No one knows what Western North Carolina will look like post COVID-19, but these mountains have seen much over their millions of years – ice ages, civil war, pandemics, etc. and they are still here. Spring will come with its ephemerals and migrants; summer will flush green and hot; autumn will descend in a kaleidoscope of color the way autumn does and cold, still winter will follow.
When I formatted A Year from the Naturalist’s Corner: Volume 1 I chose to start with January 1, then follow with weekly columns to December 31, the way my Naturalist’s Corner column runs in Smoky Mountain News. I purposely did not attribute the original publication date (some chapters are from recent columns – some go back more than a decade) because the natural world operates on its own time and for the most part almost any one of the chapters could be current.
Here is April Week 1 Warming the cockles.
These are clearly tumultuous and quickly changing times…hold nature close and know she moves at her own pace, now and always.
WEEK 1 # Warming the cockles
I don’t know where in or on the heart cockles are found, or what they look like. But I do know that it’s a wonderful sensation when they are warmed; a kinda gooey confection of nostalgia and bliss with a hint of melancholy. The cockles of this swampy ole “Loosiana” heart were toasted twice in the past couple of weeks.
The first time was the week preceding the dusting of snow we received recently. I was headed back to Waynesville from Franklin and as is my usual habitat, I took the Lake Emory detour. Stops along Lake Emory, especially in spring and fall, often produce migrating shorebirds.
The day I stopped was a lovely 70-degree spring day. I was overlooking a marshy area of the lake. Painted turtles were taking full advantage of the warm temperatures and bright sunshine. It seemed that every available log was taken. Carp were leaping out of the water mullet-style. I heard splashing and looked over to see what I thought, at first, was a black log. I figured turtles must have quit sunbathing and splashed back into the lake. But then the log moved. It was a large snapping turtle, obviously a male, and an amorous one at that. The splashing and commotion were created by his attempts to convince a lady snapping turtle that it was spring and love was in the air. She wasn’t convinced.
As I was standing there, taking in all the marshy goings-on, I suddenly heard the loud, ringing flight call of a greater yellowlegs. I watched as the yellowlegs, decked out in fresh charcoal and white breeding plumage landed in the shallow grassy water right in front of me. A smaller, brown companion followed it in. A look through the binoculars revealed a pectoral sandpiper.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love these mountains. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. But as I stood there looking out over that shallow, muddy, swampy scene, watching the painted turtles sunbathe; the snappers going through their mating rituals; the carp splashing and the shorebirds foraging, these “Loosiana” cockles were glowing.
That brief encounter left me hankering for more backwater. I talked Bob Olthoff into making a trip up to Rankin Bottoms Wildlife Management Area. Rankin Bottoms is where the French Broad River flows into Douglas Lake, just outside of Newport, Tenn. It’s about an hour’s drive, through a worm hole, from Waynesville. You leave the mountains and the whitewater for brown water and muddy bottoms.
The day even started out Loosiana style. We departed Waynesville in the middle of an early morning thunderstorm. As we crossed the Tennessee line, the rain began to lessen and the skies began to lighten up. By the time we got to Douglas Lake the rain was gone and blue was showing through the clouds.
From near the bridge across the French Broad along U.S. 25 we saw numerous double-crested cormorants, a couple of ring-billed gulls, a small flock of blue-winged teal and a few cliff swallows. In Dutch Cove, the finger of lake that parallels 25, we found six American white pelicans. These guys were in bright breeding plumage complete with a silver dollar sized fibrous membrane that extends from the top of the bill on the male. I don’t know the purpose of this membrane. It is probably some sort of sexual recognition as it appears only on adult males and it is shed soon after eggs are laid.
After Dutch Bottoms, we drove down to another bridge across the French Broad to check on an osprey nest and a cliff swallow colony. The swallows were there, by the hundreds and the osprey was on the nest on an old railroad trestle.
Next we drove into Rankin Bottoms. In one of the flooded areas along the river we could see a large white bird. A look through the spotting scope confirmed a tundra swan. Other waterfowl included Canada geese, mallards, gadwalls, wood ducks, blue-winged and green-winged teal. There were a number of great blue herons around and we saw greater yellowlegs, pectoral sandpipers, one upland sandpiper and a group of least sandpipers. We also watched a pair of ospreys with nesting materials on the old coal tipple at Rankin Bottoms.
Four-wheel drive came in handy a couple of times. Ahh!, the glories of mud and stagnant water — the cockles were glowing again.