Posts Tagged ‘deer’

Cades Cove

June 19, 2017

Most of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is heavily wooded, and wildlife usually stays hidden in thick vegetation.  Cades Cove is 1 of the few areas in the park where tourists can reliably see wildlife because it is an open beautiful valley of fields and thin fingers of forest, resembling what many southeastern landscapes looked like until the mid-19th century.  Indians set fire to the valley annually to improve habitat for game animals, and white settlers maintained the open nature of the valley by using it as pasture and by planting row crops.  The valley remained open when the National Park Service took over the site 90 years ago.  Today, a 1-way loop road encircles the valley, making for the best accessible wildlife watching in the park.  I rode my car on the Cades Cove loop road last Saturday evening with my wife and daughter.  We saw >50 horses, 20 deer, 2 black bears, 1 squirrel, 1 turkey, and lots of crows and chimney swifts.

The herd of tame horses is located near the beginning of the loop road.  Many different breeds are represented including spotted palominos, Clydesdales, and solid black and brown horses.  I saw cowbirds foraging between the horses.  Fossil evidence shows horses did inhabit this region during the Pleistocene.  I would like to see the park service allow horses to go wild here.  Wild horses belong in North America.

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There’s an herd of over 50 horses near the entrance to the Cades Cove loop road.

Black bear sightings caused several traffic jams on the loop road.  There are hundreds of signs telling tourists to pull over when they want to stop and see the wildlife, and other signs constantly warn to stay at least 50 yards away from bears and deer.  Most tourists ignore these signs.  They stop their cars in the middle of the road, rush toward the bear, and get as close as they can to photograph the bruin.  We were stuck in 1 traffic jam for 20 minutes.  At least I did get to see wild black bears for the first time in my life.  I’d rather live in a world where bears outnumber people.  It has been thousands of years since bears outnumbered the entire population of Homo sapiens on earth but before the development of agriculture they did.

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We saw 20 deer.  This buck snuck behind me.

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This was the only turkey I saw in Cades Cove.  I expected to see more.  While driving through the park the following day I saw an hen with 2 chicks cross the road.  Why did the turkey cross the road? 

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There are 4 deer in this photo.  2 are laying down but their antlers are visible.

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This was the only live squirrel I saw in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I was surprised I didn’t see more.

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We saw 2 black bears on the Cades Cove loop road.  Look at how close these 2 stupid asses got to the bear.  They are underestimating how dangerous this situation is.  There must be at least 100 signs telling people to stay at least 50 yards away from the bears and deer.  Instead, people rush in and try to get as close as possible to take a photo.  That bear could be mauling them in about 2 seconds.

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These are the rare and extirpated species that used to live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spotted skunks are rare, Indiana bats are endangered, northern flying squirrels are probably extirpated here, fox squirrels haven’t been seen for decades in the park, and northern water shrews are uncommon.

I was surprised I didn’t see more turkeys or squirrels.  The latter probably stay in the tree tops for much of the day.  I also expected to see woodchucks, rabbits, and maybe wild boars.  Woodchucks are more active in the morning, and I did see 4 of them while driving through the North Carolina mountains on the way home the following day.  I can’t explain the absence of rabbits because there is plenty of excellent habitat for them in Cades Cove.  Perhaps they were hidden in the tall grass.  Ironically, I saw a road-killed wild pig 5 miles from my house on the drive home the next day as if the wildlife watching Gods wanted to reward me with a kind of epilogue to my trip.  Despite how common wild pigs are supposed to be, this was the first road-killed specimen I’ve seen in the Augusta, Georgia area.

The National Park Service should introduce bison, elk, and cougars to Cades Cove.  I know the addition of cougars would be controversial, but the park service should be inspired to come as close to possible to establishing a complete ecosystem here.  More open areas should be created as well so that wildlife populations could increase.

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The National Park Service should introduce bison and elk to this side of the park to fill up this empty space.

Bird watching at Cades Cove was not as good as in Townsend, Tennessee where our hotel was located.  I saw 5 species of birds in Cades Cove compared to 11 species in town.  However, I did encounter 1 unexpected species outside of Cades Cove but inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I saw a raven while driving in the higher elevations, then saw another raven on the way to Cades Cove at a lower elevation.  This was the first time I’d ever seen live ravens in the wild.  I mistakenly thought ravens were rare here because there is only 1 raven nesting site in the entire state of Georgia.  But according to the National Park Service, the raven is a fairly common year round resident in the park.  Ravens look like humongous crows.  The birds I saw were far too large to be crows.  They were about the size of a red-shouldered hawk.  Crows are more common here, however. In addition to the 5 species of birds I saw at Cades Cove, I heard the constant song of the field sparrow.  Eastern meadowlarks are also supposed to be common here, but I didn’t see any.  I have never seen an eastern meadowlark.

Night fell by the time we left the Cades Cove loop road.  I was surprised at the abundance of lightning bugs.  Special tour buses take tourists through the park at night to see the amazing light show displayed by the synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) during late May and early June.  We probably saw some of the other 18 species of lightning bugs found in the park because it was too late in the season for P. carolinus. Lightning bugs are not bugs, nor are they flies.  They are beetles.  Their larva prey upon snails, slugs, and insects for a year or 2 before they transform into flying adults for the final few weeks of their lives.  Different species flash at different intervals and that is how males and females of the same species recognize each other.  Lightning bugs are only seen occasionally in Augusta, Georgia.  They are abundant in the Great Smoky Mountains because the moist forests support a large population of their favorite food–escargot.

Video from you tube of the synchronous fireflies.

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It’s Ice Cream for Deer but Poison for Humans

February 15, 2012

One of the dumbest examples of wilderness survival folklore ever espoused is the notion that to determine whether a potentially edible plant is poisonous or not, a person should observe an animal consuming the plant.  The logical fallacy is the assumption that if the animal could eat the plant and not die, than it would be safe for humans to eat.  This is a stupid assumption for 2 reasons:  First, the animal could crawl off in the bushes and die later out of sight.  Second, and more importantly, all animals have completely different physiologies than humans.  There are many plants highly poisonous to humans but perfectly edible to many species of mammals, birds, and especially insects, such as caterpillars which consume poisonous plants that make them inedible to birds when the caterpillars become butterflies.  Below are 2 species of common plants found in Georgia that are favorite foods of deer but are poisonous to humans.

Strawberry bush–Euonymous americanus.  Naturalist refer to the plant as “ice cream” for deer.  But it is poisonous to humans.  It’s in the bittersweet family.

Buffalo nut–Pyrularia pubera.  Also a favored deer edible that is poisonous to humans.  It’s in the sandalwood family.

Deer eat strawberry bush twigs, and birds eat the fruits, but both parts are deadly to humans, causing vomiting, diarrhea, irregular hearbeats, convulsions, coma, and death.   Scientists don’t know what type of poison it is.  Strawberry bush is also poisonous to livestock.  It was advantageous for deer to evolve the ability to digest a plant that was likely poisonous to competing herbivores of the Pleistocene, such as bison and horses.  I wonder if other browsing Pleistocene herbivores (mastodons, tapirs, Jefferson’s ground sloths) could also eat strawberry bush without ill effect.  Browsers tend to be more resistant to plant poisons because they eat small amounts of a great variety of foods and don’t concentrate the poison in their systems.  Grazers eat large quantities of fewer species of plants, making it more difficult to evolve the ability to eat toxic vegetation.  Deer probably evolved the capacity to survive eating toxic plants because they only nibbled on the plant, and individuals that could survive eating small quantities passed this characteristic on to the next generation, unlike bison which ate such large quantities that no individuals survived consuming the toxins.   Gradually, each generation of deer had a growing inherited capacity to digest this toxic plant with no ill effects.

Buffalo nut is toxic to humans, rabbits, and pigs, but not deer, cattle, horses, sheep, and mice.  Its poison is an amino acid similar to that found in cobra poison.  The protein stimulates growth hormone in deer and may facilitate antler growth. In addition to harboring plant toxins, buffalo nut is a parasite, living on nutrients from other tree’s roots.  The roots of a buffalo nut “kiss” the roots of other species forming a hausteum, an attachment that helps them leech nutrients absorbed by the other tree. Many species of trees serve as host species for buffalo nut, including oak, chestnut, and hemlock.

Both strawberry bush and buffalo nut grow as understory trees in disturbed moist woodlands–a habitat that expanded during interstadials and interglacials but decreased during stadials.  Grazers always became more abundant during stadials when arid cool climates fostered the growth of grasslands but decreased the abundance of toxic woodland plants.  Browsers increased when forests expanded.  Strawberry bush and buffalo nut are known as “gap phase” species, thriving in areas of the forest disturbed by fire, storm, or human activity.

Like most plants, strawberry bush and buffalo nut are invisible in the Pleistocene fossil record, but they must have been present then or they wouldn’t be here today.

Speaking of (or rather writing of) ice cream for deer, I tried growing fava beans in my garden 2 years ago.  Fava beans are a cold hardy legume.  I read they could survive temperatures as low as 15 degrees F.  Because winters in Augusta, Georgia seldom get that cold, I predicted they would do well.  I had a great stand of fava beans in my backyard by early December.  One afternoon while taking a walk in broad daylight, I saw a deer.  It stopped about 20 yards from where I stood.  It seemed unafraid and even stomped its hooves as if attempting to intimidate me.  I resumed walking up the street until I heard hooves hitting pavement behind me.  I realized it was heading straight for my fava bean patch.  I raced back to scare it away but 2 big dogs came out of nowhere and chased the fleeing deer from my garden for me.  My fava beans were safe but nor for long–a few days later the temperature dropped below 15 degrees, an unfortunate stroke of luck because temps here get that cold maybe once every 10 years.  The favas did sprout back from the roots but production was meager compared to what would have been from the lush first growth.

My Expedition to Kettle Creek Battlefield, the Little Kettle Creek Fossil Site, and the Great Buffalo Lick

May 21, 2011

Now that the school year is finished, I finally had a chance to tour some of the sites I’ve been ruminating about lately on this blog beginning with…

The Kettle Creek Battlefield

In Febuary 1779 Colonel Boyd of the British Loyalists sent 150 men to forage the nearby farms for supplies such as cattle which they likely stole.  While the foragers were  busy slaughtering their booty, Boyd hunkered down with the rest of his men on a hilltop near Kettle Creek which is actually more of a small river about 30 feet in width that runs through what today is Wilkes County, Georgia.  Colonel Dooly of the Patriots decided this was a good time to attack because he only had 340 men compared to the 550 remaining Loyalists who were missing the foragers.  Andrew Pickens led a frontal attack up the hill, while flankers led by Dooly and Elijah Clark headed through the woods.  Unfortunately for the Patriots, Boyd’s skirmishers and sentries successfully ambushed Pickens, and the swollen creeks and canebrakes slowed down the flanking attacks, making them well behind schedule.

The Patriots attacked up this hill.  The Loyalist who took this photo was kind of nervous–note the blurry image.  Actually, I took all the photos in this week’s blog entry.

The Loyalists were winning, but the battle turned when a Patriot musket ball struck Boyd in the heart, killing him, and just at that moment the Patriot flanking attacks emerged from the canebrakes.  Now surrounded on three sides,  the Loyalists retreated in panic toward their only escape route–the cold swollen waters of Kettle Creek.  Some made it across, but up to 70 were killed and 70 more captured.  The Patriots suffered just 9 dead.  Some of the Loyalists who escaped were later captured and hanged because they’d previously pledged their loyalty to the Patriots.  This seems harsh by today’s standards, but back then, going back on one’s word and disgracing one’s honor was considered a crime equal to murder.  The battle demonstrated the futility of British efforts to subdue its American colony.  The foraging thievery of the Loyalist militia  turned the countryside against them as well.

Graveyard for veterans of this battle.  Most buried here didn’t actually die on the battlefield.  Some didn’t die until 65 years later and chose to be buried here.  They must have talked about this battle for the rest of their lives.

List of soldiers proved to have fought in this battle.

Monument to the battle

Behind the battlefield, a nice hardwood forest slopes toward Kettle Creek.  The canebrakes are gone.

Today, the Kettle Creek Battlefield sits at the end of a long gravel road that cuts through miles of young loblolly pine stands and old fields where turkey and deer are abundant.  I chased a turkey with my car for awhile, and the turkey chose to try to outrun me for about 100 yards up the road before it flew a little, landed, and finally cut into the brush.  It’s a small battlefield within a woodlot of black oak, post oak, shortleaf pine, and shellbark hickory.  The canebrake is gone, probably due to fire suppression.

The Little Kettle Creek Fossil Site

(For more on this site see my blog entry of March 17, 2011.)

Little Kettle Creek is a much smaller stream than Kettle Creek, but it flows through a surprisingly deep gulley–evidence that it’s a very old watercourse that at times has run much deeper.

Note how deep this gully is compared to the size of the stream.  Both banks must be at least 30 feet deep.  It must be very old and in the past has run much deeper.

It’s obvious the creek is old because it has eroded a miniature canyon here.  This is the only Pleistocene fossil site in the entire piedmont region of southeastern North America, yielding remains of mammoth, mastodon, bison, deer, voles, lemmings, and catfish.  Fossil sites are rare in this region for 2 reasons: a lower frequency of floods during arid glacial climate phases, and acidic soils which completely dissolve bone.  Nevertheless, there must have been a flood that washed fossils into this basin.  I briefly prospected for fossils under the bridge in a likely location behind a rocky dike where lots of smaller rocks and stones accumulated, but I came up empty.  The actual fossil site is a few hundred yards downstream from here, however, I chose not to trespass–the barbed wire across the creek hinted at hostility toward interlopers and a determination to keep cattle inside.  I supposed the area under the bridge was a public right of way, though maybe I was on shaky ground, and I didn’t stay long.  Still, I’m convinced there are more fossils to be had here and in other piedmont rivers and creeks in Georgia.  It’s just a matter of taking the time to look.  They’re just harder to find than they are in productive sites like those in Florida.

A look up Little Kettle Creek.  I just missed catching a deer fawn in this photo.  The mammoths, mastodons, and bison may be gone, but at least the deer are still here.

I did see lots of wildlife here, despite the noise of a nearby hay mowing machine.  A finger of forest along the creekside snakes through hayfields.  I saw a deer, a deer fawn, and lots of deer tracks.  A crayfish observed me swing my hand through sand and rocks in my futile search for fossils.  Swallow nests litter the bottom of the bridge.  A broad-winged hawk flew in front of me, and I almost stepped on a mourning dove.

This crayfish watched my futile attempt to find fossils.

I didn’t find fossils in front of these rocks, but I did find neat stones that were half black and half marble white.

Swallows make mud nests under all small bridges in the Georgia countryside.  I love the speed at which they fly.  They consume vast quantities of flies and mosquitoes.

Wilkes County is still a beautiful bucolic setting, especially the area along Highway 44 between Washington and Tyrone.  It consists of rolling hillsides with rich pastureland and hayfields interspersed with oak woodlots.  There’s less of the monocultured loblolly pine tree stands that dominate much of the rest of the region.  It has a population of only 10,000 people.  They might be outnumbered by deer and turkey.

The Great Buffalo Lick

In 1773 the Creek Indians, after seeing how the British colonists murdered the Cherokees in battle, agreed to meet local British leaders at the Great Buffalo Lick to negotiate a peaceful settlement.  A surveyor’s malfunctioning compass nearly derailed the agreement.  William Bartram reported an Indian chief’s temper tantrum over what he considered a bewitched instrument.  But the instrument’s measurements were disregarded, and the Creek Indians ceded much of Georgia to the colonists, not realizing this was a permanent deal because they didn’t understand the concept of private property rights.  They thought they were merely giving the British temporary permission to use their territory.

My quest to find this site resulted in a comical failure.  According to Dr. De Vorsey, the true site of the Great Buffalo Lick is 5 miles north of Philomath in Oglethorpe County, and .5 miles south of Buffalo Creek. I drove well past Philomath without being aware I’d passed it.  My daughter asked me when were we going to get to the site.  I told her when we passed Philomath, and she informed me that we’d passed it a long time ago.  I drove back and realized why I’d missed it–Philomath consists of just 5 houses and a volunteer fire station.  I went .5 miles back in the other direction and found a hollow that looked just like one William Bartram described in his book Travels.  He observed deep pits that buffalo, deer, feral cattle and horses licked into the clay soil, and some of these hollows filled with grass.  I saw this and assumed it was the site and photographed it.  Later, after I came home and reviewed my notes, I realized I only backtracked .5 miles instead of 5 miles.  Oops.  Nevertheless, my initial error led me to drive past this distance, and I didn’t see a 50 foot boulder, nor did I notice Buffalo Creek–two markers Dr. De Vorsey mentions in his article.

The hollow I mistakenly thought was the site of the Great Buffalo Lick.  Maybe it was a pit created by buffalo licking into the kaolin clay.  However, it’s probably just a dried out old cattle tank.  The owner of the land has Black Angus cows for sale.

This is clay soil that may be part of the Kaolin clay vein the buffalo used to utilize.  They didn’t lick it for mineral salts, but rather to aid in digestion.

I’m not the first to error in locating this site.  There are 3 other sites that have mistakenly claimed to have been the Buffalo Lick site.  Two are in Greene County, and the other is also in Oglethorpe County.  The Oglethorpe Historical Society needs to get off their duffs and put a marker in the correct location. 

Dr. De Vorsey correctly identified the site when, with the help of his students, he luckily found a 1796 survey for a “plat of land” 2400 feet from Buffalo Creek, and the description of land markers matched that of Bartram’s.  See

http://www.bartramtrail.org/pages/articles.html

For next week’s blog entry, I’m going to discuss how state highways mirror the ancient Indian trails.