First hummingbirds

The first hummingbirds have shown up here on the mountain. We realized it when one flew into the sliding glass door in our living room about three days ago. We heard a thump and then saw the bird fly away.

Time to put up the feeder.

Several have started feeding. Based on what I’ve read, they are probably the males, who have arrived to stake out their territory. This shot, taken through the glass, shows two. The one you can actually see is a male.


We have always mixed our own hummingbird nectar. Everything we read said use one part sugar to four parts water, but at this site, they say that the one-to-four mix has about the same amount of sugar as the lowest concentration in certain flowers that hummingbirds feed on. They say using a higher concentration, even up to one-to-one, encourages the birds to come to your feeder. The concentration can be lowered gradually to the one-to-four mix.

The site has some more interesting facts about hummingbirds, as well as some advice for ways to  rescue a hummingbird trapped in a garage. I’m going to keep that in mind if another hummer ends up trapped in our garage.

The dogwoods are in bloom

Dogwoods are one of my favorite trees, and certainly my favorite of the understory trees. Every spring I’m almost surprised to see how many there are in the woods on the mountain. They aren’t nearly as noticeable after they bloom, and they’re almost invisible after the hardwoods leaf out.

I love to walk down Fouche Gap Road when the dogwoods are in bloom. To me, the white cloud-like puffs of blooms in the distance mean winter is really over.

We have several natives on our property, plus several we have planted or transplanted. This native dogwood has bloomed profusely in the past, but in the last few years it hasn’t done so much. This year is a pretty good year, although I expected even more. It’s visible from our kitchen.


We planted a white dogwood and a pink dogwood at the same time shortly after we moved in. Contrary to my expectations, the pink dogwood has done much better than the white one. This year it produced a decent bloom, but it still looks kind of sparse from a distance. It’s right at the end of our driveway.


Up close, the blooms are very nice.


There are several volunteers not far from the big white dogwood. If they all survive long enough, that part of the property is going to be a pretty sight in the spring.

Expedition to a longleaf

Up until a couple of weeks ago I was not sure that we actually had a mature longleaf pine on our property. That sounds ridiculous when you realize that our two lots are less than four acres. But I plead extenuating circumstances.

Most of our property is thickly wooded. A large portion is covered by a thick growth of fairly young pines. In some areas I almost have to take an axe to cut off dead limbs in order to get through, and dead pines are always under foot or leaning at a crazy angle blocking the way.

It's hard to get around out there

It’s hard to get around out there

A few years ago I took all day to cut a path along the back property line. There was a survey marker near Wildlife Trail and I knew the right heading to get to the interior corner. Unfortunately, the sight line was only a few feet. I started at the marker and tied a ribbon to a tree on the right heading. Then I had to cut trees in what I thought was the right direction. I sighted down the preceding ribbons and then tied a new ribbon on a tree that lined up. Then I did it again. I was surprised that I actually managed to take a nearly straight path to a survey marker, and I was surprised to find that there was actually a marker there.

Here it is. A neighbor had another survey since I originally found the marker.

Here it is. A neighbor had another survey since I originally found the marker.

I found a couple of longleaf pines just on the other side of the line, but none on our property.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to cut through the woods from the back of the house to see if I could find the marker again. It was not easy. I have mentioned that there have been at least two and possibly three significant events on the mountain that affected the forest. The first that I know of was Hurricane Andrew in 1992. That storm clipped northwest Georgia and blew down trees here and there all over the mountain. There are places where large trees fell into a criss-cross pattern that is virtually impossible to cross. I think a lot of the smaller downed trees on our property were victims of Andrew.

A second event was a fire. I can’t tell when that happened, but there is evidence everywhere around the property. Many of the larger pines have blackened bark on the lower part of their trunks. I also found a layer of ash buried anywhere from a few inches to a foot or more below the current surface. The buried ash layer indicates a possible third event in which most of the topsoil in the upper part of the lot was pushed partway down the slope. It’s possible that’s a result of firefighting.

Whatever the cause, most of the trees on the upper part of the property are young. You can tell the younger trees from the older trees by the difference in texture in this Google Earth image on our property. The young, thick growth of trees looks smooth compared to the older trees. Our house is in the center of this image. The yellow angle brackets point at utility poles at the property boundary. I can’t tell where the back corner is.

our property

So I started out, aiming roughly at the back corner. I made my way through the woods, constantly straining to look up through the foliage. I think it’s possible to identify a longleaf pine by its bark, but I can’t do it. The only way I can tell one from a loblolly or a shortleaf pine (I think most of the shortleaf pines on Lavender Mountain are Virginia pines) is by seeing the needles.

I was happy to  find a longleaf pine that was definitely inside our property lines. It’s not easy to tell in this image, but the pine in the center is a longleaf.


There are bigger longleaf pines nearby, but this one is fairly big.


There is another candidate that can just be seen from Wildlife Trail on the lower part of the property. I’m not certain of this one, but I’m pretty sure. The main reason I haven’t settled this one is that I can just barely see the top of the tree from the street. The top of the tree is much harder to see from close to the base.

Meanwhile, back in the civilized part of our property, the little transplanted longleaf seems to be doing pretty well, aside from some dying off of a few needles on one part of the tree.


At first I thought this was the result of a natural process, but then I realized that the tree had become a regular rest stop for Zeke on his walks around the house. Once I realized what was happening, I closed that rest stop. Zeke can pee pretty much anywhere else, but not there.

So now we know that there is one bottlebrush longleaf that I planted, and one mature longleaf on our property. That makes me happy. I need to positively identify the other candidate, and then I’ll be pretty sure about our own longleaf pine population.

Question answered

Wayne identified the dead trees I mentioned in my post yesterday as eastern red cedar (juniperus virginiana). Once I read his comment, I realized I should have been able to figure that out. As I said, it didn’t occur to me because there are no large cedars nearby. There is, however, a large cedar about a hundred yards up the street that I have noticed on many occasions. Here it is.


Here is a closer view of the tree’s bark. If you compare it to the wood in the wheelbarrow from yesterday’s post, you can see the similarity.

cedar bark

Next to it is a dead cedar that looks amazingly like the ones on our property.

dead cedar

Although there are no large cedars nearby (assuming 100 yards is not nearby), there are several young cedars, like this one I can see every time I walk out onto our driveway.


How could that have escaped my notice? That’s Dusty perched in front of the little cedar. Maybe he could have helped with the tree identification.

When I walked the dogs this morning I looked for cedars. I saw two or three small ones, about the size of the one by our driveway, but no large cedars. The woods are wide open this time of year, so I am pretty sure I would have been able to identify a cedar if I had seen one in the woods.There must be other mature cedars around the mountain, but the one up the street is the only one I can specifically remember. I remember this one in particular because I don’t remember seeing any others.

I know where baby cedars come from, but I don’t really understand why the nearest mature cedar is so far from our young ones, and especially so far from the two or three I saw on our walk. Squirrels? Birds?

I went down Wildlife Trail later in the afternoon and looked up into our property. There are more dead cedars lying on the ground than I realized. I wonder how they died. Are cedars more susceptible to low-level fires than pines? If the fire that charred our loblolly and short-leaf pines also killed the cedars, it must have happened longer ago than I thought. I am going to have to assume that I can’t accurately estimate the timing of these events.

This also makes me wonder about what the forest looked like in the past. It’s mixed oak, hickory and pine now. I don’t think much if any of the mountain is virgin forest, and there are some large areas that have been cleared in recent decades. But based on the size of some of the trees along the road and not far from our property, much of the forest has been undisturbed for quite some time, especially on the steeper slopes. I’m guessing that logging ended in the early 1900′s, or possibly even in the late 1800′s (but we know how unreliable my time estimates are). The longleaf pines down Wildlife Trail give some evidence that in the more distant past there were larger stands of longleaf. I wonder how the cedars fit into this picture.

Fat lighter

My first experience with fat lighter was during spring break in 1972. My friends Tom and John and I decided to ride our bicycles from Atlanta down to Callaway Gardens, which was probably 70 or 80 miles from where we lived. We were pretty much completely unprepared for anything about the trip. We didn’t have fancy bicycle gear. We wore blue jeans and I probably had some kind of sneakers. Tom wore his old Army boots. We didn’t have warm sleeping bags, or any kind of sleeping gear that I can remember. And, of course, it got cold.

We didn’t make it all the way the first night. We went some way down a powerline right of way out of sight of the highway and made camp. When it got dark, it got too cold to sleep, so we built a fire. I have no idea how we managed to find wood or start it. At some point, one of us found a big chunk of wood and put it on the fire. It caught immediately and burned with a bright, hot flame. It was fat lighter. It was like a gift to us from the patron saint of idiots. We all gathered around and spent the night warming our hands.

I didn’t have much reason to think about fat lighter for the next 40 years, but now I find that we have lots of fat lighter on our property.

When I bought the property where I built out house, it was covered with a very thick growth of mostly young, shortleaf pines. There are a few mature pines, both shortleaf and loblolly. There are many, many tall, thin dead pines lying on the ground or leaning against other pines in the woods. Those are probably all the result of failing in the competition for sunlight. Some might be victims of Hurricane Andrew, which nicked the northwest corner of Georgia in 1992. Among those small dead trees, though, are a few large dead pines that have clearly been on the ground for a long time. In some cases their limbs have held them off the ground, but in other cases they are nearly buried in pine needles and moss. But they are not rotten like the rest of the smaller dead pines.

example dead tree

A few years ago I cut off some limbs and found that in most cases the joint at the main trunk was fat lighter. Fat lighter (also known as fatwood, lighter wood and other names), is part of a dead pine tree where a lot of resin has accumulated, resulting in a dense, very aromatic and flammable piece of wood.

On Saturday, I cut up one of those dead, gray trees and found that almost the entire tree is fat lighter. The tree trunk I cut was about a foot in diameter, and it had the heft of a section of green tree. The wood is aromatic, and it burns well. Under the weathered gray exterior, the wood is a clear yellow.

This branch is clearly fat lighter. The dark wood is dark with a very strong odor of pine resin.

real fat lighter

I have been trying to figure out what kind of pines these are. The Wikipedia entry on fatwood says that fat lighter is commonly associated with the longleaf pine, and there are living longleaf pines not far away from our property. At one time I thought these old dead trees were victims of the same fire that blackened the trunks of the few mature pines on the property, but the longleaf is fire resistant, and if loblollies and short leaf pines survived, I feel sure that longleaf pines would have, too. The gray wood shows no sign of burning, while the existing, mature pines do. The bark is long gone on these gray trees, so there’s no help there. The state of the exterior indicates that the bark has been gone for a long time, certainly many years. Based on the size of the living mature short leaf and loblolly pines, I doubt that they are even as old as 30 years. The dead trees were in basically the same condition back in 1998-99 when I bought the land, so they had been dead for some time before that date. The dead trees are larger than most of the living, mature trees, which  I think means they died either before the mature trees started growing, or not long after. That argues that they were on the ground when the fire burned the bark on the living, mature trees. But where is the evidence of the fire on the gray, dead trees? There seems to be some ambiguity in the evidence.

I can’t explain the evidence, but I think the old, dead trees may have been lying on the ground for many, many years, possibly even many decades.

So I can’t tell exactly how long the trees have been down. What about the species?

It’s hard to tell how much of the original trees are left. In some cases I think a root ball is still detectable near the end of the trees. There are thick branches close to the end of the tree, but generally pines the size of these have a fairly tall truck before there are large limbs, especially in a forest as opposed to a solitary tree. On the mature longleaf pines near us the first branches are quite high off the ground. But that’s also true of the large loblolly and short leaf pines, so that doesn’t help. The only real possible evidence of the species is the statement that fat lighter is associated with longleaf pines. Unfortunately, that’s not definitive.

Another question is how these dead trees ended up in an almost entirely new growth of pines. The top of the mountain has the remains of many old roads. These may be old logging roads. But the original developer of the little neighborhood where we live said that many years ago there was an orchard on top of the mountain. Either case would explain why there are large areas with young pines and few mature trees. But neither case explains how these relatively large pines ended up on the ground surrounded by cleared land that was later covered by short leaf pines.

So we have questions but not many answers. At least we have some firewood.

Wheelbarrow full of fat lighter

Wheelbarrow full of fat lighter