Bays Mountain Nature Quest
Learn More About It
- Find a beaver lodge or dam. (What is the purpose for the one you found?)
Look for beaver dams across streams that flow into the lake. Dams are built to create flooded areas where beavers can find protection from predators. The sound of running water may also innately trigger dam-building behavior.
Both dams and lodges are built from sticks, rocks, and mud. Beavers avoid a mouth full of water when carrying sticks by having a pair of inner lips located behind the incisors. Mud and rocks are carried and pushed with the front feet. Beavers do not carry mud on their flat tails.
There are two types of lodges: the conical lodge surrounded by water from damming an area and the bank lodge around lakes where water is deep or along streams and rivers too large and swift for damming. At Bays Mountain Park, bank lodges are most common.
- Find a deer. (What did you notice about the deer?)
Color In summer, deer have a reddish-brown coat. In winter, the coat is gray. Fawns and yearlings have spotted coats, which help camouflage them. “Piebald” deer have large areas of white due to a recessive gene that results in leucism. (Leucism is a partial loss of pigmentation but is not partial albinism. Albinism is little to no color in skin, hair, eyes.)
Antlers Male deer (bucks) have antlers for much of the year. In rare cases due to genetic mutations, female deer (does) may grow antlers. Bucks grow their antlers throughout the summer and into the fall. In late winter, the antlers shed (fall off). New antlers start to grow for the following summer and fall.
Eyes and Ears Deer have large eyes located toward the sides of their heads to give them a wide field of view to better see predators. Large, movable ears help them hear in any direction and long nose cavities aid in smell.
- Find a turtle. (Can you identify the type of turtle?)
I do not know of any complete studies being done on the aquatic turtles in Bays Mountain Lake, but I do know of 3 different species present in the lake: Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), and Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata).
a. The common snapping turtle is a large turtle with star-like eyes, a pointed and hooked rostrum (nose), and a prominent ridge running down the midline of the carapace (top shell). It is most often seen swimming or floating near the lake’s surface during barge rides.
Snapping turtles are omnivorous. Their diet consists of aquatic insects, crayfish, frogs, snakes, birds, mammals, carrion, and vegetation. They can deliver a nasty bite but are not considered dangerous to people and rarely, if ever, bite someone’s finger off.
An old wives’ tale has it that if a snapping turtle bites you, it will not turn loose until it thunders. This is not true but has probably served the purpose of keeping many a child from handling a snapper in such a way as to be bitten.
Snapping turtles taken from clean bodies of water are edible and considered a delicacy. They have a life span of approximately 30 years. Although they have few predators as adults, many are hit and killed by cars when moving from place to place.
b. Red-eared sliders are one of three subspecies of pond sliders known in Tennessee. They are not native to our part of the state but have become well-established after being purchased as pets and later released into local waters.
The best place to see red-eared sliders is on fallen trees and limbs that have fallen into the water at the lake’s edge. Laying on a partially submerged log is where red-ears like to bask in the sun. Their habit of sliding off such logs and into the water whenever potential danger approaches gives them their name, “slider”. They also have a noticeable red mark on the neck behind each eye. The red mark tends to disappear as the turtle ages.
Red-eared sliders are omnivores but prefer vegetation over animal matter. Their life span in the wild is approximately 30 years.
c. The Midland painted turtle is one of two subspecies of painted turtles known in Tennessee. Like pond sliders, they like to bask laying on fallen logs at the water’s edge. They are small, 4-6 inches long, with a smooth (no keel) olive to black carapace (top shell). The plastron (bottom shell) has a dark marking at its middle. The eastern painted turtle lacks this mark. There is a noticeable yellow mark behind each eye and the scutes (scales) on the carapace are aligned in straight rows with light lines (sutures) separating them.
They are omnivores and have a life span of approximately 60 years.
- Find a vulture. (Identify them as black or turkey.)
Turkey vultures are large, 27 inches tall, with adults having bare, red heads. Juveniles have black heads. They are often seen soaring in a circular motion, rocking back and forth with their 6-foot wings held in a dihedral (shallow V). The undersides of the wings are two-toned bronze black. The tail is long and rectangular. Legs are shorter than a black vulture and reddish.
Black vultures are smaller, 25 inches tall, with adults having bare, black heads. When soaring, their wings are held flat. They tend to soar for short distances with a few wing flaps in between. They have a white patch on the outer edge of the underside of their wings. The tail is short and squarish to triangular in shape. Legs are longer than the turkey vulture and whitish.
- Find animal tracks. (Try to identify which animal they belong to.)
You may need A Field Guide to Animal Tracks to help with track identification. Commonly seen tracks at Bays Mountain Park are white-tailed deer, raccoon, dog, coyote, gray squirrel, chipmunk, and turkey. Wet or damp soil or sand along Lake Road or any of the park’s trails are good places to look for tracks. This is a good link to explain animal walking patterns and tracks.
- Find sphagnum moss around the lake.
Sphagnum, also known as peat, is the wet, soft, spongy moss that grows in mats at the water’s edge around Bays Mountain Lake. Sphagnum has a cell structure that allows it to hold large quantities of water. It is often sold in dried form as a soil conditioner (peat moss).
Sphagnum is found in wet, boggy areas with low pH (acidic) soil. The sandstone that composes Bays Mountain, unlike the limestone of area valleys, makes for the perfect acidic environment. It is usually found growing in thick, dense mats that can float on water. It has a shallow root system. Because of its acidity, it inhibits the growth of bacteria and has been used to cover and protect open wounds. Phenolic compounds present in sphagnum act as a preservative. Peat bogs in Europe are well known for preserving the bodies of animals and even humans who died thousands of years ago. Native Americans would dry peat and then pack it in wraps around their babies for insulation and absorptive characteristics – the first Pampers!
- Find a nut. (Identify what kind of nut it is.)
A nut is a fruit with a hard shell and an inner, usually edible, seed. Examples are beechnuts, chestnuts, acorns, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, and walnuts. In the botanical sense, some of these are not true nuts, but for the practical sense, we will consider them nuts. Some of the most easily found nuts near the Nature Center are acorns, which are the fruit of oak trees and hickory nuts, which are the fruit of hickory trees. Acorns contain tannins which makes them bitter. Native Americans would roast and eat white oak acorns, but red oak acorns are generally too bitter to be eaten. Not all nuts are edible. Buckeyes, for example, contain the glycoside aesculin. If eaten raw, they can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea.
- Find leaves. (Identify 3 leaves and the name of the tree they grow on.)
Use a field guide such as, Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Trees, or one of the dichotomous tree keys:
- Virginia Department of Forestry (large download)
- Find a Beech Tree. (This should be pretty easy in winter and fall, not quite as easy when they are green.)
In the fall when the daylight (photoperiod) grows shorter and colder temperatures arrive, most leaves form a layer of dead cells (abscission layer) between the stem of a leaf (petiole) and the twig it is attached to. Water and nutrients are cut off to the leaf and it dies and falls from the tree. However, in some trees such as beeches and oaks, the abscission layer does not fully form (marcescence) and the leaves remain attached to the twig until pushed off by newly growing buds in the spring. Why this happens is not fully understood. One theory has it that the rattling sound of the partially dried remaining leaves discourages animals who would otherwise browse on the winter twigs.
- There are three types of ground pine located on Bays Mountain. Find one. (Can you identify which one you found?)
The ground-pines belong to an old family of vascular plants that originated around 380 million years ago. In the Carboniferous Period, ground-pines were large trees that made up forests that today have been preserved as coal deposits. The fossils of ground-pines are common in the coal mines of this area. They belong to the class Lycopodiopsida and are commonly referred to as lycopods or clubmosses. At least three different kinds of clubmoss grow in Bays Mountain Park: running ground cedar, ground-pine, and shining clubmoss. All three are low-growing evergreen herbs with needle-like or scale-like leaves making them look like miniature pine trees or cedar trees.
- Find a smooth rock.
Dolan Branch is a good place to find smooth rocks. Over time, water and the sediments suspended in the water smooth and polish the surface of many types of rock. This process is known as weathering.
- Find sand. (Where do you think that came from? This isn’t a beach!?!)
Several times during geologic history, this area has been covered by warm, shallow seas, thus the sand and abundance of fossilized sea-dwelling organisms found in local sedimentary rocks.
- Find evidence of what kind of stone Bays Mountain is mostly made of.
The ridges of Bays Mountain are composed of a reddish, calcareous sandstone (Bays Sandstone). The Cherry Knobs of Bays Mountain Park are composed of Martinsburg shale. Deposits of bentonite can be found along the tops of the Cherry Knobs. The lower elevations of the park are limestone.
- Find a large fossil rock near the Nature Center. (What type of fossil is it?)
The “fossil rock” is an example of a trace fossil. The worm-like structures are the tracks or trails of a segmented marine organism burrowing directly beneath the sandy bottom of a shallow sea.
- Find a wall of many rock types along Dolan Branch. (Identify 2 rocks.)
As you start down Dolan Branch Trail and adjacent to the Dolan Falls overlook, there is a rock wall built to display various mineral and rock compositions.
*Insert 2 pdfs here.
Astronomy (stars, planets, space)
For more information about astronomy, check out the park’s website (under Astronomy Resources): https://www.baysmountain.com/astronomy/astronomy-resources/
- Find where the big telescope is kept. (Come look through the telescope during a Star Watch event!)
The big telescope is kept in the domed observatory that overlooks Dolan Branch Gorge. The 8-inch refracting telescope is on loan from Milligan University.
- Find the Planetarium. (Watch a planetarium show!) (Reopening this Summer)
The Planetarium is located in the Nature Center directly across from the Gift Shop.
- Find the brightest star you can see in the daytime. (Don’t look at it too long!)
The Sun is the most visible star seen in the daytime and the center of our Solar System. Its energy is the result of nuclear fusion reactions in its core, released mainly as white/yellow light (visible to humans) and infrared radiation (invisible to humans). It is the most important source of energy for life on Earth.
- Find several large round slabs of cement in the grass near the observatory. (What are they for?)
The round slabs of concrete are level spots where telescopes can be set up during Star Watch programs.
- How many light years is Betelguese from earth?
Betelgeuse (pronounced, “beetlejuice”) is approximately 642.5 light years from Earth. The closest red supergiant star is in its dying days. In the not-too-distant future (200,000 years or so), it will collapse upon itself and either explode as a supernova or become a very dense compact dwarf star. The name comes from old Arabic and is thought to mean, “armpit or hand of the giant (Orion)”. It can be seen at the shoulder of the constellation Orion.
- Find the remnants of a pipe going down Dolan Branch. (What was this used for?)
The pipe that carried water from the filtration plant to the City of Kingsport can be seen along Dolan Branch Trail, especially near the bottom of Dolan Branch Gorge near the Eastman Recreation Area (Eastman Cabins).
- Why was the dam built between 1914-1916? (Learn the answer on a Barge Ride.)
City leaders recognized that if Kingsport continued to grow, it would need a reliable water source. City father J. Fred Johnson thought that the basin in Bays Mountain would be a good place to construct a reservoir. Purchase of the properties making up the basin began around 1907. By 1914, purchase of the properties was complete. Outbuildings and timber in the basin were removed and construction of the dam began to impound the water from streams and runoff that flowed into the basin. In 1916, the reservoir began serving water to Kingsport. The dam was raised six more feet in 1917.
- Find out the name of a family that lived on the mountain before the park.
A map of the different properties in the basin is located in the Park Archives. Names of property owners within the park’s present boundaries include: Steadman, Roberts, Whetsel, Craig, Simpson, Goad, McClure, Bowan, Quillen, Brown, Feagins, Ledbetter.
Learn more about the park’s history on the Bays Mountain History website.
- Find one of the old barns, houses, or log structures in the west end of the park.
The park’s lower end (also known as the western portion) has the most examples of past settlement.
- Find the year and maker of the fire tower. (semi-strenuous hike)
The fire tower (often referred to as “Garden Mountain Lookout Tower”) was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937. It is presently owned and maintained by the State of Tennessee Department of Forestry.
Aquatic (water dwelling plants and animals)
- Find leaves of either a Bullhead Lily or Watershield. (You can see them underwater in the wintertime.)
Bullhead pond lily (Nuphar species) is also known as cow lily, yellow pond lily, or spatterdock. It has a large, heart-shaped leaf and a compact yellow flower that looks half-opened. Providing habitat for many kinds of fish, it grows from a large, spongy rhizome on tough stems that can be more than six feet long. Deer will wade out into the lake to eat the leaves and stems. The fruits are eaten by waterfowl and muskrats and the starch-filled rhizomes are eaten by beaver. The rhizomes are also utilized as a food source by some groups of Native Americans.
Watershield (Brasenia schreberi) completely covers the water’s edge around many parts of the lake. It has small, oval-shaped leaves that are green on top and reddish underneath. The leaves attach to the underwater stem at their center (peltate). Leaves and stems are covered with a thick, jelly-like slime. The flowers are small and reddish-purple. Watershield provides shelter for fish and food for waterfowl and other aquatic organisms.
- Figure out what fills the reservoir.
Hint: this is an easy one. What is the name for the liquid in the lake?
- Find a tree cut by a beaver. (Why do they cut down trees?)
Did you know that two beavers can also be called two beaver? Beaver are total herbivores, eating only plant matter. Their preferred foods are cambium (a living layer of cells just beneath the bark of a tree), green twigs, buds, and aquatic plants. Since beavers are poor at climbing, they have adapted by cutting down trees to reach the edible parts. They also cut down trees to use them as building material for their dams and lodges. Another reason beaver cut down trees is their innate urge to gnaw. Beavers are rodents, the largest native rodent to North America, and like all rodents, their incisors (front teeth) continuously grow. By gnawing on trees, they wear their incisors* down, so they do not grow so long as to injure the beaver itself. Gnawing also keeps the incisors sharp. The orange enamel of the incisors contains a high percentage of iron and is very hard. The softer dentin just behind the enamel wears away much faster, leaving a sharp, beveled edge.
*The incisors of rodents grow in a circular pattern. If a rodent’s incisors have been injured in a way as to prevent them from being worn down, they will grow around the head like a large pair of hoop earrings. This can make eating difficult and may cause the animal to starve.
- Find a mallard duck. (Is it a male or female? How do you know?)
Male and female mallards exhibit sexual dimorphism, with male mallards having green heads while females are brown all over. The female’s brown color helps keep her camouflaged while rearing the young. The male’s brighter colors help him exhibit virility to attract females.
- Why are there no trout in the lake?
Trout, like other salmonids, require cool or cold water with a high percentage of dissolved oxygen. Bays Mountain Lake is relatively warm and throughout most of the year, DO (dissolved oxygen) levels are not high enough for trout to survive.