Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Evening in The Forest Dark and Deep

Twenty of us set out Monday evening to search for whippoorwill and barred owl. We had some success and some great other luck.

Our destination was in the national forest a few miles southwest of Embreeville, Tennessee, near Rich Hill and the notorious Embreeville Toxic dump. Embreeville is on the Nolichuckey River between Erwin and Jonesborough, Tenn. (The map link is in the title.) For years there was a great BBQ restaurant (the Chuckey Trading Post) near there that has since moved to downtown Johnson City and I can remember years ago going there on Sunday evenings when everybody else was closed up. I was new to the region and this was an adventure.

Embreeville is at a huge, beautiful curve of the river with lots of undeveloped forest all around. If you follow Graveyard Hill Road down from Embreeville, pick up the Bumpass Cove Road you'll be getting close. This is back in the dark forest on forest service roads, one lane, muddy, rocky, but wonderfully new and exciting for all of us. This should be great birding country. Nor is it for the faint of heart.

First up we called in Prairie warbler (Dendroica discolor). They seem to prefer the recently burned hillsides where the new growth is not tall. Apparently they will move on once the canopy begins to recover some height. This part of the forest has been burnt accidentally as well as proscribed burns. If you check the maps (in the link at the title) you might be able to spot the road along the top of the ridge. You travel through lots of forest and then pop out into the evening sky right at the best warbler spot.

We found whippoorwills (Caprimulgus vociferus) farther down the road at a junction with another forest service road (where they'd been found before). You'll need old-fashion topo maps to find this place. Whips call this time year and just at dark. The vociferus species is appropriate. Once he starts calling it's like he has taken a very long breath and then calls just about as fast as he can. We heard several calling and it's eerie because they call back and forth and then stop and then start up as if in a contest. Of course, the female wants the strongest caller and the males can put out a lot of notes and seemingly never quit.

As part of a spring evening callings, we also heard Barred owls (Strix varia) which is the cousin of the better known Northern spotted owl that lives in the northwest and is the center of the controversy over logging. The call is "who-cooks-who-cooks-who-cooks-for-y'all. This is also a sort of mid-forest bird. Great horn owls like the bigger trees and more open spaces. The Saw-whet likes denser, more northern trees. The Barn likes the open spaces. The habitat will tell you what kind of owl you are more likely to encounter. In town, at least, the great horned owl hoots during the summer but finished breeding as long ago as February.

It was cold that night, too. We'd had an unexpected cold spell come through with overnight lows in the mid-to-upper 30 range. That's just plain chilly for this time of year.

The ground and air temps were significant for our fourth sighting: the blue ghost firefly. You all know the yellow, common firefly we see each summer in our yards. Those males are in the trees and the females in the grass. The blue ghost male isn't one to fly high. They are, as the name implies, a ghost-like blue. The males space themselves out, three feet or so over the ground, and then glow--for a minute or so but longer than the yellow firefly. As if by magic, I'm told, they'll begin to coordinate their display until it becomes synchronous. This must be something that most of us never get a chance to see! We found a few individuals that evening but not a full scale display. If the weather had been warmer surely our luck what have been better. For an excellent write up on the blue ghost click here.

All of what we saw is found in only certain types of the forest and only at certain times of the year. The blue ghost firefly only displays for a few weeks. And next year the forest may change enough, the weather might not cooperate, you might just be at the wrong place at the wrong time.