Thursday, September 21, 2017

last crawdad quest of season?

The forecast is for the high 80s this Sunday afternoon. Join me for one last creek wade before the cool weather sends us scampering indoors?

Sunday, September 24, 2 p.m.

Crawdad Quest at Ijams

It's Family Adventure Sunday (Ages 6 and up) Bring the family to a creek wade in shallow water as we look for crawfish, dace, darters, shiners, stone-rollers, jewelwings and other aquatic creatures in Ijams’ Toll Creek. Participants should be prepared to get wet and muddy and must wear closed-toe shoes. (Old tennis shoes work best.) No one under the age of six allowed due to the depth of the creek. Meet at the Visitor Center. A change of clothes is highly recommended. The fee for this program is $8, members get a discount. Go online to register at ijams/events or by phone: 577-4717, ext. 110.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Big Bug Safari

Millipedes are harmless vegetarians that eat dead leaves. And sometimes appear on TV.

For three minutes yesterday, Millie, a yellow flat-backed millipede (Cherokia georgiana) was the most famous arthropod in town. Just ask Russell Biven

She and her spokesman appeared on WBIR’s Live@5@4. For the first time in the 19 year history of the program, a millipede was a featured guest. And why not? Without millipedes and their ilk, we would be buried in dead leaves in a matter of years.

Millie was there to promote Ijams' end of summer Big Bug Safari tomorrow at 2 p.m. part of the nature center's Family Adventure Sunday series. Each kid gets a swept net and plastic containers and we’ll roundup as many bugs—insects, spiders, millipedes and centipedes—as possible. Yee-haw! 

This is old school. Ijams has been connecting kids to nature since 1923.

For more information or to sign up call 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to…

Thursday, September 14, 2017

thrush aid and comfort

For a naturalist, spending time indoors can be tantamount to torture. Because we know that just outside our brick and mortar something wondrous, tragic or perhaps even miraculous is happening. That is what drives us to be on the road less taken. We have no virtual world, our world is real. 

An hour ago I was outside helping my neighbor Dr. Gary move large chunks of a chestnut oak that did not survive the remnants of Hurricane Irma that passed through Monday night. The tree was old and huge, standing strong through dozens of storms but this one was its Waterloo. It is fortunate for us that his grown son Adam is a professional competitive lumberjack.

Returning home, walking up the driveway, I spooked a wood thrush that was forging the damp detritus to my right. It flew in front of me but smacked into my glass studio doors. Only a glancing blow yet still it fell to the asphalt before me twitching. 

I have picked up many birds after ramming into windows. I curse the glass and our need for it. Sometimes the damaged passerines are merely knocked loopy, sometimes they have broken necks. I always fear the latter but pray for the former as I hoped for this bird, giving it comfort and whispering sweet affirmations."You're OK, baby," "All is well," "I'm here for you." Things like that as I gently stroked its spotted breast. Its hard breathing and heartbeat clearly noticeable. 

The wood thrush is my favorite songbird that lives in the dense woods behind my house but the songster is only here in summer. Migration is well underway and I am somewhat surprised that this one is still even here. They spend their winters in lowland tropical forests in Central America but sadly, their population is on the decline so we can ill afford to lose even one. 

My wounded thrush blinked and panted much like a running back hit by Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews. Its feet glitched. A death grip? Let's hope not. But wait, it moved its head right and left indicating its neck was not broken. It only needed another living being—that would be me—bringing aid and comfort, muttering "You're not alone." I have done this sort of thing before only to have the poor songbird die in my hand, but this care-giving act felt more positive. Its whacked senses slowly began to return.  

In time, it hopped up, standing on my outstretched palm, looked around as if to say, "I am thrush. I bid you adieu. I have miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go."


Monday, September 11, 2017

Lynne's itsy-bitsy treefrog

Frogs need water. They need to stay dampish plus that is where they reproduce. As the great Cole Porter wrote, "Birds do it, bees do it, even educated little fleas do it." But treefrogs really do not need that much water to do it.

Small backyard ponds work just fine but in lieu of that, Lynne Davis has found that her rain barrel can be a hotbed of activity. The above foursome took place in late summer 2016. And the photo below of the teenie-weenie, itsy-bitsy treefrog she took only recently 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Jamey's cow killer

Velvet ant. Photo by James (Jamey) McDaniel

"In case you were wondering, there is in fact an ant with an inch-long stinger that can cause 30 minutes of life-changing, pray-for-death pain," writes G. Clay Whittaker. The velvet ant is no fuzzy sweet thing and it's not an ant. It is in the same insect order Hymenoptera, but instead, it's a wingless wasp.

Rex McDaniel adds, my son, James, agrees. Here's what he said, and his photo is above.

"This is nicknamed a "Cow Killer." Way before digital cameras 35mm film use to come in little canisters, that is what my Dad would put his bugs in so he could take pictures of them when he changed film. One day last year I found one of these in the yard and picked him up with my bare hands. Let me say the name fits, it was like 20 wasps stung me in the same place. And I was down for a minute. Although the pain didn't last long I will never pick one up again."

This is one insect to avoid. And tell your cows the same.

Monday, August 21, 2017

eclipse of the sun

Solar eclipse 21 August 2017. Wiki media

A week ago the plan was simple enough: get up early, drive south on Hwy 411 to Vonore, find a place to park and wait. It was only 33 miles, we could make it in roughly 40 minutes.

Then we were given a spoonful of castor oil called reality. Thousands of out-of-state travelers were here to do much the same thing. I guess a once-in-a-lifetime total eclipse of the sun belongs to everyone. It wasn't just our eclipse or a time to be exclusionary and provincial. There's enough of that going on in the nation's capital.

This morning we quickly had to reconnoiter and devise a new plan. Returning to the totality map we realized Maryville would give us a good enough show. But could we even get there? 

Rachael Eliot and I joined the slow flow of traffic on Alcoa Highway and aimed for Foothills Mall. Instead of waiting in the hot car for hours, we did what the other half of all Americans were doing, we went shopping. Perhaps we needed more red in our wardrobe.

We arrived early enough to park in the partial shade of a chinkapin oak and met people from Alabama, Pennsylvania and even Poland around us.

The big totality show started right on time—2:33 pm—and isn't it a beautiful piece of symmetry that the moon is exactly the right size at exactly the right distance from Mother Earth to exactly snuff out the light of the sun albeit briefly. And I know using the word "exactly" three times in one sentence is a writer's no-no, but it is exactly true.

We live in a chaotic yet orderly universe: black holes and a clockwork solar system. A loving populace with hate-filled leadership. At totality, all went dark, the crowd oohed and aahed, birds started to coo and roost, scissor-grinder cicadas began to buzz. My friend John Goodall and his family saw bats at their Maryville location. Probably anything crepuscular became active. Heck, it sure looked like twilight to me. 

As the sun returned, undulating shadow bands raced across the asphalt of the parking lot, and for one brief moment the world did not seem so wackadoo but in perfect alignment. Peace and joy throughout the land. "Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

But nature and science have always made so much more sense to me than the rest of the so called civilized world. 

Tiny holes in the tree canopy overhead created pinhole cameras.
turned to twilight
turned to joy at the sun's return.
as ephemeral as the chalk that documented the site
And 21 August 2017 ended on yet another bit of immaculateness.

Monday, August 14, 2017

kudzu cunning

There's a scourge in the South. It's clandestine and creepy. It's kudzu.

It works quietly among honest, moral folks. Unnoticed. Secretive.

Our friends north of the Mason-Dixon probably think it's much ado about nothing, after all, it's only a plant in the pea family. But it is wily.

Kudzu's threat is insidious, slowly blanketing acre upon acre, its goal is to turn everything into a monoculture, discouraging biodiversity and exclusion is never a good thing. All one color is not the way the natural world works. Nature thrives on diversity, even here in the South.


Friday, August 11, 2017


Whooping crane from "Ephemeral by Nature"

Often asked about the covers and illustrations in my books, I generally reply, "I'm the only illustrator I can afford."


But the fact is, I have been drawing since I was 8 or 9-years-old. Don't know why. Some kids dance. (I cannot.) Some kids tell jokes. (I cannot remember one to retell.) For me, the drawing just started and Mom would often buy me arty supplies for Christmas. One year, my parents gave me a Gilbert microscope set with prepared slides. (I still have it.) I clearly remember looking through the eyepiece sketching what I saw: a fly's wing, a bee's leg, a gnat. It was an early indicator of things to come. A budding naturalist recording the natural world.

Today I write books for UT Press and draw in my studio the things that interest me. I also work with a lot of junior naturalists at Ijams. We often look at newts, dragonflies and stinkbugs. Ergo, encourage you child's interests and someday they might draw you a bug.

Thursday, August 10, 2017



In my last post about Crawdad Willy the creek pirate, I casually mentioned hellgrammites. 

Also known as crawlers by local fishermen/women, these are the underwater larvae of dobsonflies. And they are in turn one of the largest non-lepidopteran found in our area. 

Hellgrammites are formable, hence the creepy name, but the male dobsonflies with their enlarged mandibles are pretty intense themselves. Like stag beetles, these enlarged horns are used to compete for the attention of the females. Another instance in which female-choice has driven the males of a species to an extreme look as in the bright red of a male cardinal. 

Adult dobsonflies are nocturnal carnivores found along local streams. They prey on other non-hellgrammite aquatic larva found in stream riffles and probably eat a few of their own as well. 

Both images are from WikiMedia


Friday, August 4, 2017

Toll-taker Willy

The last day of Ijams summer Adventure Camp is bittersweet, but they had one last character encounter to cheer them up! 

The adventurous kids found the hillbilly creek pirate Crawdad Willy guarding his lonely outpost on the eastern edge of the nature center

When they came upon him, he was passing his time reading the "poyotree" of Miss Emily Dickinson. "The past is such a curious creature, To look her in the face, A transport may reward us, or a disgrace."

After they helped him decipher her cryptic words, he taught them a bit about the critters that share his "crick." Things like damselflies, dragonflies, water snakes, hellgrammites, water striders and, of course, crawdads. But did he say, "sally-amander"? And notice the pickerel frog in a jar around his neck. That's his buddy. 

To pass through the gate, the campers were each marked with creek mud after giving Crawdad a gold is called Toll Creek, after all! 

And Willy be the toll-taker.

Ijams is the home of imaginative learning.

 - Jennifer Roder, guest scribe

Sunday, July 30, 2017

late cardinal brood

Cardinal nestlings  Photo by Rex McDaniel

I'm two weeks late with this post. Rex McDaniel sent me these photos July 16. By now the cardinal nestlings in the photo have fledged. But nevertheless, it is still late in the season for northern cardinals to be in a family way. Raising young ones is not easy. That's an understatement. It's exhausting. Perhaps this may even be a third brood. It is July. 

My thinking is that cardinals are under extra pressure to reproduce because they are so flamboyant, especially the males. Female choice drives the bright colors in male birds. An unmated female cardinal will choose the brightest male available. Dull guys get left out, so as a whole, the species evolves towards brighter and brighter males. The dull guy genes fall by the wayside. 

The problem is that if you and I can see the flashy males, so can Cooper's hawks. So lots of bright males fall by the wayside as well, but their genes survive in the nestlings pictured above. Thus, in order to keep the population stable, three broods may be necessary. There would not be the same pressure on dull gray catbirds, another species that likes to hide in dense shrubbery and is about the same size.

If this is all true and it reasonable to believe it is, then does a mated pair of cardinals produce more male offspring than female to replace the high number of flashy males killed by predators because they have no natural camouflage?

Let's hope the hungry nestlings survived to fly away from this nest Rex found at Ijams Nature Center.

As always, Rex thank you for your attentive eye.

I have written about my friend Rex before. He is something of a flâneur. Click: strolling about.

Mom cardinal being protective of her young. 

Photo be Rex McDaniel.


Friday, July 28, 2017

clearwing thingamabob

Hummingbird clearwing. Photo by Lynne Davis

"Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
The frumious Bandersnatch! Wrote the master of Wonderland, Lewis Carroll.

OK. Don't look them up in your field guides. Such wonderous creatures are probably not there. Carroll loved to cobble together curiosities out of various other creatures.  

But this frumious creature was real. It wasn't a jubjub bird, but it did hover over the blossoms of Lynne Davis' lantana and drank eagerly. She emailed a photo. Oddly, it favored the yellow flowers to the pink or orange.

Birds and insects have more types of color-sensitive cones at the backs of their eyes. (We have three. They have five.) They see a wider range of colors than we do. The colorful world we see, must be a true wonderland to them. But why did it favor yellow?

The wings of the mystery hovercraft moved so fast, they were hard to see, and its behavior was much like a hummingbird, bobbing and weaving from flower to flower, but it was much too small to be a nectar-sipping bird.

The Jabberwocky thingamabob is a hummingbird in name only. It's a mimic, a hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). A moth!
Yet, unlike most moths, the curious clearwings are active during the day but may also continue to fly into the evening, particularly if there’s a good source of nectar.

But like all moths, clearwings go through metamorphosis: egg to caterpillar to cocoon to adult. The caterpillars feed on plants that include honeysuckle, viburnum, hawthorn, cherry and plums. The adult, small chunky moths resemble bumblebees but are often mistaken for hummingbirds because of their erratic flight patterns and nectar-sipping behavior.

Straight out of the cocoon, their forewings are covered with scales, but these are shed during their first flight, making the wings appear transparent. Why? The moth’s antennae are strongly clubbed, with small, re-curved hooks at the end, and their abdomens have yellow and black segments much like those of a bumblebee, while their bristly caboose ends resemble lobsters’ tails. 

"O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” She chortled in her joy! 

A very odd, higgledy-piggledy little chimera straight out of Carroll’s fantasy wonderland had visited Lynne's lantana. Oh, joy!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

to the printer, you say

Coming in September

It's a big day. Confetti drop.

Just received word from Tom Post at the University of Tennessee Press that my third-born, Ephemeral by Nature, was shipped to finishing school today, i.e. to the printer. 

We did all we could for her—pampered, coddled, nurtured, paced the room late at night searching for the right word, even took long slow meditative strolls solvitur ambulando (Latin: it will be solved by walking) grappling with the flow of ideas. We nipped back the digressions. Six entire pages on the history of coffee, gone. Fascinating, yes. But germane to our topic, no.

The book has been an on again, off again project for me the past few years. Fifty-five thousands words laid down end to end. The oldest piece of writing was laid down in July 2000. That's seventeen years ago. No wonder she's ready to leave home and strike out on her on.

You can buy Ephemeral in September from that big online bookseller or from UT Press (a nonprofit) or the gift shop at Ijams Nature Center (another nonprofit) or from me, the author (certainly a nonprofit).

Thursday, July 20, 2017

spooner surprise

Rachael Eliot adding species number 150 to her Life List

A Life Bird.

The term is known by serious birdwatchers, a.k.a. birders. They keep a Life List noting the date and place they see a species of bird for the very first time. You also mentally store the moment on a synapse scrapbook buried deep inside your brain. I write about the avocation early in my upcoming UT Press book, Ephemeral by Nature. Forgive the shameless book promo.

Coming in September
"Birding is a lifetime pursuit, a sailing of the seven seas in search of treasure: a fleeting glimpse of something rare and exotic. So a Life List is precious. It requires a lot of planning and road trips. A good list is something that has to be cultivated and worked. Forget the subtlety; it’s an obsession." I write on page 2 of Ephemeral

Some species of birds float in and out of our sphere of awareness only briefly, so the sighting of a Life Bird can be extremely ephemeral.

Last Sunday, John O'Barr, a supreme local birder, stopped by the nature center while I was on duty. He told me of an oddly glamorous, rare and foreign Gulf Coast bird paying a visit to rural Blount County. A roseate spoonbill, a pink and white wading bird we almost lost to the plume hunters in the early 1900s, was on a holiday only a few miles away.

"This is only the third recorded sighting in East Tennessee in history," added O'Barr. A spoonbill in East Tennessee is about as predictable as a casino owner becoming president. Neither really should happen, what are the odds? Bazillion to one? But perhaps we have tumbled through a wormhole and entered Superman's Bizarro World, where the truly bizarre is commonplace. 

Early Monday morning, July 17, Rachael Eliot, a.k.a. Starbuck and I paid a visit to the Maryville address and found the spoonbill enjoying the company of two Canada geese by a pond only a short distance from the road. For Starbuck, it was number 150 on her Life List and a mental image was cemented into her hippocampus in her medial temporal lobe somewhere between her two ear channels. OK, that's a bit too anatomical. Let's just say she formed a lasting memory. 

Photo by John O'Barr
"A bizarre wading bird of the southern coasts, the roseate spoonbill uses its odd bill to strain small food items out of the water. Its bright pink coloring leads many Florida tourists to think they have seen a flamingo," reports the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. A white and pink bird with a bill that looks like a large mixing spoon is fairly easy to identity, even from a distance. 

Is the roseate (rosie-it) spoonbill's visit a freak occurrence? Another sign of climate change? Or the marking of a recovered species expansion of range? After all, 5o years ago it was virtually impossible to see a great blue heron or snowy egret in the Tennessee Valley. And today, they are both fairly common.

As in all things, time will tell. 

• Starbuck gets species number 149, click grosbeak.

Roseate spoonbill, pink dot on right, found a rural pond in Blount County to spend a few days. Cell phone photo.