The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Creature Features (86)

Wednesday, 10 July 2024 13:55

‘Cute little falcons’ fly free in Wildwood

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kestrelKatheryn Albrecht holds a juvenile American kestrel just prior to releasing it into the Wildwood area of Blount County as part of the Farmland Raptor Project.  Thomas Fraseer/Hellbender Press

Farmland Raptor Project takes wing to expand raptor populations on private properties

WILDWOOD — She felt the bird in her hand in her heart as the kestrel strained toward freedom.

Elise Eustace, communications director for Foothills Land Conservancy, blessed the bird and let it go, free to make a home somewhere on the 300-acre Andy Harris Farm or elsewhere in the Wildwood area of Blount County. “I’ve never gotten to do something like this,” she said. “So exciting.” 

Two other juvenile kestrels joined their kin on the warm summer afternoon, lighting into nearby oaks and atop a telephone line above the red and yellow pollinator gardens and dry pasture and cornfield and copses that punctuate the property in the shadow of smoky knobs that rise gradually to the Smokies crest beyond the blue-green hollows of the Little River watershed. Resident sparrows, bluebirds and kingbirds voiced displeasure at the new arrivals. 

Last modified on Thursday, 11 July 2024 00:48

Saw-whet owl by Robert HunterThough seldom seen, the toot-toot tunes of the northern saw-whet owl are signs of late spring in the high peaks of Southern Appalachia.  Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press

Though not on any formal breeding list, nocturnal nomads bring spring tunes to high Smokies

GATLINBURG — It’s a May evening and I’m standing at a pull-off on Clingmans Dome Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My breathing is light as I close my eyes and listen intently for a singular sound on the crisp night air. I hold absolutely still to keep my heavy coat from rustling. The coat is necessary on nights at this elevation, even as Memorial Day approaches. 

This is not my first stop along the road tonight and my patience is beginning to wane. Just as I decide to turn back toward the car, the sound I’m seeking reaches my ears. 


saw whetSaw-whet owls are not officially listed as Smokies breeders, but a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.  Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

Last modified on Tuesday, 02 July 2024 17:11
Wednesday, 26 June 2024 12:55

Smokies tourists are coming to see the light

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Smokies Synchronous Firefly Photinus carolinus 20200608 3311 composite credit Abbott Nature PhotographyA recent display of synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) in the Smokies.  Abbott Nature Photography

Thousands of visitors view annual firefly spectacles in Smokies area as natural light show dims elsewhere

ELKMONT — Anyone who has fallen in love knows reading a love poem is no substitute for direct experience. Similarly, no technology, no art form, nor any reportage can come close to the mesmerizing firsthand experience of witnessing hundreds of thousands of synchronous firefly beetles pulsing in the dark during the peak of their mating period in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Over the last 20 years, throngs of eager visitors have trekked by the thousands to catch this rare glimpse of collective insect behavior. The crowds posed problems: Since females and larvae of the species are on and under the ground, visitors can trample them if they stray off trail. Likewise, flashlights and other white lights, including from cell phone screens, can also disrupt courtship. 

The firefly phenomenon caught fire in 1991, when Lynn Faust read an article suggesting that no synchronous fireflies lived in the western hemisphere, yet she knew that’s what she witnessed in the 1960s at the historic Elkmont community when she vacationed there with her in-laws. After she brought Photinus carolinus to the attention of scientists, word spread and new firefly pilgrimages to Elkmont were born. 

Last modified on Monday, 01 July 2024 11:28

Screen Shot 2024 06 21 at 9.36.41 PMIn this image from a social media video, a woman and child are seen outside the Bearskin Lodge in Gatlinburg. Biologists have concluded the bear is too habituated to humans and plans call for trapping and euthanizing the animal.  Hellbender Press

The incident caught outside a Gatlinburg hotel was not “normal bear behavior” and relocation of a fed, fearless bear isn’t an option

GATLINBURG — Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency biologists plan to trap and euthanize a bear featured in a viral video posted June 16 to the Facebook account of a woman who lists Chicago as her home.
The video, which is no longer viewable by the public, shows a woman holding a small child just outside the Bearskin Lodge. The woman and other guests had opted to stay outside despite being asked to come into the hotel lobby after a black bear appeared, according to TWRA.
The bear rears on its hind legs and sniffs the woman and the child’s foot, which she recoiled in fear. At one point the bear’s claws become hooked on the woman’s clothing. The bear ultimately retreats, snuffling and pawing around a nearby rocking chair before leaving with what appears to be garbage in its mouth.
“This is an example of how unfearful people have become of wildlife and how misunderstood black bears can be,” said TWRA spokesman Matthew Cameron via email. “They are not Teddy bears. They are large, powerful animals with sharp claws, sharp teeth and strong jaws.” 
Last modified on Saturday, 22 June 2024 01:11

IMG 0772 1 scaled e1718391630730 1024x577A parklet in Washington DC with brightly colored planters filled with local pollinator plants.  Molly McCluskey 

From pocket parks to large-scale projects, cities around the world are working to reverse a troubling trend.

This story was originally published by The Revelator.

Every June, cities around the globe celebrate Pollinator Week (this year, June 16-22) an international event to raise awareness about the important roles that birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles and other small animals serve in pollinating our food systems and landscapes. These crucial species are declining worldwide, with many on the brink of extinction.

Cities have responded to this crisis with a variety of urban initiatives designed to foster pollinator habitats and in the process transform once-stark cement landscapes — as well as pocket parks, curb strips and highway dividers — into lush, welcoming areas for pollinators and humans alike.

In Washington, D.C., ambitious pollinator projects are abundant on rooftops of public, office and private spaces, ranging from the renovated D.C. Public Library’s main branch to National Public Radio’s headquarters, which hosts an apiary. Throughout the District of Columbia, municipal code requires buildings to maintain the tree boxes and curb strips outside their properties. This often leads to creative landscaping on the smallest of scales. 

Last modified on Saturday, 22 June 2024 00:48

Bumble Bee (Bombus sp.) collects pollen from Purpletop Vervain (Verbena bonariensis).A bumble bee (Bombus sp.) collects pollen from purpletop vervain (Verbena bonariensis) in a pollinator plot on the Tennessee Aquarium plaza in Chattanooga.  Tennessee Aquarium

Aquarium celebrates Pollinator Week with activities and giveaways June 17-23

Doug Strickland is a writer for the Tennessee Aquarium.

CHATTANOOGA — Pollinators. They’re kind of a big deal.

From iconic monarch butterflies and humble honey bees to fast-flying hummingbirds and acrobatic ... lemurs?! ... the animals that help plants reproduce are collectively known as “pollinators.” Whether intentional or accidental, the actions of pollen-transporting species contribute tremendously to the health of their respective ecosystems and are responsible for a shocking amount of the food we eat.

The benefits of the human-pollinator relationship are a two-way street. According to the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the role pollinators play, pollinators are responsible for roughly one of every three bites of food we eat and propagate over 180,000 different plant species — including more than 1,200 food crops.

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 June 2024 12:19
Thursday, 13 June 2024 12:55

Don’t fear the shy Joro

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JoroJoro (pronounced “Joe-row”) spiders have made their way to the U.S. from Asia. They may appear intimidating, and can bite like most spiders, but are harmless when left alone.  Pexels via Virginia Tech

Newest invasive exotic spider is harmless, though it doesn’t belong here

Theresa “Tree” Dellinger is a diagnostician at the Insect Identification Lab in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech, where she identifies insects and other arthropods and provides management suggestions for insect-related problems. This article was provided by Virginia Tech.

BLACKSBURG — The large, brightly colored Joro spider has been sighted recently on social media in many more places than it has ever been seen in the United States, as exaggerated, misleading stories about the arachnid have gone viral. Yet they pose no threat, except perhaps to insects and to other spiders.

“Joro spiders will likely continue to spread in the U.S., but they aren’t the ‘flying venomous spider invasion’ that’s been sensationalized in the media,” said Virginia Tech entomologist Theresa Dellinger. Answering the questions below, she shared facts about this much maligned spider species.

Q: Where do Joro spiders come from?

“Joro spiders (Trichonephila clavata) are native to east Asia and can be found in Japan, Korea, China, Indochina and Nepal. First reported in northern Georgia in 2014, they are an invasive species of spider that likely entered the U.S. on materials imported from east Asia.” 

Last modified on Saturday, 15 June 2024 16:07

Eastern spotted skunk handstand Agnieszka Bacal.An eastern spotted skunk is seen in its signature defensive handstand. If the stance doesn’t deter predators it will let loose a caustic and malodorous spray akin to mace.  Agnieszka Bacal via Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources

Striped skunks thrive as spotted cousins decline

This story was originally published by The Appalachian Voice.

BOONE — A characteristic white stripe on a black pelt is an instant warning to tread gently.

Nature’s stink bomb, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) carries this distinctive mark on its back. But Appalachia has a second variety of this master of malodor, marked instead by a blotchy pattern of black and white fur.

The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius), was not always as rare as it is today. Decades ago, it was relatively common for trappers to catch the polecat, as it’s also known, for its pelt. But spotted skunk populations crashed between 1940 and 1970, according to a landmark paper from the University of Missouri looking at harvest data from trappers. By the 1980s, the study found, harvest numbers had plummeted by 99 percent, reflecting a steep decline in the skunk’s population.

Meanwhile, the spotted skunk’s striped cousin has thrived throughout the United States. So why have their populations diverged so drastically?

SpottedSkunkStudyBlogA spotted skunk trapped as part of Emily Thorne’s Virginia Tech study of the animals.  Emily Thorne

Last modified on Monday, 03 June 2024 16:06

The species is listed as endangered in the state of Tennessee; zoo heads up years-long conservation effort

This Nashville Zoo blog post is reprinted with permission. 

NASHVILLE — Nashville Zoo’s ectotherm team, in partnership with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Tennessee State University, traveled to a waterway in Middle Tennessee to successfully release a total of 27 eastern hellbender salamanders back into the wild. These hellbenders had been raised since 2018 at the Zoo as part of a headstart program. Since the start of this conservation initiative, the Zoo has released more than 100 hellbenders into local Tennessee streams to help bolster the population of this state-endangered species.

The hellbenders released this year had been raised since 2018 at the Zoo as part of a headstart program, after being collected as eggs from streams in Middle Tennessee. Each animal was fitted with a radio transmitter earlier this year, allowing a team of graduate students to track and monitor the hellbenders throughout the summer. This is the fourth group of hellbenders to be released back into the wild since the summer of 2021.

Last modified on Saturday, 25 May 2024 00:36

p4050031 BerrySalamanderEnvironmental groups are suing the U.S. government to force addition of the Berry Cave salamander to the Endangered Species List. It is one of the largest cave salamanders, and can grow up to 6 inches.  Dr. Matthew Niemiller

50 percent of the known Berry Cave salamander population is in rapidly developing Knox County

KNOXVILLE — The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on May 7, arguing that the agency violated federal law when it denied Endangered Species Act protections for a rare salamander that is only found in a handful of East Tennessee caves.

The Berry Cave salamander has pink feathery gills, lives its entire life in caves, and can grow to over 9 inches in length — making it the largest cave-dwelling salamander in North America. The salamander is also incredibly rare. Populations have been found in just a small number of isolated caves, and in several of these caves only one salamander has ever been observed.

Unique to our bioregion

“The Berry Cave salamander is found nowhere else on Earth, and its populations are dwindling in the face of rapid development and a changing climate,” said Liz Rasheed, a senior associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.  “This lawsuit seeks to correct an egregious error that puts this incredible salamander at an even greater risk of extinction.”

Last modified on Thursday, 30 May 2024 01:15
Thursday, 25 April 2024 18:17

You feel lucky? Smokies sets synchronous firefly lottery. Featured

GATLINBURG  Great Smoky Mountains National Park will host the annual synchronous firefly viewing opportunity at Elkmont from Monday, June 3 through Monday, June 10. The public may apply for the limited viewing opportunity by entering a lottery for a vehicle reservation through

The lottery opens for reservation applications on Friday, April 26 at 10 a.m. EDT and closes Monday, April 29 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Using the lottery system ensures everyone who applies for a reservation has an equal chance of getting one. 

Last modified on Monday, 17 June 2024 15:12

Bales Periodiacl Cicada adultToward the end of their lives, periodical cicadas emerge from the ground, molt into their adult wardrobe to find each other and reproduce before they die. Periodical cicada nymphs spend their entire 13-year or 17-year lives underground seeking nourishment in roots and slowing growing before time to emerge.  Stephen Lyn Bales/Hellbender Press

Billions upon billions of cicadas will emerge this spring and summer during a rare convergence of broods

Three years ago, Southern Appalachia experienced the emergence of 17-year cicadas’ Brood X. And already, we’re up for another wave of cicadas!

KNOXVILLE — Periodical cicadas are rare. Of the roughly 3,400 cicada species on the planet, only seven of those live underground as nymphs for a staggeringly odd long time. 

It gets odder. The seven species are only found in eastern North America, living in 15 separate populations known as “broods.” Some of those broods remain in their subterranean tunnels for 13 years, and some for 17 years. 

When their life cycle is up, the strange little insects emerge by the millions to molt into adults and with their new golden wings fly up into the trees where the females and males find each other. They mate, she lays eggs, and then they drop dead.

When the early American colonists moved to their new homeland in the 1600s they were horrified by these oddly spaced natural phenomena. Pilgrims at Plymouth reported them in 1634. With only a sprinkling of education to serve them, they naturally turned to their only field of reference and the stories from the Bible. The New World newbies deemed them to be swarms of locusts from the list of Biblical Plagues beset on Egypt along with water turning to blood, lice, boils, flies, hailstones and the killing of first borns. And why not?  To them a bug was a bug, with some more frightening than others. 

Last modified on Saturday, 20 April 2024 00:28

Gentoo Penguin Carla selects a rock for her nest during "Rock Day," which begins penguin nesting season at the Tennessee Aquarium.Gentoo penguin Carla selects a rock for her nest during “Rock Day,” which begins penguin nesting season at the Tennessee Aquarium.  Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

Penguins swing into spring nesting season — with lots of rocks

Doug Strickland is a communications specialist at the Tennessee Aquarium.

CHATTANOOGA — While other birds’ hearts might flutter at the thought of building nests with supple twigs, fluffy fibers, mud or even their own saliva (yes, really), nothing gets the Tennessee Aquarium’s penguins quite as excited as rocks.

Big rocks. Little rocks. Smooth rocks. Rough rocks. Whatever type of rock a bird prefers, their arrival by the bucketful in the Penguins’ Rock gallery signals the official start of penguin nesting season and a flurry of activity that may — flippers crossed — lead to one or more tiny, fluffy chicks this summer. The birds typically begin nesting around April 1.

“These guys have been ready for a couple of weeks as the lights are gradually changing, and the days are getting a little bit longer, so they’ve known that this was coming,” says Assistant Curator Loribeth Lee.

Those steadily lengthening days, courtesy of the Aquarium’s team of systems operators, herald the arrival of spring and trigger biological signals telling the penguins that love is in the air. Nevertheless, it isn’t until the rocks are dumped into inviting piles& that the Gentoo and Macaroni Penguins can get to work building the nests that will help protect their young.

Published in News, Creature Features
Last modified on Wednesday, 17 April 2024 08:14

cranes sandhill 5During winter migration, visitors to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge can view thousands of greater sandhill cranes.  Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency via Appalachian Voices

Sandhill Crane Festival at Hiwassee Refuge set for Jan. 12-14 in celebration of the crane’s revival and survival

BIRCHWOOD — As many as 12,000 cranes have overwintered at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers. Whether you’re an avid birder or you’ve never seen a Sandhill crane before, the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival represents an extraordinary opportunity to witness a truly unforgettable natural phenomenon.

Experience the migration of the Sandhill cranes and many other waterfowl, eagles, white pelicans and whooping cranes. The entire region buzzes with birds and birdwatchers alike.

The festival will be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 12 – 14. Free buses run the short distance from the Birchwood Community Center to the Hiwassee Refuge and Cherokee Removal Memorial. Volunteers are set up at each location for birders and curious visitors alike.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 January 2024 01:16

california condor NPSIn September, six California condors repeatedly ventured north from their Pinnacles National Park homeland to Mount Diablo in the San Francisco Bay area, becoming the first condors seen in that area in over a century. Biologists speculate the sorties may indicate new nesting territories. Seen here is a condor deemed California condor 87 by biologists tracking the rare bird population.  Michael Quinn/National Park Service

Rare and threatened animals used innate skills and courage to recover lost territory, expand their ranges, or simply survive against the odds. Humans helped.

This article was originally published by The RevelatorTim Lydon writes from Alaska on public-lands and conservation issues. He has worked on public lands for much of the past three decades, both as a guide and for land-management agencies, and is a founding member of the Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation.

It’s tradition to honor the past year’s human achievements. From peacemakers and scientists to athletes and artists, we celebrate those who inspire us. But what about the wildlife who surround us who make up the biodiversity that sustains us? Each year standout members of those populations also set records and push boundaries, many with lasting results.

Consider P-22, also known as the “Hollywood cat.” In 2012 this young mountain lion surprised biologists and captured hearts by establishing a decade-long residency in the Griffith Park area of Los Angeles. Stealthily threading through backyards and freeways, he demonstrated the value of landscape connectivity, even in urban areas. And though he died in 2022, he inspired a massive fundraising campaign that helped build the largest wildlife bridge in the United States, to be completed in 2025 over California’s 10-lane Highway 101. In this way he changed the world.

Last modified on Saturday, 23 March 2024 21:37
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