Saturday, June 23, 2018

On the Move: Getting into the Good Stuff

By end of May everything was packed up, vacated, discontinued, etc. We were essentially homeless, jobless, and heading across country in our pod-topped Outback with an 11 month-old, hoping to go 6 to 7 hours a day. We puddle-hopped in 2-hour stints from McDonalds to Chik-fil-A, or anywhere else that had a "Play Place" along the I-10, I-40, or I-20.
P.S. Ball pits don't exist anymore, sad but understandable.

The light at the end of the tunnel was not our final destination, but western North Carolina and the mountains, where we rendezvoused with grandparents to recoup for a few days in Maggie Valley. The view in the evening was pretty good. The view in the morning was even better.

...if you're into the Great Smokies and what not

Like fancy hotels and aggressively advertising crappy apartments, the NC mountains offer many amenities, though the montane amenities are of a much more natural and holistic aesthetic. For the grandparents, it was all about the bucolic drives and quaint roadside stands toting knick-knacks and mountain honey. For B's Bs Jr. it was just about comfortably being outside, in general, for once. For Mrs. B's Bs and I it was all about the critters and the fungi, and of course, The Birds.

Now is the time for Wild Turkeys and chicks. 

We dallied in the Great Smokies in mid-June, and as such we had missed the larger concentrations of birds one might catch during migration (and many birds were much higher in the canopy now, if still very vocal), but we still experience an fantastic variety of fauna. The mountain ponds contained outrageous numbers of tadpoles. A couple of cool mystery newts/salamanders were basking as well.

Internet identification has been typically ineffective for these guys. I'm not sure if it's my own poor searching or if these are some intermediate stage of salamander species and I'm only seeing mature phases.

Pre-pubescent Eastern Newt and Slimy (Dusky?) Salamander made for easier IDs, and at the other size of the Great Smoky size spectrum, we had roadside looks at Elk while traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway just after sunrise. 

Such majesty...

There was also plenty of cool flora to appreciate, such as this super water-logged disintegrating vine. I had never noticed nor appreciated the structure of the vine as it came apart, revealing sheet-layers of fiber. There were also some enterprising vines that, tired of a life of parasitism and living in the hardwoods' shadows, seemed to be making a tree unto themselves.

Mrs. Butler's Birds and I recently listened to some very interesting podcasts about the subterranean communication and exchange networks between fungus and tree roots, with fungal networks exchanging minerals for sugar with tree roots, facilitating flow from tree to tree, and even seeking out organic life--little bugs and such--and ensnaring it to be processed. 
Also, emerging evidence is that some plants can sense the presence of water from vibration alone and they can learn to react or not react to certain stimuli over time. In other words, if the AI or the octopi don't come for us, the trees will finish us off. M. Night Shyamalan was right all along...but the first prophets are always stoned. It's best to play it safe.

"The fields have eyes and the woods have ears" --Chaucer

Anyway, there were plenty of cool Appalachian fungus (they may be less socially evolved than more metropolitan fungus, but are much more wholesome and down-home).We have a guide book now, but have not even begun to climb the first slope of the learning curve.  I will have to work on IDs for these at a later time and provide some proxy IDs until then.

Orange-capped Bark Propper

White-scaled Trunk-stacker

Fulminating Slime-Piler

On the auditory scale, the birding was great. There were many species, including wood warbler varieties, singing on territory. However, unless one could find a ridge, road, or trail portion that elevated up to canopy level, the visual logs lagged far behind. 
Northern Parulas are always gregarious though and we did have a couple that weren't too busy to check us out in various poses.

This reminds me of a Cuckoo posture

Dark-eyed Juncos were everywhere. They were at every elevation, in every habitat, making all manner of varied calls, chips, and songs. It was kind of frustrating to be honest, but one can't help but admire their success. So here's an acknowledgement, one such individual of many hundreds. Respect, Junco. Please try to sound less like other birds. I swear they're mimids sometimes.

Keeping excursions balanced with the rest of the crew's wants & needs, we made a couple of forays on Black Balsam Mountain in pursuit of an overdue lifer, a buzzy flash of orange up high in the mixed hardwoods. The first few days were actually pretty crummy weather, overcast and windy. We dipped on the first of our three attempts at Flat Ridge Trail. We did pick up a pretty adorable consolation prize, so no complaints.

On Day 2 we hiked from the Black Balsam Campground to a little higher elevation, actually where the previous day's trail would end as well, had we time to finish. The morning 'smoke' burned off to an unusually clear day, and near the Heintooga Overlook we heard that much lusted for buzzy warble. Alas, when we looked up, there was only a Waxwing being weird.

Our quarry was high, and small, and flighty as all get out. It was also an astounding combination of bold oranges and blacks, and we chased the flashes of flame through the verdant canopies for a while in search of the SSV (soul satisfying view).

We had two males and a female near the terminus of Flat Ridge and Balsam Mtn. Nature Trail, be the Heintooga Overlook. I thrashed and crashed around like a 3-legged Elk (but even less majestic) while Mrs. Butler's Birds opted to recline and stay put. Obviously she's the one who had a male BLWA foraging like 10 feet away from her face. Good thing she had the wherewithal to snap this photo shortly before her face melted. 

Insert caption to make this an REI advertisement for boots or a fleece or something: "Wherever you go, go with comfort."

Sweet, sweet lifering. It has been a while, and I have missed the feeling in all the ways and means. What a crippler. A Top 10 Best Looking North American Bird? Most probably.

Maggie Valley is about as close as you can get to the Great Smokey NP, but it's still 20-30 minutes of single-lane mountain roads to the nearest trailheads (albeit on beautiful stretches of Blue Ridge Parkway). The drives are loaded with scenic vistas, but between the early morning fog and the roadside elk, it can be a little nerve-racking as well. Having some Black-throated warblers near our lodge was thus both convenient and wonderful. The Greens stayed in the highest strata but the Blues would forage within view. I bore witness to a geometrid holocaust every afternoon while poking around the local woods. 

All different birds (presumably) with all different worms (even more presumably)

Between the steady overcast and heavy shade, conditions were never great for photos, but they were great for observations, and I saw many the cute little inch worm snatched and thrashed to pieces by the voracious and appropriately re-classified setophaga (moth eater).

I don't know what sort of moth the inchworm larva become, but this impressive specimen was hanging around the lodge the first two nights, and then hanging around dead the third day. He was almost BTBW-sized himself. 

I snuck out for a couple hours on the day of our departure, planning to bird a little lower in less specialized but more birdy habitat. Butler's Birds UNLEASHED coming up next time (although it got cut short because the kid woke up early, we had to hit to road, re-leashed pretty quickly).