Saturday, June 25, 2016

katy did it

Mark it on your calendar. Summer has now officially arrived, forget that solstice whatchamacallit; that crazy tilt of the planet thingamabob.

The first bush katydids of the season just started singing their rackety song in the night.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Turtle-ology 101 is Sunday

Join me for this fun and lighthearted look at some of the common turtles that live in East Tennessee. We're talking cooters, sliders and stinkpots!

Sunday, June 26, 2 p.m.
Turtle-ology 101 at Ijams

Our -ology programs are great for families and the young-at-heart. We will even get to meet a few of the shelled-reptile residents of Ijams. If you’ve been to our -ology programs before, you know there will be some fun and turtle-themed food. Feel free to bring something to share, or just come partake in our scaly snacks! The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members. (Children under 3 are free). 

Space is limited; to register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

For WBIR's report, click: Live@5@4.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

ready for a fight



Photo by Rachael Eliot
OK, finally, celebrating the first full day of summer. The six-legged joy of the season is here, e.g. big insects are starting to turn up on my backporch. Just leave the lights on and see what comes to the party. 

This fierce looking giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) was first identified and named in 1775 by the Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius who specialized in "Insecta," which at that time included all arthropods: insects, arachnids, crustaceans and their ilk.

Worldwide there are about 1200 species of stag beetle. Only the males have the impressive Road Warrior armament that they use to feign and posture, even fight each other if they have to, over territory, typically a log, and the females which lack the bluster. This one seems ready for a fight, but despite their intense demeanor, they are actually vegetarians that eat tree sap or other sweet things.

The one on my finger has a fondness for purple plum pulp.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ephemeral jellies

If they appear at all, look for freshwater jellyfish during the hottest part of late summer in local stillwater quarries and lakes.

In the Tennessee Valley there’s a small gelatinous creature that is virtually transparent with only a slight hint of white or maybe green to give it any sort of hue. Its body is 99 percent water and has no skeleton or head or brain or organs for respiration or excretion. The creature does have a mouth, long tubular stomach and reproductive organs, but little else. So it can eat and make babies, or clones of itself. You might think that such a small biological oddity would live their life unnoticed. Most of the time they do. Yet one week last summer they garnered serious media attention.

What can be so newsworthy?

Freshwater jellyfish are indeed odd, ethereal aquatic animals that live a double life. For most of their existence, they’re underwater polyps, so small and well camouflaged they are virtually invisible. Studying them, or even finding them is a difficult undertaking. At times however, on hot summer days, these polyps go through a transformation. They produce umbrella-shaped adults called medusae that look like the beached jellyfish that most of us know from trips to the seashore; except the medusae of freshwater jellyfish remain small, coin sized.
These milky-clear jellies swim towards the overhead sunlight and drift back down into the depths hunting for food, creating a shimmering effect just below the surface. Often the medusae are seen floating or swimming in clusters of dozens, hundreds or even thousands. These clusters are called “blooms.” It’s during these medusa outbursts that they become see-able, but predicting when and where they’ll appear borders on the impossible. 

For the rest of the story, read my article in the May/June 2016 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist. 


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Hawk at 3 o'clock

Photo by Chuck Cooper

Today at 3 o'clock at Ijams, meet and greet the Ijams' adopted red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) named Tiger. She has an injured wing (her left, but to your right), so she is only partial flighted. 

Redtails are the largest species of hawk found in the Tennessee Valley. They hunt over open grassland, meadows and, oddly, along the medians of interstates. Known incorrectly as "chicken hawks," they rarely go after such prey since redtails only weight three pounds. They much prefer a three or four ounce mouse.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

FNC aquatic workshop

2016 edition of the Ijams Family Nature Club

I grew up in Gatlinburg on Baskins Creek. Every summer the neighborhood kids would explore the cold water that drains off Mt. LeConte looking for crawdads, caddisfly larva and other creepy crawly creatures. 

Who would have guessed that all these years later, I'd be passing along that "old school" tradition to the Family Nature Club kids with their parents and/or grandparents at Ijams.

For the complete story, click: Aquatics Workshop


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wild Birds June visit

Where's Mom and Dad?
Thank you to all who came out on such a hot day in June to learn all about the feathered Black & Decker drilling machines we call woodpeckers. We also saluted male woodpeckers for being excellent fathers in accord with upcoming Father's Day.

Along with their mated partners, they knock out a nesthole or roost hole in a dead tree in a few days. You might say they each have a real deal drill bill for home-building. They peck, they chisel, they drill, master excavators each one.  

Also thanks to my friends— Liz, Tony, Tiffiny and Warrenat Wild Birds Unlimited, (7240 Kingston Pike #164) for inviting me to speak.

Wild birds is also where you can buy all kinds of bird related items to attract more to your yard including Jim's Birdacious Bark Butter, a food that's irresistible to woodpeckers and other insect-eating birds.

Here's a look back at my Owl-ology visit in March, click: Wild Birds Unlimited.

Photo by Warren Hamlin
Photo by Warren Hamlin

Thursday, June 9, 2016

woodpeckers make great fathers

Saturday, June 11, 1 p.m.
Woodpeckers Make Great Fathers

Just in time for Father's Day, let's salute some good fathers in our local bird world. Along with their mated partners, you might say they have a real schnoz for home-building. Join me at Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike #164 for Woody-ology 101, a program about local woodpeckers and their commitment to fatherhood. 

Call (865) 337-5990 for information.

Here's a look back at my last visit, click: Wild Birds Unlimited.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

13th visit to Tellico

The Ijams red-phase Eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio) was the special guest at the Tellico Village Garden Club luncheon on Thursday. 

I went along as Miss Screech's chauffeur, personal assistant and spokesperson. We presented a concise talk: Owl-ology 101 to the good garden clubbers about screech-owls in general and the other owl species found in East Tennessee. 

Screech-owls are native to most wooded environs in the United States east of the Rockies, more so than any other owl. As a group they have adapted well to man-made development, wooded neighborhoods and parks, although they frequently avoid detection due to their petite size and nocturnal work habits. Where humans go, mice follow. Screeches eat the small rodents, and in the summer, large arboreal insects like cicadas.

Their vocal call is a mournful descending whinny, that is frankly a bit spooky and, oddly, they come in two colors, or morphologies. Like being blonde or brunette, it has nothing to do with gender, but they can be either a rusty red or a gray. 

The screech-owl seemed to enjoy her visit, sleeping in the car on the drive to Loudon County and back. Her supper, a mouse, was waiting for her upon return to the nature center.

Thank you, Tim Pyles and the rest of the villagers for inviting us. I made my first presentation to the Tellico Village Garden Club on Thursday, January 8, 2004 and have visited the hospitable group for a chat every year since.

Afterwards, Tim wrote, "Another winner at Tellico Village. Your presentation in familiarizing us with the Owls in our neighborhoods was  excellent. Your constant humor and little quips add some much to your presentation. You are quite knowledgeable with nature and our feathered friends and you do a excellent job of sharing and educating your audience. 
We will look forward to another visit from you next year."

Tellico Village Garden Club luncheon
Saturday, June 11, 1 PM, I'll be at Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike #164, Knoxville, (phone 337-5990) for Woody-ology 101, a concise talk about the local species of woodpeckers and what you can do to help them. It's great fun. Please join us.

Here's a look back at my last visit, click: Wild Birds Unlimited.

Monday, May 30, 2016

going home again

It was Asheville novelist Thomas Wolfe who said, "You can't go home again." He meant that as soon as you leave, it begins to change. Because change is the natural order.

Last Saturday, I led a Memorial Day Weekend hike for 19 people back into my ancestral fountainhead: Baskins Creek and a waterfall that is located only a few miles upstream from my boyhood home. The trip was hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Association and GSMA Executive Director Laurel Rematore and Marketing and Membership Associate Marti Smith went along on the adventure. Lynne Davis, Ijams volunteer and wildflower aficionado, i.e. ardent devotee, was a surprise guest but her expert knowledge is always welcomed.

Great Smoky Mountains Association supports the perpetual preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the national park system by promoting greater public interest and appreciation through education, interpretation and research. 

Baskins Creek Falls is a two-tiered, 40 foot waterfall that often goes overlooked. It was only 1.7 miles into the site but mountain miles can be deceiving. The trail is rated "Easy," but I'd rate it "Easy, f.a.b.g." Or, easy for a billy goat. Oddly, it's mostly downhill going in, dropping approximately 335 feet in elevation (2580 to 2245 feet) from the Roaring Fork Trailhead. But what goes down the mountain has to climb back up. So we did. 

Ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora)
But, we were in no real hurry. It was a beautiful day, a "stop and smell the roses" kind of day, meaning it was leisurely. Mountain laurel was in bloom at the top of the ridge we had to go up and over, and the Catawba rhododendron (purple) was just beginning to flower. Most of the ephemeral spring wildflowers had come and gone, but we found two of the park's oddest plants: ghost plant, a.k.a. Indian pipe and bear corn.

Ghost plant is pale white, like a corpse. Unlike most plants it is not green, it also does not produce its own food through photosynthesis, but rather it's a parasite that steals its food from the roots of trees, most often beeches. Bear corn is another non-photosynthesizing, parasitic plant that surreptitiously siphons its food as well, usually from the roots of oaks or beeches. Both are not dependent on sunlight and can grow in very dark environments, shaded by their host trees. 

Here's my ancestral connection: Just about everywhere you look in the Roaring Fork or Baskins Creek watersheds there are ghosts: old rock walls, wagon roads, remains of stone chimneys, cemeteries. Lives were lived there, scratching an existence out of steep mountain slopes with little flat land for gardens. Granddad Homer Bales told the story of a cow that once fell out of its pasture and broke its neck. On the way into our destination, we walked past the Bales Cemetery, where several of my ancestors are laid to rest. And since a mountaineer's life was a hard-scrabble life, they were indeed at peace in the quiet setting. We stopped for awhile to pay our respects. 

The Baskins Waterfall was where my grandmother Pearl Mae Ogle Bales took showers when she was a barefoot girl, as did all of the rest of the large family.

Preston Columbus Ogle family. Circa. 1918. Front: Clifford, Elizabeth, Luther, Homer, Preston, Stella, Fred. Back: Walter, Russell, Pearl (Bales), Arlie.

In the late 1920s, great grandfather Preston Columbus Ogle sold 124.6 acres along Baskins Creek that included: a 3-room frame house, 4 tenant houses, 2 barns, a mill, 200 apple trees and a waterfall for $3,500. P.C. sold the family property, as did all of his neighbors, to become part of  a greater good: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

And a greater good it is.

Last September, I led a driving tour of the cabins along the park's Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail for the GSMA. For a look back: Click: Heritage Tour. 

Thank you, GSMA's Judy Collins for inviting me to lead both. And thank you, GSMA's Laurel and Marti.   

Baskins Creek Falls
Photographing ghost plant before it disappears
Paying respects at the Bales Cemetery
Bear corn (Conopholis americana)
Galax (Galax urceolata)
Hiking group, left and right beyond the creek
Best guess: Silvery glade fern (Deparia acrostichoides)
The hike out
Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Thank you to all! It was great fun. Photo by Linda Hintze.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

club moss

Club Moss species, probably Flat branch ground-pine (Lycopodium obscurum)

Here's the odd thing. I have been writing about nature since 1992, that's 24 years; newspaper columns, magazine articles, blogs and two books with a third in the incubator. And until my post of last week, I had never written about club moss.


Well then, I haven't paid proper respect to our village elders.

Club moss, or more correctly, clubmoss, or more scientific: lycopodium, (lika-poe-de-um) is one of the most fascinatingly curious green things on Earth. They often go overlooked simple because they look like baby trees. They're not. The fossil record tells us that their lineage is ancient, they have been on Earth for roughly 410 million years, give or take a few millennia, far longer than flowering plants. The club mosses reproduce by spores, not seeds. Consequently, they are placed in a group known as fern allies. Ferns are very antediluvian plants as well.

After my last post, I heard from my friend and Ijams volunteer, Rex McDaniel

Rex is a supreme photographer. Here is what he wrote about an encounter with club moss he had several years ago.

"Yesterday I visited Big Ridge State Park. As I was walking on the trail to Norton's Cemetery this first scene caught my eye. I made the first picture, then went on to the cemetery. As I came back I was again attracted by this section where the ground under the trees was covered by Club Moss. I realized that this was a beautiful world. The Club Moss makes a fantastic setting for the forms and colors that can be found there," wrote Rex.

Here is a link to Rex's wonderful photos he took that day: Big Ridge Club Moss.

Thanks, Rex. Yes, this is a beautiful world.  

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Let us remember

With an American kestrel. The smallest bird-of-prey in the Tennessee Valley. Photo by Chuck Cooper.

Let us all remember all of those we morn this weekend for Memorial Day and what is traditionally Decoration Day in the Great Smokies.

Drop by Ijams Nature Center tomorrow afternoon. The forecast is great for a short hike around the park. Plus, I'll be doing a free Animal Meet & Greet: presentation & chat at the top of every hour: Noon, 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m.

What will it be? A bird, a snake, a spider or a sleepy opossum?

Could be either or all.

With barred owl (Strix varia)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Baskins Falls

Baskins Creek Falls

Since Ellie has a few days off from classes, we headed to the mountains, hiking "down" into Baskins Creek Falls in the Great Smokies. It's rare in the national park to leave the trailhead and descend down the mountainside to see a waterfall.(Elevation loss going in: 767 feet, elevation gain climbing out: 767 feet)

We each had a separate agenda. For me it was reconnaissance; for Ellie it was birds. We accomplished all things considered. I got to reconnect to a trail that I haven't walked in 18 years in my natal watershed, and Ellie got dueling red-eyes, really multiple vireos, plus ovenbirds, hoodeds and a worm-eating warbler; the latter was a lifer.

And adding a lifer makes everything else, including juvenile American politics, i.e. men behaving badly, seem so trivial. Plus we got to see the waterfalls where my Grandmother Pearl Ogle Bales showered when she was a barefoot mountain girl.

So, it was a trip back in time, in more ways than one.

Flat-branched tree club moss (see below) also has the common regional names 'princess pine' and 'ground pine' due to its resemblance to tiny pine trees. It's a very old, old plant form, that predates flowering plants by millions of years. Club moss represents nature's early attempt for a vascular plant to gain "height." Club mosses have been on Earth for roughly 410 million years, give or take a few millennia. While millipedes (see below) date back that far as well. They were among the first animals to have colonized the land probably feeding on the early club mosses. 

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Worm-eating warbler (Helmitheros vermivorus)
Best guess: Silvery glade fern (Deparia acrostichoides)
American giant millipede (Narceus americanus)
Club Moss species, probably Flat branch ground-pine (Lycopodium obscurum)
Galax (Galax urceolata)