Blue Skies

By: Steve Roark

Tennessee Division of Forestry

September often provides some brilliant blue skies as the seasons change. As an amateur naturalist, the basic question of why the sky is blue came to me, which required some research to figure out.  I thought I would share, so prepare yourself for a short physics lesson.

The sun emits light, which is a form of energy that exists as bands of electromagnetic waves. The length of these waves is what gives us the colors we see.  The color violet has the shortest visible wavelength, while red has the longest.  All other colors fall somewhere in between.  Light travels from the sun to the earth in tiny energy particles called photons.

The earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide gas. When photons from the sun strike these gases, they absorb most of them.   But light containing the blue wavelength doesn’t get absorbed, but instead bounces off the atmosphere and come racing down to earth and enters your eye, which sends the information to your brain.  Your brain interprets the wavelength and tells you:  “That’s blue… pretty!”

Rainbows are proof that all the other colors are up there.  The raindrops reflect more of the different wavelengths, which bounce down to our eyes so we can see violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red bands of color arching across the sky.

What’s cool about the sky is that it’s never the same color blue every day.  When it’s heavy laden with humidity, it’s pale and subdued.  Other times after a storm front has cleared out the air, the sky is a deep blue it defies description.  Morning skies are different from evening skies.  Whatever shade it is, pause in your busy day and take a look.


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Deer Society

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Socially, male and female white tailed deer are not, leading separate lives except for a brief mating period in the fall.  For the rest of the year bucks tend to hang in small groups amongst themselves, and does hang out with other females, along with their yearlings and fawns.

Part of the deer breeding cycle involves the buck’s growth of antlers, which are shed and grown annually.  Antlers growth starts around April to May.  As they grow, antlers have a velvety covering of skin and blood vessels that provides nourishment for them.  You cannot age a buck by the size of the antler or the number of points, for their development is largely determined by quality and quantity of food available.  By August or September the antlers are fully grow, and the velvet covering begins to die and peel off.  The buck aids in this process by rubbing its antlers against trees and shrubs.

With full-grown antlers and enlarged necks, the buck groups break up.  By October, the does begin to come into heat, and each is receptive for about 24 hours.  Males follow females around during this time of year, mainly by scent.  More than one male may follow the female, but the dominant male will be nearest her.  Bucks are aggressive towards each other and compete for a particular doe or territory.  They lower their heads and point their antlers at an opponent, which is called an “antler threat”.  In an “antler rush”, bucks actually crash horns.  While the antler rush is a favorite spectacle on nature and hunting films, it’s not that common in the wild.  Once they have mated the male moves on to look for another female, while the female returns to her doe group.  Gestation takes around 200 days, so most fawns are born in June.  The first birth is usually a single fawn, but in successive births twins are not uncommon.

For the first month, fawns remain hidden in vegetation and rarely move far from their birthplace.  Their greatest protection is their ability to lie still and remain unseen by predators.  Their light brown color and white spotting offer excellent camouflage on a leafy forest floor.  The mother usually feeds nearby and returns periodically for the fawn to nurse.

After the first month the fawns travel with their mother, who will likely rejoin her doe group in August/September.  By spring the new fawns are yearlings.  During the summer, when their mother is raising new fawns, the yearlings go off and feed on their own, but remain in vicinity of the mother.  In the fall they rejoin their mother and spend another winter with her.  The following spring they will leave her, with the males joining buck groups and females joining a new doe group.

Deer male-female photo.jpg

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The Eastern Chipmunk By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

The eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is a member of the squirrel family and very common in our area.  They are the little reddish brown ground squirrels you see scurrying about in the woods.  The average chipmunk is only 5-6 inches long, half of which is tail.  When they run, note that their tail is held straight up.

Autumn is the easiest time to see Chipmunks because they are very busy gathering food for winter.  They are best found by listening for them.  They give a high pitched “chip”, a lower pitched “chuck”, and  A loud chatter when they are startled or having a confrontation with a neighbor.


The chipmunk lifestyle is a busy one and mostly centered on gathering food and maintaining a home, which is a burrow.  These can be simple structures with one chamber and entrance tunnel, or they can be elaborate mansions with chambers for sleeping, food storage, and a nursery.  The entrance is a round hole designed to blend into the surroundings and remain unseen by predators.


Chipmunks are active during the day (science guys call this diurnal) and sleep at night.  The day is mostly spent foraging for food, improving the burrow, and resting off and on.  Their home range varies from 1/4 to 3 acres, and within this range is a zone around the burrow that is heavily defended from other chipmunks.


Chipmunks eat a variety of foods, mainly seeds, nuts, and fruits.  They also eat mushrooms, beetles, slugs, and worms.  They have been known to take an occasional bird egg and are capable of climbing trees. They don’t actively hunt eggs, but if they run across one in a nest of ground nesting birds they will imbibe.  A study has shown that ground nesters like the veerie and ovenbird will listen for chipmunk calls to determine their populated areas, and will nest in quieter parts of the forest to prevent egg predation.


Autumn is a very active time of food gathering to stockpile food for the winter. Chipmunks have large cheek pouches that allow them to carry a good-sized load to the burrow. This stockpile of food is referred to as a “cache”, and is consumed between times of winter hibernation, which in our area is done only intermittently. When they do hibernated their heartrate slows to around four beats per minute, and their body temperature will match that of their burrow.


As for a family life, chipmunks can have two breeding seasons per year, one in early spring and another in early summer.  Courtship for the male involves chasing off other males, and playfully chasing the female.  After mating the male is chased off, and after 31 days the female bears 4-5 young that are hairless and blind.  The babes are weaned at 4 weeks, begin to venture outside the burrow at 6 weeks, and denied entrance to the burrow by the mother at 8 weeks.  The young chipmunks must then seek lives of their own, and have an average life span of 2 to 3 years.



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Fall Asters By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

While springtime is noted for wildflowers, autumn also offers an impressive burst of color, when some plants make a last push to propagate before the killing frosts.  Asters are particularly easy to find blooming now, and come in shades of yellow, white, and purple/blue.

Asters belong to the largest group of flowering plants, the Composite (Compositae) family, also referred to as the Daisy family.  A typical composite flower head has a central disk surrounded by a circle of petals that encircle the disk like windmill blades.   The central disk is made up of many small flowers (that don’t look like flowers) grouped together, hence the name composite.  The surrounding petals are called rays, and vary in number from 10 to over 100.


There are over 600 species of asters worldwide, and are very abundant in the Appalachians. They can be found blooming as late as November. Some fall asters have many small white flowers that cluster at the top of the plant, and my grandparents referred to these late bloomers as “frost weeds”. Yellow asters are common in our area, and include species of sunflowers, cone flowers, and hawkweeds. The New England Aster is one of the more showy asters in the fall, having bright purple flowers and an orange center disk.  It is cultivated for garden use.


Besides providing a touch of color, asters are an important food source for insects, butterflies in particular. For humans some asters can be food and medicine.  Jerusalem artichoke produces an edible tuber served as a potato dish, and chicory root provides a coffee-like beverage. Ironweed root was used by the Cherokee to treat stomach-ache and bleeding.


Asters are most commonly found in old fields and along roadsides, but can also be found in wooded areas.  If you would like to grow some native asters in your landscape for beauty and to attract butterflies, there are several companies that sell seed, so seek them out on line.


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Oaks By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Division of Forestry

Oaks are the most valuable hardwood in our area. The wood is durable, beautiful, and in demand both here and abroad for furniture, flooring, and veneer products.   In the forest the acorn (called mast) is rated at the top of the wildlife food list because it provides nourishment during the crucial winter season.

There are over 200 species of oak worldwide, several being local natives.  The more common ones found in our area include:  white oak, chestnut oak, post oak, northern red oak, black oak, southern red oak, scarlet oak, and chinkapin oak.  Oak species are separated into two major groups:  red and white.  Generally the red oaks will have leaves with spiny, pointed edges, and have acorns that are bitter due to a high concentration of tannic acid.  It requires two years for red oak acorns to germinate and begin to grow.  The white oaks have leaves with rounded edges, and less bitter acorns that will germinate immediately under the right conditions.  One way to tell a white oak acorn from a red is to look at the inside of the acorn cap.  If the surface is fuzzy it’s a red oak, while white is smooth.


Oaks are so common in our area that our forest is given the broad category name of “oak-hickory”.  They are found from ridge tops to river drains.  Wildlife that use acorns as a major winter food source  include deer, squirrel,  turkey,  grouse, blue jays, black bear,  and chipmunk.  Deer and rabbit also browse on the foliage and bark of young oak trees.


Both red and white oak species fetch a high price for their wood, and a young stand of oak trees is money in the bank if properly cared for.  For information on how to properly manage oak and other valuable tree species contact your local Forestry office.  Oaks are declining in our forest due to harvesting practices that allow other tree species to have a competitive edge. A forester can show you ways to encourage oak regeneration.


While not the fastest growing tree, oaks still make excellent shade trees and are a handsome addition to your home landscape.  They are long lived and tolerate many soil conditions, including compaction.  Be sure to give them plenty of growing room, since they can reach 75 feet in height and have a crown spread of over 45 feet.



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Bluegill By: Steve Roark Tennessee Division of Forestry

A lot of adults who enjoy fishing got hooked (yes, a pun) on the sport by catching bluegill as a kid.  Because of its willingness to take a variety of natural and artificial baits, its feistiness when hooked, and its excellent flavor, the bluegill is a popular game fish.

The bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is easy to identify.  They are oval shaped and average around 6-10 inches long, but you’ll see hundreds of them much smaller and very dexterous at stealing your bait.  Bluegill are dark green to blue-green in color,  have dark bars on their sides, a black spot on the dorsal (top) fin, and a black flap at the edge  of the gill cover. Other identifying features are a small mouth and long pectoral (front side) fins. Bluegill have a close cousin some call sunfish or bream (Lepomis gibbosus), which is a more brilliant green color with an orange belly and spots on their sides.


Bluegills can be found everywhere, in ponds, lakes, and slow moving rivers and streams.  They prefer quiet, weedy or brushy waters where they can hide and feed. Insects, insect larvae and crustaceans are the preferred foods of bluegills, with vegetation, fish eggs, small fish, mollusks, and snails being of secondary importance, although they may dominate their diet during certain times of the year.


Besides feeding and hiding from predators, bluegills do a lot of propagation.  They spawn from April through August, peaking in late May through June when the water temperature reaches about 78-80 degrees.  Bluegills are well known for “bedding” in large groups, where the males build circular beds (called nests) by fanning their tails vigorously to create an indention. Bedding occurs in water two to six feet deep over sand or gravel, and often among plant roots when the bottom is soft. After the bed is built the female lays 12,000 to 40,000 eggs depending on her age, which hatch in 2-5 days.  The male guards the nest, keeping it clean and protecting the young for a few days after they hatch.


From a food chain standpoint, bluegills are important in being food for the larger carnivorous game fish, and are often stocked in ponds with bass for that purpose.  The bluegills multiply so rapidly that the pond often becomes overstocked, resulting in stunted fish.  For human predation, bluegill meat is excellent; the flesh is white, flaky, firm and sweet. They are generally rolled in cornmeal or dipped in pancake batter before frying. Many rank the bluegill among the most delicious of fish, and I find it hard to argue with that.


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Year of the Tick By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

I’ve always heard a mild winter would lead to a summer with more bugs, and I’ve found that to be the case, especially this year with ticks.  We pulled them off our dogs all winter, and I’ve picked more off of me this summer than I can remember. I’ve also heard of several local folks that have gotten Rocky Mountain spotted fever.  And with new tick borne diseases on the horizon, it’s a summer to be extra vigilant for things crawling about on your body.

First some tick science: there are primarily three kinds of ticks found in our area: the brown dog, the lone star, and the American dog tick. The most common one I see is the American dog tick, which is reddish brown with silver streaks on its back. All ticks go through 4 life stages, starting with an egg produced by a female who can produce upwards of 3000 eggs. The other stages: larval, nymph, and adult, all require a blood meal before moving on, so a tick must feed on three different victims to complete its life. The larval and nymph stages more or less look like the adult stage, only smaller and may have 6 legs instead of the normal 8.  The American dog larvae don’t typically feed on humans, but the lone star will go for you at any stage, especially the larval stage (referred to as seed ticks), which can congregate in large numbers.


It’s usually during the larval feeding that ticks come in contact with diseases which they can spread to humans. Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease are the most common problems, and in our area the spotted fever is more prevalent.  Lyme disease is concentrated more in the northeastern states and spread by the black legged tick that we thankfully don’t have yet.


The symptoms of RMSF mimic the flue, and can include fever, chills, bad headache, muscle aches, nausea, and restlessness. After a few days a red rash often appears on the wrists and ankles, which can spread over time. Not everybody gets the rash. The best course of action during the summer is to head for the doctor when symptoms show up, as left untreated the disease can become debilitating and even life threatening. Treatment of RMSF is normally strong antibiotics. With Lyme disease a circular, bulls-eye type red rash will appear at the bite site, but not always.  Another illness floating around is southern tick-associated rash illness, or STARI. Symptoms ae also flu-like and can include an expanding, bulls-eye rash similar to Lyme. This one normally doesn’t lead to arthritic or neurological problems that other tick diseases can cause.  One other new disease being watched is called Powassan, which also has flu-like symptoms that can lead to serious neurological damage and even death.  Right now there is no treatment available.


So the best defense is the diligent use of insect repellents containing either DEET or permethrin, and close body checks.  Look especially in hair, armpits, groin, waistline, around the ears, and inside the belly button. It will take at least 24 hours before a tick can dig in and begin feeding, so catch them early and your chances of infection go way down. Body checks should be done at the end of each day if you’ve been around any vegetation. But please don’t let this restrict you or your kid’s enjoyment of the outdoors. Just exercise due caution and still get out there.

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