Monday, July 21, 2014

a sheep in wolf's clothing

Unmasking the truth about nature's monsters.

Last week's Super Full Moon brought out Max, the Southside Where?Wolf. He made a guest appearance at the Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp at Ijams to kickoff the week.

For the first time ever, the second, third and fourth graders, got to interview a werewolf, an unfortunate monster. For 28 days, Max is a normal man, a mechanic who specializes in vintage MG repair. Then on the night of the 29th day — every full moon — he becomes a werewolf, which he likened to having a super bad temper tantrum. 

Max warned all the campers that learning to control their tempers was hard but they could do it, because you often hurt someone you love with your emotional outbursts. 

They also learned that Max's normal everyday life changed when he was bitten by another werewolf. There's a warning there as well. All wild animals can bite and you should never try to pick one up, especially RACCOONS even if they were very young. Always watch wild animals from a distance, give them their proper respect.

One of the young campers decided that Max must be lonely and that she could tame him, which she eventually did. 

Not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. But these animals are not pernicious, they have their role in the natural world. Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction and to have a little fun doing it.

- Photos by Jill Sublett and Katie Plank. Monster wrangler, Cam Basden 

And beauty tames the beast. The wolf man's tantrum is quailed with a soothing voice and calm demeanor. And the inner Max returns. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Misunderstood monsters

Afraid of snakes? Who knew?

Frankenstein's monster, created by Mary Shelley on a dark and stormy night in 1818, is afraid of fire, but rumor has it that he is also terrified of snakes? 

Who knew?

He stopped by Ijams' Monsters! Monsters! Nature Day Camp this week to learn more about our scaly friends and to seek some advice about dealing with his ophidiophobia (an abnormal fear of snakes).

It's a good thing our nature campers are snake experts! They taught him all about the habits of our local snakes and the important role they play in various ecosystems. 

After the campers interviewed Frankenstein learning of his phobias, they went to the Ijams' Homesite to look for reptiles and amphibians. The second, third and fourth graders found three water snakes, plus oodles of frogs. 

Like Frankenstein, northern water snakes are often persecuted. People bludgeon them thinking they are killing water moccasins but the venomous cottonmouths are not found in the Tennessee Valley. Northern water snakes are not monsters, they're harmless unless you are a frog.

Not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction.
FYI: The original movie Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff was the number one box office hit of 1931. 

- Jenny Newby, Guest blogger. Frankie photos by Jill Sublett. Other photos by Katie Plank. Monster wrangler, Cam Basden 

Yes. I'm afraid of snakes. Can you help me?

Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

millipedes: the ancient ones

Rumor has it that Lord Roch Vole-Téck, supreme ruler of Mars, visited Ijams' summer Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp today. He wanted to speak to the Earth Elders, the really old, old ancient ones.

And just who are these elders? 

They are the unassuming, slow-moving millipedes who have roamed this planet for over 420 million years.  These "thousand legged" creatures (none actually have 1,000 legs, but they do have hundreds) are lowly detritivores. They consume detritius, the organic material — dead leaves and plants — that fall to the forest floor, helping to convert it into soil. 

The campers learned the difference between millipedes, harmless vegetarians, and centipedes, carnivores that can sting, sworn enemy of all millipedes. 

FYI: The scientific study of millipedes is known as diplopodology, and a scientist who studies them is called a diplopodologist.

With the help of some future diplopodologists — that would be today's camp kids — and a leaf rake, the Martian ruler Vole-Téck was able to find several handsome Tootsie Roll-sized millipedes, docile creatures to converse with and the kids to study. 

And the Earth was saved once again for the thousand-legged meek to inherit.

Not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction.

Martian ruler Vole-Téck uses mental telepathy to put thoughts into Camp Counselor Cam's brain. "Take me to your elders," Vole-Téck demands.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

sunflower fields forever

Ijams Hiking Club sunning it

Photo by Bari Gerbig
A warm, or should I say "hot summer sun," thank you to all who joined me today for the July hike of the month. 

Sun. Sun. Sun. Everywhere suns.

"Let me take you down...bum, bum, sunflower fields" Today, we explored trails (Dozer, Argus, Wyatt Way, Wild Briar, Auggie's Run, Will Skelton) at Forks of the River WMA and its five fields planted with sunflowers east of Ijams, all part of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South Loop.

The Ijams Hiking Club ventures forth the second Saturday of every month, so join us for informative camaraderie!

For those wanting a checklist of all the trails in the Knox Urban Wilderness click: gotta record it.

And thank you Eric Johnson for planning our route.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

little spitfire

Trust me. She's a cold-blooded killer.

In the past 14 years, I've worked with several birds of prey at the nature center. All have been injured in some way, that's why we have them. All have had different – for want of a better word – personalities.

The dictionary defines feisty as: full of animation, energy, or courage; spirited; spunky; plucky. This American kestrel, le petit tigre, is all that plus she's loud! She's got cap a Attitude. Female kestrels weigh roughly four ounces. If she was as big as a golden eagle, this little spitfire could dismember me in seconds. If you find yourself in a street fight, you'd want this bird on your side, she's a four ounce pitbull.

Kestrels eat small rodents and insects. In the summer, they love crunchy grasshoppers.

I know she's cute. Once called sparrow hawks, not because they ate sparrows but because they're petite like sparrows, kestrels are now known as falcons. Yet, recent genetics studies indicate that the falcons are more closely related to parrots than to hawks, so she's parrot-pretty. But the Ijams kestrel ain't no Polly. She'd make a great scrappy faux parrot, sitting on the shoulder of a rogue pirate captain like Jack Sparrow...hawk.  

All photos by Chuck Cooper. 

If you're a grasshopper, this could be the last face you ever see.

You want a piece of me?
Female American kestrel—parrot pretty.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

bath time



Bob Thomas from Pigeon Forge sent me these photos of a Cooper's hawk (note the white at the tip of a barred tail) bathing in his fountain. It's happened before but this time he also noticed a second Coop in a nearby tree watching the splish-splash.

Because of the time of the year, I first thought it was a parent Cooper's teaching its young how to bathe. But on my computer, I was able to enlarge the photos and look closer at their eyes, both have blue-gray eyes, the sign of a young bird. So the pair were fledglings, probably siblings, one watching out for the other. 

As Cooper's hawks age their eyes change color: bluish-gray in fledglings, to yellow in young adults and finally to the red of older adults. (A red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk's eyes go from yellow to hazel to dark brown as they age.)

Of course, you rarely are so close you get to see a hawk's eye color. That's why Bob is so lucky. 

Thanks, Bob.

A second Cooper's watched from a nearby tree

Friday, July 4, 2014

backyard secrets

The ever perky Carolina wren has its secrets

Happy Fourth of July! 

So in the spirit of independence and transparency, let's share some juicy backyard secrets.

Breakfast and Birding at Ijams, Saturday, July 5, 9:30 a.m.

Peg will be doing the breakfast and I'll be sharing my favorite birding topic, "Secrets of Backyard Birds" a humorous look at territory, courtship, mate selection, pair bonding, parenthood and even bird divorce of some of the birds you see around your house every day; birds like the Carolina wren, cardinal, mockingbird, Carolina chickadee, American robin, ruby-throated hummingbird and the super scary Cooper's hawk. There's more going on out there then simple forays to the feeders.

Peg’s breakfast and backyard secrets. Fee: $5 for Ijams members, $10 non-members. Please register at 577-4717, ext. 110.

Click here for WBIR Channel 10 Live@5@4 interview

Russell with Neil Denton

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

exquisitely beautiful cecropia

Cecropia moth found at Ijams Nature Center
 Spectacular lepidopteran!

One of the giant silk moths, the cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia), is the largest moth found in North America. The recherché cecropia is in the Saturniidae moth family, a name that honors the queen of the gods in Roman mythology, Juno or Saturnia, the daughter of the god Saturn.

Female cecropias have a wingspan of up to six inches; that's almost as big as your outstretched hand!

Cecropia mating (wiki media)
The adults do not live long, days, two weeks max, so they do not waste time eating, lacking even workable mouth parts and digestive systems. Their sole purpose is to find a mate. 

Females release pheromones that the males sniff/detect from a great distance. Cherchez la femme!

Unlike birds that tend to couple only a second or two — boom, boom — cecropia "Mating begins in the early morning hours and lasts until the evening." (wiki) No need for a Johnny Mathis LP on the stereo here, adult cecropias are born in the mood. 

Once mated, the females spend the rest of their short lives laying eggs. The males may live long enough to mate again, or may fly away to the corner bar to circle dizzily under a street light, disoriented and spent, but we assume they've reached some sort of mothly Nirvana.

Their gastronomical life happens as caterpillars when they eat constantly, primarily maple leaves. I usually only see a ceropia about once a year, someone often finds one and brings it to the nature center to be IDed. Seeing something this exquisitely beautiful will certainly make one's day.

Thoreau wrote, "There is elevation in every hour, as no part of the Earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from it."

Happy Birthday dear sister.   

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

woolly bears & such

And speaking of woolly worms, when last we met, there's a large group of moth caterpillars collectively known as woolly worms or, as I prefer, woolly bears, that grow up to be rather spectacular moths; some even make long-range weather predictions.

Gretchen Kirkland sent me this photo of a giant—for obvious reasons—leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia), found in her backyard. This striking creature had spent its wayward days of youth trundling about as a woolly bear caterpillar. 

Wiki media
This falls under the category of the weird wonderfulness of life: little creatures that amble about unnoticed with spikes, waxy filaments and/or bristles, a.k.a. setae, because it is to their evolutionary advantage to do so. It seems to me that wearing a coat of bristles that look like a black bottle brush would be cumbersome. But the protection that it affords gives it the opportunity to metamorphose into the above giant leopard moth in a coat that Cruella de Vil would kill for. 

Getting from point A to point B—caterpillar to moth—is nothing less than miraculous, when somewhere in between it breaks down its corporeal form into a Lepidopteran goo and rearranges itself, yet it happens everyday en plein air.

As a caterpillar they eat dandelions, broadleaf plantains and violets, as an adult there's no need for such.  

Thank you, Gretchen.   

Friday, June 20, 2014

mystery woolly worm

Strangest thing in a very long time!

I have been running around in the woods for a very, very, very (yes, three verys) long time and I had never seen anything like what I encountered yesterday.

At first glance, it simply looked like a bird's down feather, recently molted and clinging to a branch. But on closer inspection, there were more than one. And, they appeared to be crawling. Nature fact #207: Feathers don't crawl. 

They also had a penchant of "circling up," front end to back end, locomotive to caboose.

I tried to pick one up and the feathery filaments came off in my fingers like the white residue of a powered donut. 

D--- odd-looking caterpillar, but butterfly or moth? I knew not which.

It took awhile to ferret out their identity, Karen Sue helped, and the world wide web. According to Featured Creature Carly what I had encountered were "Butternut Woollyworms (Eriocampa juglandis) which are the larvae of a species of sawfly." Larvae that like to eat butternut leaves, perhaps walnut.

So they weren't caterpillars! O-D-D.

But it gets odder. Carly continues, "Unfortunately, they don’t stay so sweet and cuddly looking. They will eventually crawl down into the soil and form a pupa where they will silently wait until they transform into their adult fly versions. The white strings are waxy filaments that deter predators from making a quick meal out of the larvae."

Sawflies—really more wasp than fly—are members of the order Hymenoptera with broad connections between the head and thorax and caterpillar-like larva. The females use their saw-like ovipositors to cut into plant stems to lay their eggs.

Did I say, ODD?