The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
15 Life on Land

15 Life on Land (103)

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

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

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

IMG 3876Gerry Moll is seen in the native garden of his home in the 4th and Gill neighborhood of Knoxville in this file photo. Moll tends to his natural habitat in keeping with city codes protocols.  Ben Pounds/Hellbender Press

City: Overgrown lots don’t automatically qualify as wildlife habitat

KNOXVILLE — City government wants people to know that though “No Mow May” is a worthy observation there are still some protocols residents have to follow to avoid codes violations and potential fines.

The month of May is hyped as a prime time to refrain from cutting your grass or portions of your lawn to allow pollinating plants and the pollinators they support to get six legs up late spring and early summer nectar season. It’s also an occasion to consider the fact that traditional lawns are largely ecological deserts.

“No Mow May” is a quick and catchy name for a movement that aims far beyond not mowing the yard for a month,” according to Bee City USA, a proponent of keeping your yard real and wild when and where it is practical.

“It’s more than long grass and dandelion blooms. It’s a gateway to understanding how we share our lawns with many small creatures.”

It goes beyond bees and butterflies and other pollinating insects. Many ground-nesting birds are on the decline due to loss of grassy habitat. Native grasses also serve as habitat for small mammals such as rabbits and mice, which in turn provide a buffet for raptors such as owls, hawks and eagles.

Hellbender Press has reported on cultivation of such natural landscapes and habitats within the city limits. Groups such as the Native Plant Rescue Squad can also provide plants and guidance.

Last modified on Thursday, 16 May 2024 15:31

reginasantoreRegina Santore with the Wild Ones Smoky Mountains Chapter puts garlic mustard into a bag during an April volunteer event along a greenway in Oak Ridge.  Ben Pounds/Hellbender Press

Volunteers fight exotic and invasive garlic mustard on Oak Ridge greenway 

OAK RIDGE — Plants from around the world are overrunning the Southeast’s wild places, causing problems for native flora and fauna.

It’s a problem that’s grabbed the attention and work of dedicated organizations. One of them, the Tennessee Invasive Plant Council has many strategies to solve this problem: volunteer weed-pulling events, guides to help gardeners find native plants from which to choose, and even legislation. Its vice president, Jamie Herold, has many thoughts on the issue. She was eager to share them over pizza after a morning of pulling one such invasive, garlic mustard, at an event in Oak Ridge organized by Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, and Greenways Oak Ridge

The event involved pulling garlic mustard, a plant originally from Europe, from the edge of the woods behind apartments on West Vanderbilt Avenue. This area includes the Wildflower Greenway, a trail full of wildflowers that locals have been eager to protect from the garlic mustard’s domination. 

Last modified on Tuesday, 30 April 2024 01:14
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
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