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Wild observations: Autumn leaves in Tennessee

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By Nancy Oakes

I know the color of fall leaves can be pretty in our area, but my whole concept of autumn got reworked after visiting Tennessee the first week of November. I'd forgotten just how breathtakingly beautiful fall scenery can be.

A friend I haven't seen in years moved to Eastern Tennessee right north of the Smoky Mountains. She's been there a few years, and I took the time to visit her. I had trouble adjusting to driving on roads that climb and curve and steeply descend. Georgia got me warmed up to hills and then North Carolina turned up the heat on its ups and downs. Route 40 east of the Smokies almost made me jump out of my seat with its 70 mile speed limits and rushing traffic ascending and descending in a manner that scared me. Does going through a mountain tunnel at 50 mph with a tractor trailer on your bumper seem dangerous?

Obviously I made it, and once I stopped driving, I could really appreciate the wonderful scenery of rural Tennessee during a colorful series of clear days. I soon noticed birds at my friend's feeders and water dishes. Flocks of goldfinch, now in their gray winter plumage, chattered sweetly and ate niger seed. I saw a white-breasted nuthatch, a rare bird in our area, doing its characteristic vertical, head-down climbing on a tree. Other birds I observed included four bluebirds, titmice, chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers and flickers, a robin, cedar waxwing and mourning doves. Joan saw a cardinal, but I didn't see it. I heard more waxwings and robins around the house which has trees on all sides. Joan says the goldfinch stay all winter, just like the flocks that visit us.

The variety of hardwood trees made it a challenge to identify all of them. I couldn't do it, but some familiar trees and some extra colorful or otherwise unusual specimens got closer attention. Sourwood trees have deep red leaves in the fall that stand out as well as the scarlet or red maples. Both trees grow naturally in the woods we visited and around my friend's house. I also picked up leaves from familiar trees that grew in New Jersey: tulip or yellow popular and sassafras. The cedar trees had loads of pretty pale blue berries. Other trees I noticed were Carolina silverbell, yellow birch, hemlocks and many different types of oaks, some quite large. I picked up a leaf on a walk in the Smoky Mountains near Cosby Tennessee. It measured over 12 inches and was a deep orange color. A local hiker told me it was a magnolia. I later found it in a book under the name of umbrella magnolia.

Other than birds, I saw some wildlife, including black bear, chipmunks, fat squirrels and a deer. The bear was seen from a car in the Smokies where many people go just to see these omnivores. The same local guy told us the bears in this area usually stay active foraging for food all winter. It needs to be cold for a long time to make bears hibernate. My friend once saw a mother bear and three cubs crossing this same road.

Perhaps because of the season and the drought Eastern Tennessee is suffering, wildflowers were scarce. The distinctive dark green leaves with a white stripe down the middle that I saw in the woods belonged to a plant called spotted wintergreen. A white flower blooms in the spring. I also identified the dried flowers of stiff gentian and the dried stalks of squaw root. Lots of plants gone to seed grew beneath trees. The only plants I saw blooming were a type of aster, a few yellow composites and one violet penstemon-type flower growing along a stream bank.

I stayed overnight at a place in Central Georgia. This area too is affected by lower than average rainfall. It was sad to see so many streams low or dried-up. Nature can be beautiful, but also difficult to deal with sometimes. I'd like to visit this same area in the spring, and I hope they get rain before then. Until next time, good observing.