Tuesday, May 23, 2017

camera shy? Nope

Working with live animals on live TV is like a trapeze act without a net. You never know what's going to happen.

This afternoon for me it was a live interview with WBIR reporter Emily Stroud for their Live@5@4 hour from Ijams. The last time Emily and I worked together we were looking for a groundhog on Groundhog Day, easier said than done. This time we were talking about corn snakes and my Snake-ology class scheduled for Sunday, June 4 at 2 at the nature center. (I also host Duck-ology, Butterfly-ology, Spider-ology, Turtle-ology, Dragonfly-ology, Owl-ology, Lizard-ology, etc.)

Our plan: Emily and I were to start out holding the snake together then during the interview switch it all over to her. In this case, it was a captive-bred corn snake which was bred to have bright colors. A wild corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) is much darker, more red-brown than orange.

Most snakes are wary of people. But this snake has been held all of its life, so it is friendly, even inquisitive. My only concern was keeping it relatively contained in the shot and somewhat facing the camera. Snakes often disappear into my shirt. It was a warm day and reptiles are more active when they heat up. But much to our surprise, and even glee, it was not camera shy but took a real interest in the camera lens. Longtime WBIR videographer Brian Holt got a great close-up.

- Photos by Ijams Education Director Jennifer Roder

- To see the complete WBIR interview, click: Emily talks snake.

- And last year's interview about Snake-ology, click: Black rat snake.

WBIR Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud with corn snake

Emily, it looks like our snake is disappearing into the camera.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

big bug news

Photo by Sofia Tomov

It's been a big bug news week at the nature center. Brood X of 17-year cicadas are emerging from the ground four years early. They are not due until 2021. Is it a sign the end of days is near or simply that the red-eyed, gold-winged hemipterans are confused.

Has anything else confusing happened in the past year?

For more of the Ijams story, click: Geeky Nature Nerd News. 

Thank you, Sofia for the wonderful photo!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Ijams Cicada news got bigger

Ijams Education Director Jen Roder examines the specimens collected 
in May 2004

It's a male, but is it M. cassini
or M. septendecula?
Our Big Bug news just got bigger. It got national. But the mystery deepens.

You do not want to miss this program. We are scrambling to pull it together. Because it's late, call me to register. The national cicada people are going to fly here next week to help us figure out what's going on at Ijams.

The 17-year cicadas that are climbing out of the ground are four years early. They are not due until 2021. Jen located the handful I collected in May 2004 and discovered that 13 years ago we had two different species emerging at the same time. News to me.

"In 2004, there was definitely Magicicada septendecium. It's the big one. The little one is either Magicicada cassini
or Magicicada septendecula. I'm leaning toward cassini, but it's hard to tell. The two species are significantly smaller," writes Jen. Their call is the defining identifier and the 2004 specimens are mute.

So what is happening at Ijams now, four years early? Is it one species or two like in 2004? So far it is mostly males emerging. Jen has heard one calling, by Sunday there should be a lot more out and calling.

Sign up for our Cicada-ology Pop-up Program and learn all about our annual cicadas and these 17 year ones in particular. After a short indoor program we will go on a great cicada hunt.

(865) 577-4717, ext. 119

Call and leave me a voicemail. Leave your name and the number of people with you. You can pay (Members $5, non-members $8) at the Ijams front desk on Sunday afternoon. Be a part of the cicada fun!

Help us solve the mystery. This is nature nerd cool stuff.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

cicadas appear when none should be

Fresh from the ground this morning. Photo by Jen Roder

Stop the presses! Nature is amazing!

Brood X emerging at Ijams...four years early!

Recently we have noticed a few small, black cicadas around Ijams. For those of you that know anything about cicadas, this might seem strange. Why, you ask? Because the small black cicadas are periodical cicadas that only emerge every 17 years here in Knoxville. We are in the range of Brood X, a population of cicadas that isn't due to emerge until 2021. 

But there is a known phenomenon of "straggler" populations that emerge early, depending on the weather and soil conditions. And that is happening now! As Ijams' favorite senior naturalist and self-confessed ten-year-old (c'est moi) just quipped, "this is so dang cool!"

I wrote an entire chapter about periodical cicadas and Brood X in Natural Histories, my first book published by the University of Tennessee Press. It's a topic I am pretty passionate about.

If you want to learn more, join me this Sunday, May 14 at 2 p.m. for a pop-up program that will teach you about cicadas and even take a walk to observe the periodical cicadas in action! I'm even going to serve ice-cold cicada-ade (made from limes) to refresh us. You won't want to miss this program...it only happens once every 13-17 years and who knows if I will be around that much longer?

For program information and registration, click here: http://ijams.org/…/ijams-pop-up-program-brood-x-cicadas-at…/

Monday, May 8, 2017

Cowiche Canyon

I felt like a “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a hospitable land but still foreign to me. In this case, I borrow the analogy from the 1961 sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein.

The protagonist in that story was Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians.

There is perhaps only a few times in your life when you are plopped down in a place as alien as Valentine was. My sensibilities of Mother Earth were shaped by the 400-plus million year old Ordovician limestone, sandstone and shale that serves as the bedrock of my East Tennessee home. All are sedimentary rocks formed at the bottom of a shallow antediluvian sea.
That's old Earth, the Age of Crinoids. So I have an ancient mooring.

But here I walked through Cowiche Canyon north of Yakima, Washington, a stranger in a sunny strange land. My gracious hosts and guides were Eric and Chandra Anderson and all around us were the sagebrush slopes of a high plateau made almost exclusively of basalt and andesite; two forms of igneous rock spewed from deep within the earth only 14 to 17 million years ago; babies really in geologic time. So comparatively speaking, it’s new Earth, post Jurassic, indeed Miocene, the Age of Horses. 

Here’s the interesting closure to my Heinlein opening. That mix of basalt and andesite is very close to the composition of the Martian surface, Valentine's home. It was perhaps as close to walking on Mars-like terrain as I well ever journey except here the sky was not pink, it was azure. And there was life everywhere around us. The first blush of spring was just beginning to present itself.

Cowiche Canyon was craved by the erosive action of Cowiche Creek and the morning we were there it was carving still, heavy flow with the melting snows of last winter in that part of the “Evergreen State.” In this section of Washington the towering firs and pines of the Cascade Mountains and Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the west give away to stubborn shrub-steppe, sagebrush slopes and jagged cliffs of weathering basalt columns.

There’s a stark beauty to this part of the country;
 a vastness to the Western landscape. You get a sense of the enormity of it all, a large snapshot of the planet itself revealed. There is really no other way to describe it. You look out, far and wide. 

To look out in the Appalachians you need to climb to the top of a mountain and if the Smokies are not smokey you can look out. But most of the time you are in a hollow between two ridges and you can only look up. The Smokies are more insular, to some even claustrophobic.

Cowiche also had a subtle nuance of color, earth tones because the new earth lies naked and exposed. From the gold lichen that adorns the rock to the sprinkle of yellow vernal wildflowers just beginning to sally forth, all seemed golden as such moments often do. The gnarled shrubs that cling to the land are probably as old as the towering Douglas firs I drove through on my way into Yakima Valley.

Memories are made from such sojourns. A network of
synapses formed in my brain labeled—if they had labels—"Morning walk in Cowiche Canyon, 22 April 2017."

Thank you for the memory, Eric and Chandra

For another post from my trip, click: Yakima Valley College.

YVC anthropology professor Eric Anderson

Chandra and Eric Anderson

Thursday, May 4, 2017

dented box turtle report

Dented box turtle was last seen hightailing it into these woods

“Nature seemed to be doing a pretty good job on her own,” said Ijams staff veterinarian Dr. Louise Conrad. 

As it turns out, the rescued injured box turtle I reported on a few days ago did NOT need to be rescued.

Visitors at the nature center found him on one of our trails with a dent in his carapace. That was alarming. Dr. Louise promptly took him to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital for x-rays, blood work and observation. 

The blood tests turned up no infection or parasites; in fact, the results were that of a totally healthy box turtle. X-rays determined that the injury was an old one and the shell was well on the way to knitting itself back together. And there was no apparent penetration of the internal body cavity at the time of the injury.

The turtle will always have a dented shell, just like you if you broke your leg and did not go to a doctor to have it set properly, it would grow back crooked. That’s the way nature works.

Often animals that appear to be injured or orphaned simply do not need human interference. Baby birds that fall out of nests are found and fed by their parents, even on the ground. And a clutch of baby bunnies found in the tall grass simply needs to be left alone, mom is just away but she’ll be back. 

On the other hand, any obviously injured animal should to be taken directly to UT Vet Hospital on Neyland Drive. There are veterinarians there 24-hours a day, seven days a week. UT’s Wild Animal Rescue program is a free service, but it is costly. If you would like to donate money to help them defray costs, click: Wild Animal Medical Treatment

Ijams is not permitted to treat injured animals, but we are permitted by TWRA to adopt an animal that cannot heal well enough to be returned to the wild. We currently are caring for an opossum with a lame front leg, two half-blind owls, four other birds with wing injuries including a turkey vulture that was hit by a truck in North Carolina, plus many others including three box turtles. Their care is also expensive. If you would like to donate to our Animal Care Fund, click Ijams Donation and choose the “Donate Online” option. In the comment box write “Animal Care.”

Ijams has complete faith in the goodness of humanity. And the concern over this poor turtle underscores that faith. Our original post has garnered over 55,000 views and over 160 comments. Yes, some unknown person probably caused the turtle’s injury; but he/she represents a tiny minority. 

So, what about the dented box turtle? He has been returned to the woods, his home. Being in the hospital must have been scary. The last time we saw him he was “high-tailing” it—awkward for a critter whose tail is less than an inch off the ground—into the woods. (See above photo.)

Thank you for all your well wishes!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

senseless injury


I am senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center, a nature/ environmental education center. But we have also been a wildlife sanctuary since the 1920s. It is their home and we protect it and them.

Yesterday morning we found in the woods one of our prized wild Eastern box turtles with a bashed in top shell (carapace). It appears to be caused by a rock or hammer. He is a wild animal that lives outside year-round in the vicinity of the Visitor Center.

We have seen him from time-to-time for years. His markings are very distinctive.

Our in-house veterinarian, Dr. Louise Conrad, hopes the shell will heal. It's like a broken bone but like any injury, infection can set in.

Dr. Louise took him to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital. X-rays will determine if there is any internal damage. I will keep you posted.

Thousands of people visit Ijams every year. We love that. Rarely do we find one of our wild animals injured. Over the years we have found a couple of our wild snakes bludgeoned to death. Senseless.

Remember, Ijams is their home. Please respect them. Look but don't touch. And certainly don't bash one with a rock.

Who would do such a thing?

Saturday, April 29, 2017

froggy welcome home

Such a pleasure being back and helping Ijams new naturalist/educator Christie Collins host a Family Froggy Night Hike.

The smallest tadpoles—and they were tiny—were probably the Cope's gray treefrogs we netted in the Secret Pond, while the largest tadpole found was probably a bullfrog netted in the Reflecting Pool. It was just beginning to go through metamorphosis. It had short back legs.  

Spring Peeper
In all we visited six ponds. We spotted very young bullfrogs in the Plaza Pond plus we heard Cope's and green frogs calling near the Lotus Pond and the first wood thrush singing in 2017. Half the group even saw a barred owl. Yet, even though it was hot today and late in the season for them, the spring peepers stole the evening. They were calling everywhere, mostly from the trees above our heads.

Great family nocturnal fun! 

Click your ruby slippers together. There's no place like home.

Cope's gray treefrog

Friday, April 28, 2017

Yakima Valley College

Yakima Valley with Antanum Ridge in background. Wiki media

Lewis and Clark were the first non-natives to visit the Yakima Valley in 1805. Their Corps of Discovery was searching for easy passage to the Pacific Ocean (it doesn't exist) and perhaps a living Jefferson giant ground sloth (they only found fossils). What they did find at this high mountain plateau was rich fertile basaltic soil and the Yakama people. 

The valley itself marks the beginning of arid flatland formed 14 to 17 million years ago by continuous lava flows from the Columbia River Basalt Group of volcanoes that make up the Cascade Mountains to the west. Basalt is a key word here, practically everywhere you look you find the aged volcanic rock still erect in columns, crumbling or weathered into soil.

Almost 212 years after Lewis and Clark, I had been invited to Yakima Valley College (founded in 1928 as Yakima Valley Community College) to present a series of lectures and talks about writing, nature journaling and natural history wonders shared by both Washington state and Tennessee. I also spoke of my second book Ghost Birds and its creation which is more than a book about a single endangered species. 

Ghost Birds captures an era, the 1930s, when the conservation paradigm was changing. The overriding question of the day: If we can save a vanishing species, shouldn't we? My visit was part of their YVC Reads celebration of Aldo Leopold and his seminal work: A Sand County Almanac and the college's Earth Day observance.

The student body at YVC is widely diverse, something I relished. My one-on-one conversations at their Earth Fest were heartwarming given the political climate we find ourselves in today. In the parlance of a paleontologist, as the modern day Age of pallid male Dinosaurs gives way to the Age of Mammals. In nature, change, growth and evolution are the natural order. You can resist and deny it but you simply cannot stop it. Roadblocks can be erected or threatened, but like the Berlin Wall, they cannot be sustained. Humanity is a molten entity. Just ask anthropology professor Eric Anderson who invited me in the first place.

Yakima Valley College is going through something of a rebirth itself. Many of the art-laden buildings are new. They surround a nascent circular courtyard or commons where I often sat during breaks to watch birds.

While in Yakima, I was the house guest of Anderson and his teacher wife Chandra. They were exceedingly gracious. Early every morning I had my coffee gazing through a wall of glass across the valley at Antanum Ridge and sometimes, if it chose to present itself, 12,276 foot tall snow-capped Mt. Adams (known by Native Americans as Pahto). Mount Ranier (Tacoma) and what's left of Mt. Saint Helens (Lawetlat'la) are within the same general vicinity.

In addition to the Andersons, I also thank the other professors I met who welcomed me warmly: Mark Fuzie, Dr. Heidi Shaw, Dr. Meghan Fitzgerald and Dr. Ken Zontek. 

And thank you Wilma Dulin and Amber Cliett for the behind the scenes arraignments that made my trip possible.

Peace to you, Yakima.   

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Thank you, Yakima

Thank you to my new friends in Yakima, Washington and at Yakima Valley College.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time on your lovely campus and all of the people I met. Thank you for your kindness.

And thank you professor Eric Anderson for arranging my visit, my lecture series and the gracious hospitality of your lovely family.

I am back home again, safe and sound in the vernal lushness of Tennessee.

More to follow as memories bubble to the surface. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Science more than matters

It was raining, but gallant they marched undaunted.

I take my soggy wet Pacific Northwest hat off to my dear East Tennessee friends who attended the soggy wet March for Science in Washington DC while I was across the country in the state also named in honor of our first president. (Does anyone honestly think there will be anything named in honor of our current ineffectual president? They are actually taking his name off buildings in his home state.)

I am hugely proud of two of the young marchers who have attended so many of my "ology" classes—many more than once—at Ijams Nature Center that they could step in and teach them. Proud of you, Asha who knows her owls and Judah, a future wetland ecologist, who caught a record 25 red-spotted newts at my last Froggy-ology.

And to all of our befuddled elected legislators from Tennessee who somehow think this ire is going to go away, you are sadly mistaken. President of an university where science is taught, what were we thinking?

Yes. Science more than matters. It is the one thing that is testable. Provable. Concrete. And as Newton's Third Law of Physics clearly states, "For every action, there is an equal (in force) and opposite (in direction) reaction."

And science is the only thing that can save this Pale Blue Dot* we call home.

* My homage to my science hero Carl Edward Sagan.

Notice the red-spotted newt in Judah's poster! His homage to me. 
"The oceans are rising and so are we!" Indeed.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

silken birdfeeders

The Eastern tent caterpillar is the larva stage of a rather nondescript small brown moth. (Trust me. It’s small and brown. You’d hardly notice it, would have difficulty describing it to anyone. That's nondescript.)

Early last summer, the female adult moths laid her varnish-coated egg masses—hundreds of eggs—in the crotches of trees. The females were very particular. They only laid their eggs on the trees with leaves her young would eat. Cherries, apples and crab apples are their most common host plants.

The eggs remain there for over nine months. In early spring the tiny larvae hatch and begin spinning a small silken tent where they live protected during the day. At night the caterpillars venture out to eat leaves; their sole purpose in life is to eat a lot and grow.

The caterpillars return to their nests each morning and because they've grown—which tends to happen if you eat all night—they add to their nest to accommodate their new bulk.

People often panic when they see these tents in their trees. They want to attack them with kerosene and fire. Napalm is no longer available for household use. But relax. These silken tents are really just natural birdfeeders. Only a small percentage of the caterpillars survive, the birds eat most of them. The other day I watched a blue jay standing on top of one of the nests tossing down caterpillars as fast as it could like they were shrimp from an Aussie's barbie. Ga-day mate.

I wonder what they taste like? A bit hairy, I would imagine.

Eastern tent caterpillars, a.k.a. bird food

Friday, April 14, 2017

sharp's morning

Black-throated green warbler from Wiki media

Visited Sharp's Ridge this morning looking for migrants with Starbuck, a.k.a. Rachael—I have the day off from UT and let's go birding—Eliot.

The "winter" birds were still present: yellow-rumped warblers now in breeding plumage and a pair of ruby-crowned kinglets jousting. Pine warblers, an early migrator were also there. But with keen ears and due diligence, Starbuck located multiple black-throated green warblers by their persistent "zoo-zee, zoo-zoo-zees." And I spotted a lone worm-eating warbler moving through the canopy. Ergo: still early in the spring migration.

There are a total of 53 species of wood warbler that migrate to North America from Central and South America, well 52 if you leave out Bachman's warbler, which is probably extinct. Of the 52, 14 are western species and 38 are eastern that fly in and out of our sphere of awareness with the seasons. Starbuck and I had a fleeting few seconds, mere glimpses of four species this morning. Fleeting. But oh the rapture therein. I write about their ephemerality in my new book to be published by the University of Tennessee Press this summer.  

View from Sharp's Ridge this morning