Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 2, 2014

Sights from a walk in the winter woods

By Don Hazel
Sun contributor

CROSSVILLE — Some folks think of winter as dead, dull and dreary. But for me, this is the best time of the year to get out, because without the leaves and ticks, you can see so much more. Sure, some of the birds have gone south, but others, from up North, have come here.

Our beautiful Fairfield Glade trails are a great place to go. Last week, I saw a tiny golden-crowned kinglet flitting from branch to branch just off one of the trails. These little birds spend the summer in the northern borders of the United States, or in the higher mountains, but they visit us in the winter. I tried to get a photo, but kinglets seem to never stop for even half a second.

My game camera has captured photos of bobcats, gray and red fox, wild pigs, raccoons and mice in the woods. But the time stamp on the game cam photos shows that those animals are usually nocturnal. Unless you scare one out of a resting place, you probably won't see many mammals during a day hike, winter or summer.

I took the North trail to check out the bee hive recently. Some crazy wild honeybees built their nest of honeycomb on the outside of a tree. I passed this beehive many times last summer, but it was hidden by tree leaves. Once the leaves dropped, there it was, just 15 feet up, next to the trail. Usually wild bees build inside a hollow tree, but these bees hung everything on the outside. I called the beekeepers, who saved an earlier hive from a fallen tree, to see if they felt the bees could survive the winter, outside the tree. The beekeepers said that bees can easily survive the cold but the wind hitting an exposed nest could be too much to handle. Beekeepers Keith and Jeff felt that the exposed hive was so unique that they wanted to save it in place for all of us to see. So they spent several hours building an enclosure for the bees, around the honeycomb, on the side of the tree. The beekeepers also placed supplemental food in the enclosure, to help the bees survive. On one of those 60 degrees days last week, the bees were very active, eating good and living well, thanks to Keith and Jeff.

Not far from the bees I found a horned passalus beetle on an old rotted log. These large, 1.5 inch long black beetles eat decaying wood. They are one of an army of animals and plants that help the forest decompose so that we aren't up to our eyeballs in a thousand years of fallen trees. In other parts of the world, relatives of these large beetles are used for gambling. People collect the large males and then, by placing the scent of a female nearby, the males will fight each other for a date with the girl. The gamblers bet on which male will win. I guess they don't have horse racing or lottery in those countries.

When looking up information on these beetles, a scientist at one website said that the large white grubs, as big as your little finger, have twice as much protein, per ounce, as beef or chicken. Unless I am very, very hungry, I will take his word for it.

On some bushes, I found a praying mantis egg case. It looks like a small gray piece of foam about an inch in diameter. My wife found one last year and I left it in the garage where it hatched unexpectedly on the first of May. Gardeners like mantids, because they eat all kind of other insects. You can buy praying mantis egg cases on line for $3 to $5 each. Each egg case generally hatches 50 to 100 babies. Better yet, get out and find some egg cases yourself and place them in your yard, free of charge. This is the time year to look for them.

It may be winter, but if you are walking or hiking, it only takes a layer or two to keep warm. Besides, we live in Tennessee, not Alaska. Get outside and look for some of the natural sights that you won't see in the summer.

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