Of Falcons and Falconry

Check out these photographs of falcons and falconry from a new Northern Virginian blog on photography.  Falconry, the ancient sport of taking quarry with raptors, is not widely practiced in the United States, although there is a Virginia Falconers Association

A Falcon's View in Tennessee

If you investigate a little bit you will learn there is normally an “apprenticeship” whereby an aspiring falconer will work with a more senior bird handler to learn how to trap, manage and train a falcon.  The apprenticeship may take years.  Falconers must obtain U.S. Fish and Wildlife Permits in order to trap and keep these birds. 

Having a falcon return to you and land on your arm would be exhilarating—presuming, of course, that you were wearing a protective gauntlet (otherwise your exhilaration would be tempered by extreme pain as the raptor’s talons clamped down on your forearm).

These photos reminded me of a backpacking trip a friend and I took several years ago wherein we accidentally came upon several wild raptors that flew extremely close to us.  It was a bit unnerving to have birds of prey buzz so closely by.  A few minutes later we would realize why the birds were flying so close to us.

We were hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Bald Mountains, up on the North Carolina-Tennessee border about 10 miles north of Sams Gap.  As we rounded some large boulders, we accidentally came upon the Big Bald Banding Station.  There were some individuals near the summit of Big Bald Mountain collecting data, and there were birds of prey that were either nesting or returning to the area.  There were also some large bird cages, and, if I recall correctly, we observed several birds being released. 

The sheer randomness of our coming upon these guys and watching the magnificent birds was pretty neat.  In fact, we were so surprised that neither of us remembered to take our cameras and photograph the birds.  We probably could have gotten some shots like those in the article highlighted above.  The birds we saw were not trained, but were wild and free and were probably just passing through, stopping briefly on their way south for the winter. 

On Top of the World - Eastern Falcon Migration Throughway

Big Bald Mountain, at 5516′, is one the higher points on the AT (and the highest between the Roan balds to the north and the Smokies to the south).  The hike on the AT from Spivey Gap (Route 19W, aka Spivey Mountain Road) to Big Bald Mountain is a steep, rugged hike.  The Bald Mountains are a natural bird migration throughway, and both large birds and smaller species cross the mountain during the seasons.

Southern Exposure: View of the Smokies from Big Bald Mountain

P.S. – North Carolina has a  North Carolina Falconer’s Guild; Tennessee does not  have any organization that supports falconry, although the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency administers the testing for falconry permits.

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Little Brumley Creek Falls

Immediately above the confluence of Little Brumley Creek and Brumley Creek on Clinch Mountain is a unique 16-20 foot plunge-type waterfall known as Little Brumley Creek Falls.

Little Brumley Creek Falls

This past weekend some friends, my son, and I hiked, climbed across mountainsides, and otherwise bushwhacked through state forest to reach this remote waterfall. 

This waterfall is unique in that the waterfall drops over a huge slab of overhanging rock.  There is a shallow cave behind the falls.  You can actually get up in the cave and walk behind the falls.

Little Brumley Creek Falls Front View

Here is some footage of my son and another person in our party walking behind the falls:

This Year’s Winter Theme: Here Today and Gone Tomorrow

2011-2012 has been a mild winter.  Last night we finally received a decent snowfall.  The Weather Channel was just up the road in Wytheville reporting live while I-81 got hammered.  To the west in the coalfields we also got a pretty good snow, and all the schools in the region were closed today. 

Early Morning Twilight

The trend this season has also been that on the occasions we have received any accumulation, it’s been gone within 24 hours.  This morning I did get a few quick shots of the snow clinging to the dogwoods with the mountains in the background.  As soon as the sun rose, the snow began to melt. 

Glistening Sunrise

As usual, the white winter blanket of beauty was fleeting.   By this evening the snow was all gone.

More Bald Eagle Sightings in SWVA

There have been more bald eagle sightings in Southwest Virginia this fall and winter.  The sightings are becoming more widespread.  I have heard first-hand accounts of bald eagle spottings at Hidden Valley Lake and at Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, as well as on private land in Washington County between Abingdon and Damascus.  Here is a photo my brother-in-law James Bear took of two eagles in December:

Bald Eagles in Wythe County, December 2011

The increase in bald eagle sitings was also recently profiled in a local article:

Sightings of bald eagles are still rare enough that people like Osborne and his neighbor are excited to spot one. However, Boynton, a bird watcher himself, says if individuals know where to look, it’s not difficult to see a bald eagle in Southwest Virginia or Smyth County.People regularly spot bald eagles, Boynton said, at Laurel Bed, Claytor and South Holston lakes as well as along the New River. In Smyth County, the wildlife biologist said, eagles can be seen along the Middle Fork and at DGIF’s trout hatchery on Rt. 16 and some private trout farms.

While the bald eagle’s presence has been growing in the region for some time, Boynton did note a new observation that now some nests are being located in Southwest Virginia.

SWVA Today, November 30, 2012 (online).

Southwest Virginia Squatch Watch

I previously wrote the tongue-in-cheek article on my finding bigfoot in Southwest Virginia last November.  That article has generated a lot of interest (This website has gotten lots of hits from people searching for the elusive bigfoot.)  For those interested, the premier of the Southwest Virginia episode on Finding Bigfoot will be shown on the Animal Planet channel on Sunday, February 12 at 10:00 pm.  

Did They Overlook Some Prime Squatch Country? Classic Mt. Rogers NRA Scenery

The episode will not only profile some areas in Washington and Smyth Counties as locations where bigfoot has been seen in our area, but also High Knob in Wise County.  (“Animal Planet Seeks Bigfoot in Wise County,” The Coalfield Progress, January 31, 2012, at 1.)

The article quotes Chad Hammel, an Animal Planet producer, as stating that High Knob may be a likely location for bigfoot because of the “topography and thick forest.”  The article states that this area also has a history of bigfoot sightings. 

The U.S. Forest Service official who was quoted in the article did not confirm the sightings and expressed skepticism, stating that if they existed up on High Knob, “They would have been discovered by now.”

I plan to watch the show this Sunday.  I think it’s high time I plan a hike up on High Knob, too (and not just for the squatch watchin’).

Winter Small Creek Fly Fishing

Southwest Virginia, Upper East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina have lots of small creeks that are usually more fishable in winter.  In winter the water levels may be higher than the summer or fall, there’s no foliage and less brush to block access to the water, and the creeks are no longer clogged with the fallen leaves.  It’s a great time of year to hit these creeks, especially during breaks of mild weather. 

Wild, Creek-Caught Brown Trout in Smyth County, Virginia, January 2012

You’re not likely to catch lunkers in these waters, but the trout are more likely to be wild and more beautiful than the stockers in the rivers and lakes.  They may also be willing to hit dry flies even when there’s no hatch coming off the water.  These small creek trout don’t have the luxury of waiting for a full-blown hatch.  They’re often stuck within the confines of small pools; this requires them to be particularly opportunistic feeders; and insects on the surface are opportunities to them regardless of season.

There is something especially rewarding about the adventure of hiking where few fishermen have been, where the trout may not have seen men or their fishing gear for a long time before you, and where you have a genuine belief that you are exploring the natural world.

In the Eastern United States, there are not many places that instill these feelings anymore.  It has been this way for almost a century:

Most of the truly secret streams were small.  The larger streams had names, a public sort of character, commercial importance, perhaps.  They were accessible:  if they held trout it became known and they were visited regularly throughout the open season.  Without restocking they became at last depleted of fish.

But the little back-country feeder brooks were nameless, and inaccessible save by long tramping over the ridges and upland meadows which lay deep beyond the infrequent roads.   In such remote rills, known only to ourselves and our most intimate partners, the brook trout swam and lurked to meet his chilly destinies much as he had in the first days of the world.  Some of these streams are still where they used to be. . . .

Howard T. Walden, II, Upstream & Down, at 171-72 (First Edition 1938). 

In Upstream & Down, Mr. Walden explained that in the East, except for in the “remote semi-wilderness counties,” most small streams were under increasing pressure from development and anglers in the early Twentieth Century.  He lamented “the loss of the virgin stream of olden time.”

These days, even in the “remote semi-wilderness counties” of the East (acknowledging that the definition of Eastern “remote semi-wilderness” is probably different today than in the 1930s), there are very few, if any, “nameless” small streams.  Nonetheless, the essence of what Mr. Walden wrote back in the 1930s is still true:  Remote small streams are still the most likely places to find unspoiled trout waters.

Wild Creek in the Jefferson National Forest, Smyth County, Virginia

In the reality of our increased population and the informational resources of modern times, there is not just a geographical dimension to being adventurous in the outdoors—whether fishing for trout, or otherwise (hiking, backpacking, etc.).  There is also a seasonal dimension.  Most fishermen hang up their rods and reels come late fall, and many do not take the sport up again until the traditional opening days of April.  Thus the ardent angler is far more likely to have a solitary and adventurous experience in winter than in spring, summer, or fall.  This is not to say that small creek fishing is not rewarding in the fairer seasons, just to point out the undeniable fact that it is more likely to hold an excitement that comes from undisturbed exploration in the wintertime. 

Trouty Water in the Virginia High Country, December 2011

So I will continue to fly fish in wintertime, even if I catch less trout during this season.  For while catching trout is the “point of the whole exercise” (as fellow small stream enthusiast and Trout Underground author Tom Chandler has stated), it is not the sole—or perhaps even driving—reason that we engage in this sport.

Exploring Quarrryish Water in Wintertime

 P.S. — I will write more about Upstream & Down, a fascinating book, and Mr. Walden’s thoughts about trout fishing in subsequent articles.

Molly’s Knob

In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps began construction on the trails of Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Virginia.  In 2012, the trails still provide hikers, runners and mountain bikers great recreation opportunities. 

The Promentory on Top of Molly's Knob
In late October 2011, my son Isaac and I (with my daughter Josephine in a backpack carrier)  hiked up to Molly’s Knob, the highest point in the park.  This is a classic day hike in Southwest Virginia.  Molly’s Knob is a sharply rising promentory knob that is about 3500′, rising slightly over 1000′ from the lake.  The hike from the lake is about three miles, making for a six mile round trip.
 
Hungry Mother Lakeshore
Over the years, Hungry Mother State Park has been a major training ground for me, particularly for running, mountain biking, and kayaking.  The trails are not your typical Southern Appalachian foot trails—we’re not talking root-laden, AT-type trails.
 
As you would expect for trails constructed by the CCC, these are similar to the U.S. National Park trails across the country.  The trails are wide enough in most places for two people to walk abreast together, especially the main trail around the lake (appropriately named the Lake Trail).  (If you add about a hundred yards to a run around the lake, you have almost exactly 10k.)
 

Other than the Lake Trail, the trails weave up and down the mountainside, mostly on the backside of the lake.  The map of all the trails is located on the state park website, here.

There is good signage throughout the park; all trails are marked.
The first time I ascended to the top of Molly’s Knob, sometime in the mid-1990s, it was on a mountain bike, and I was huffing and puffing attempting to follow my brother-in-law up the trails.  While I still see mountain bikers on these trails, the climb to Molly’s Knob is more enjoyable, in my opinion, as a regular hike.
View of Molly’s Knob from the trail. The knob is about 1000′ feet above the Lakeside Trail.

Most of the trail is a steady climb along ridgelines that gradually ascends the mountain.  The last half-mile of the trail is a spur that circles around to the backside of the top of the knob and is quite steep.  If you are on a mountain bike, it is probably best to dismount and just hike-a-bike up to the top. 

Molly Vista Trail Spur, a steep spur leading to the top. It is about .4 miles to the summit from this point.
 
The photos above and below show the start of the final, steep climb.  It gets considerably steeper than in these photos in the final section.
 
Close up of the trail marker.
As you climb the mountain, the views of the surrounding mountains begin to open up.  Below is one of the first views of Mount Rogers and Whitetop to the south.
 
View of Mt. Rogers and Whitetop mountains from Molly Knob Trail.
The view from the knob looks southwest, directly down the valley-and-ridges.  There is, however, a prominent smaller mountain that rises adjacent to Big Walker Mountain.  This is the mountain shown in the photo below. 
Late Afternoon Sunburst
In the photo below, you can see the view of the valley below.  I-81 runs down there somewhere, thankfully hidden in the folds of the hills, along with the Middle Fork of the Holston River.
 
Valley View
Below is another view looking south.  From this point, at the top of the mountain, you make out Mount Rogers (to the left) and Whitetop (to the right), with Iron Mountain rising about 3/4 of the way up in front of those two peaks. 
Mount Rogers and Whitetop mountains as viewed from Molly's Knob.
Below is another view looking out from the top of the knob.  There was smoke from a fire in the photo.   
View from Molly's Knob.
To the left of the fire, probably too small to be seen in the photo (unless you click and enlarge it), there was a hawk soaring on the thermal upwind currents.  It is easily seen in the close-up photo below.
Hawk Gliding on Thermals

This hike was toward the end of October, and while the brightest fall colors had already peaked and passed, there was still some wonderful auburn and golden foliage on the mountainsides.

Late fall colors as viewed from the knob.
Depending upon your level of fitness, this may be considered a moderate or a strenuous hike.  It’s definitely one that reasonably fit children over the age of 10 or so are capable of, especially if you pack water, some goodies, and take some breaks. 
"Isn't it beautiful, little sister?"