centered on Elizabethton, Carter County, Tennessee. This weekend before Christmas was this year’s Christmas Count. Six parties spread out over a given area of Carter County and each year they rotate to give everyone a chance at the different terrain and habitat. Carter County runs from relative lowlands at about 1800 feet and moist to Roan Mountain and South Holston Mountain both at 5,000 feet. We can expect over the county at any time during the winter counts for the weather to run nice a dampness in town to snow and a full gale up high.

For the club, this was the 74th consecutive, annual CBC.

In a small city, habitat is often scare if you’re looking for more exotic and wild birds. We didn’t expect to get turkey but at the city park we had 60 or so bufflehead. And a green-winged teal. Driving through town just hoping for something other than another starling or dove or pigeon, Bryan Stevens spotted a Cooper’s hawk on the church belfry next to the Legion hall. Little corners give up sparrows. Town edges give up hawks and vultures (on most days but not that day).

The purpose of the count is find out what’s there not what we’d like to see that we haven’t seen for every other day of the year. So the club counts one ruffed-grouse equally with the 809 starling (two years ago the number was 2,000+). Three owl species goes on the list just do the three Killdeer, the only plover. Good days and bad. Only two turkey vulture? We’ve had days with none. All the woodpecker group? That’s kind of neat. But, only two warblers species. It goes up and down and sometimes the surprise is rewarding, like four bald eagle.

I was lucky enough to join Chris Soto and Bryan Stevens for the area that enclosed Elizabethton proper including Sycamore Shoals State Park. Mostly cloudy, a bit breezy, but the temperature held about 50 degrees or so. Not a bad day. Not a good day. We had about 35 species. I think the more exciting finds for us were: cedar waxwing, yellow-rumped warbler, gadwall, bufflehead, sapsucker, ruby-crowned kinglet, Cooper’s hawk, and green-winged teal.

For the club, 80 species, 6 parties, 24 observers. The 30-year average is 72. We have noticed a few species no longer seen regularly and a few new ones. Since this covers a variety of territory in a small space irregularities are more likely to occur. Our next survey will be the first of May and covers the five upper-east counties.

Send an e-mail to “” to get more details or click on the link to the right for the “Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of TOS.”

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Cumberland Island

For the first time ever, the Herndon Club’s fall trek to the southeast coast was cancelled. I think this would have been the ninth trip. They were heading to Cumberland Island on the very southeastern tip of Georgia but would have run smack head on into Hurricane Matthew. The plan is to try again over spring break in March, 2017.

I was at Cumberland Island as Matthew was pounding Haiti and on the trip home got caught up in the first wave of evacuation traffic coming out of Charleston. Cumberland Island is just a short ferry ride from St. Marys, Georgia, a delightfully nice town with some good eats and good birding of its own. But, you will be lucky to see just a little bit of the island in the few hours between the early boat to the island the late boat back. The island is quite large compared to how far you can walk out and back in a day. Still, it is worth the trip.

This is a national park, so you can only enter with permission and there are rules about feeding and trash of course. But also, it offers some nice long easy walks. You can rent wheel chairs that are on balloon tires. Some amenities are available but the best plan is to bring all you need. And one thing you need is sunscreen. The hike to the beach is affectionately called the Death March. It can be brutal. Water is available but bring plenty, nonetheless. The water there is salty, of course, but at least it’s water.

Also, check out Crooked River State Park. The river of course is effected by the tides and than in turn brings in the shore birds. Plus the park is just a nice place to visit. In the middle is a fresh-water pond that probably with enough time spent would yield a nice set of sightings.

Visit Cumberland Island  at St. Marys, Georgia, where Georgia, Florida, and the coast all come together.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Neighborhood broad-wing hawk

The last couple of days I’ve been walking in the mornings down the street a couple of blocks, turning around at Woodland Grade School. Woodland has this huge playground/yard that must be ten acres of grass surrounded by a fence of beautifully tall trees. Excellent hawk and owl habitat. 

I have watched a young broad-wing hawk lurking from the chain-link fence three times now. I’m not sure about age. Let’s just say it is not mature: immature or juvenal, but I don’t know which. The banding is visible and the white “kingbird”- tail is obvious. It was making what I thought was a very plaintive call this past Saturday. I can’t say that I’ve noticed other hawks nor has it in the mornings been in the trees as if near a nest.

Broad-wings are a common enough buteo definitely smaller than the red-tailed hawk which is very common. Last summer I had a family of three red-tails circling the house this time of year.

I’m hoping it takes up residence here. The surrounding area is suburbs of Johnson City with large yards, lots of trees, dogs, cats, little kids(!), and open fields. It could possibly be some very good hunting grounds. The kids at the school might get a treat when they start up classes again.

If the parent-hawks are around then this one will migrate. If the parents are gone then who knows. It’s not a pleasant thought.

I didn’t check Sunday but this morning (Monday, July 25) there was no sign.

Friday, July 29. My broad-wing is still at Woodland. I missed a day's walk because of rain and the other days it wasn't showing itself. I was wondering when or if it will move on. I guess as long as it has reasons to stay it'll stay. I re-thought how to describe its call. Think of the red-tail's very distinctive and loud shrill. If the red-tail could be called a soprano then the broad-wing might be an alto.
August 13, Saturday. About half way to Woodland Elementary I spied a cat lurking on the street like most cats do when the want to stare you down. We played his game until he decided to run for cover in the cypress along the street. Not two seconds later in flies, with all the flare and announcement of a bird of prey, is a broad-wing hawk.  It looks young and it looks mad like I've just chased off a day's meal. Of course, it must be the same hawk. We watch each other until it gets bored and off it went. At least there is one broad-wing in the neighborhood.
August 14, Sunday. Nada.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Roan Balds, Tuesday, June 7.

If a place could have been any more windy than on the Roan I don’t want to go there. How brutal the winds were I can’t begin to describe other than it roared and buffeted each of us sometimes making it impossible to hold our binoculars steady. On top of that, when we started northbound on the AT from Carver’s Gap the trail disappeared into the fog.

While the wind never did die down --we retreated to Roan Mountain State Park to eat lunch-- the sun came out and the scene was its usual awesome view. Carver’s Gap should be on your itinerary.

Most of the few birds were we saw were heading downwind at about 90 mph.

On the way down, we stopped at Hummingbird Hill and lo and behold we had a ruby-throated hummingbird!

For the day’s looking on Jane Bald, Engine Gap, Carver’s Gap, Hummingbird Hill, and Roan Mountain State Park: Wild turkey, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk (wind pushed and here and gone in maybe one second, Mourning Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Northern Flicker, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, Raven, Crow, Blue Jay, Robin, Common Yellowthroat, Song Sparrow, Junco, Towhee, Pine Siskin, and Goldfinch.

Left to right are Gil Derouen, Jim Anderson, and Roy Knispel. We're all leaning into the gale-force wind hoping a vesper sparrow will go by but not at 60 mph.