If you’re reading this column on Wednesday, April 5, then you’ve already enjoyed two weeks of official springtime. And it’s been nice – after three nights of hard freezes, we’ve been having warm days, cool nights, occasional rain showers. The redbuds have rebounded from the cold snap into their usual luscious spring glory, and the cedars and elms are making pollen (Achoo!).
Most of the trees, though, are still a little skeptical of it all; the buckeyes and wild cherries are barely starting to peek out with some leaves. The wily walnut trees know better. They’re waiting, as the seed packets say, until “all danger of frost has passed.” Nevertheless, as we drive around in our part of the world here in Knox County and nearby environs, we are seeing a lot of bright, spring-fresh new green leaves. But notice – uh-oh – they seem to be growing on only a couple of kinds of plants. Tall bright green trees, shorter bright green undergrowth bushes.
The month of February has certainly added on to what has been a peculiar winter. Our big weather has been a 2-inch snow on Jan. 6 and 7; since then we’ve had mostly spring weather. Warm temperatures, occasional showery days. The temp reached 77 degrees on Feb. 12, an all-time record for the day. The trees haven’t come out yet (at time of writing), but the allergists hereabouts report that they are already making pollen. Allergy season has begun.
We had jonquils blooming for Valentine’s Day, and blue, and blue-and-white, violets are in bloom in my yard. I noticed a small fruit tree of some sort down on Woodland Avenue on Feb. 15, covered with pink blossoms. Up along Grove Drive in Fountain City is a very large Chinese, or saucer, magnolia, usually the earliest tree to bloom out in the spring (and usually the first to get frozen back). We noticed it had big pink buds ready to go on the Sunday of Feb. 12.
Our 520-plus National Wildlife Refuges, covering 93 million acres, offer great opportunities for folks to get out and enjoy nature. Their rivers, lakes, swamps, fields and mountains are home to a myriad of varieties of trees and flowers, bushes and grasses. That means they are also home to innumerable critters that people like to watch – big animals, butterflies and, in the case of birders, birds.
Over 200 of our National Wildlife Refuges were set aside specifically to protect, manage and restore habitat for migratory birds, and one result of that effort has been to yield a list of over 700 species of birds that have been seen in America’s National Wildlife Refuges. And the good people who manage those refuges have made many of them very birder-friendly, with wildlife drives meandering through all their different natural features, plus nature trails, photo blinds and observation towers.
Bird migration is one of the major wonders of nature. It can produce amazing surprises that bring wonder and joy to the ever-seeking crowd of faithful birders out there, hoping for one more rare bird to show up in their part of the world.
Five years ago this January, I wrote about the rarest traveler we’d ever seen, a hooded crane from the remote bogs of inner Siberia. Probably the first of its kind to ever be seen in North America, it was discovered down near Chattanooga at the Hiwassee Refuge, hanging out with several thousand of its newest best friends, the sandhill cranes.
It’s Nut Season in East Tennessee. Now, this piece is not about the nuts out on our roadways, looking at the phone in their laps as they drive towards me with half their car in my lane. Not the nuts, either, who will soon be coming to blows with one another, in the spirit of Christmas, over the unbelievable bargains surrounding them during the already-begun Shopping Season. We’re thinking Nature here, not human nature.
And as for Nature and its critters, it’s a time of abundance, even this year with its heat and drought. There is a carpet of small nuts under my shagbark hickory trees, and we can’t walk around the place for the walnuts on the ground – ankle turners for sure, buckets and buckets of them. They should be a sign for walnut pie in my future, helping tune up the taste buds for Thanksgiving.
The birds are on the move again. And they aren’t the only creatures stirring. Those people in the funny hats, carrying binoculars – birders – are out and about, too. After two or three months of summer doldrums, big things are happening out there in the bird world.
Fall migration actually started back in the summer. Those earliest spring arrivals, the martins and the swallows, are also the first to head south in the fall. We saw a flock of thousands of purple martins gathering up in east Carolina for fall migration way back the first week of August. The second week of August, on the 12th, we found 200 tree swallows on the lines and swarming over our hayfield; three days later, none.
Today we have the tale of a butterfly and its favorite food, set in motion in the swamps of East Carolina but with a couple of surprising connections to our East Tennessee.
It begins with Grandma and me trudging along a trail in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, down in the hot and steamy swamps of East Carolina (which, the locals assure me, is a different, and much better, state than either of those other two, the North and the South ones). It’s a different kind of place, tabletop flat, with patches of woods and endless fields of corn, soybeans and cotton, people few and far between.
It’s milkweed time in Tennessee, at least in north Knox County and neighboring Union County. My dependable orange butterfly weeds have been going strong for weeks, but now are gradually fading away. Now I’m focused on their big cousins, the common milkweed. I’m following three or four large stands of over a hundred common milkweed plants each, up in the slightly higher and cooler environs of Union County. These are the milkweeds of monarch butterfly fame. Lots of bees, bugs and butterflies are visiting them, but so far, not a single monarch.
Everyone knows the story of the monarch butterfly – their amazing migrations to winter in clusters of thousands in trees along the Southern California coast and the mountains of northern Mexico. Maybe less known is a more worrisome part of the story, unless you’ve been watching for them – their alarmingly sharp decline in numbers over the last decade or so.
Progress is grinding along day by day in our communities. At times progress can make for a fascinating spectator activity. So much so that downtown, they put little windows in the walls around big construction sites, so the “sidewalk superintendents” can follow the progress and come up with all sorts of ideas as to how things would be done if they were in charge. Out here in the country we can just drive by and see the action from our cars.
One project that I see every week or so, and that startles me every time I see it, is our new landmark HPUD 5-million-gallon sewer retention tank on Dry Gap Pike, flanking the entrance to Brickey-McCloud Elementary School. That’s the same school, you will recall, that was to have been the recipient of a really nice outdoor classroom until, in the Debacle of 2010, HPUD’s contractor summarily destroyed the lovely grove of woodland just to the east of the present mega-tank.