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. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Thank you to all who attended Ijams Sunrise & Sunflowers mute and meandering mindfulness walk this morning at 7 a.m.

We slowly serpentined in and around and through the sunflower and corn fields silently at Forks of the River WMA near Ijams, contemplating the momentno talking, no cell phones, no hassle, no Facebookeach stroller lost in their own thoughts in the early morning sun.

We were living in the moment.

Based on the Japanese stress reducing therapy called shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing," mindfulness walks are short, leisurely visits to nature that produce positive health benefits. NPR recently did a story about forest bathing, although since we were strolling through planted fields we should call it S
ōgen-yoku, or meadow bathing.

With the stress of the modern world, mindfulnessbeing lost in the moment of the real world, not the virtual world—has become all the rage lately but we have been doing mindfulness walks for the past three years at the nature center.

My next mindfulness walk will be a Saturday morning in August and we may wade through a stream. Watch for it on the Ijams Events calendar. 

And until then, go outside and sit under a tree quietly with absolutely NO electronics.

Mindfulness is all the rage across the country but we have been doing Mindfulness Walks at Ijams for three years.
Photo of our mellow strollers after we got back together as a group.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sad Vlad

This past week, the summer Adventure Camp kids got to visit Ijams' senior resident shut-in, old Sad Vlad, the vegetarian vampire who lives in the Homesite basement.

Time for breakfast. Is it dark yet?
Vlad is harmless to humans, he only drinks the blood of trees, a.k.a. sap, and the blood of fruit, a.k.a. juice. At night Vlad turns into a vampire fruit bat. This makes Vlad a frugivore not a carnivore.

Sad Vlad showed the young campers his leaf collection and gave them a copy of his nightly woodland café menu that has his favorite sipping trees: sugar maple, sweet gum, sassafras, tuliptree, wild cherry and red maple to name a few 
entrées. Or as he says, "Vlad eat ontrees.")

Ijams summer Adventure Camp specializes in outdoor adventure and imaginative learning, and, well, it's fun too. (And, yes, Vlad knows Count von Count from Sesame Street.)

Who will the kids meet this week?

- Supplied photos by Christie Collins and Jack Gress.

Monday, July 10, 2017

blue jean baby, L.A. lady

Purple martin condo at Seven Islands State Birding Park

A blue grosbeak she wanted. And a blue grosbeak she'd get. Rachael Eliot, a.k.a. Starbuck, needed one for her life list. It would be bird number 149 and I kinda, sorta knew where we might find one this morning. And with those new L.A. movie star sunglasses how could I not "make it so," Jean-Luc?

And being that I am a professional interpretive naturalist and connecting people to nature is my sworn-for-life duty, and Starbuck is my best bird nerd student ever, blessed with hearing geared for the nuance of passerine chatter, our mission was set. 

Beautifully bucolic Seven Islands State Birding Park was our destination, because I knew that the former farmland is where the chunky blue birds with cardinal-like bills and chestnut wing bars like to hang out. 

Blue grosbeaks are wide spread in the southeast but not in great numbers. Nope. Their favored breeding sites are shrubby, old-fields and that probably is a habitat type on the decline. Blue grosbeaks have a husky warbling song and appear to be overgrown indigo buntings. We found one surprisingly with minimal effort at eye level along the dirt road that has been pushed through the meadow.

For a birder, finding your target bird is like winning the lottery. No, not the million dollar kind, that would be like finding an ivory-billed woodpecker, but like buying a winning $20 ticket at the corner Weigels

We also found numerous field sparrows, indigo buntings, chats, yellow-throats, purple martins, tree swallows, perhaps a juvenile summer tanager, or at least, that was our consensus, and a lackadaisical kettle of black vultures just getting airborne.

The most curious sighting of the morning? A wackadoo mockingbird chasing a bald eagle up and down the river. Was that a metaphor for our current executive branch of government, or what?


Monday, June 19, 2017

thank you my friends

Wild Birds Unlimited
My late mother was especially proud that she was the one who taught me how to talk. So in addition to thanking her posthumously, I need to thank the following groups who have invited me to speak in the past few weeks. 

To my friends at Wild Birds Unlimited for inviting me to speak about fatherhood in the bird world. Thank you.

To the good folks of the Tellico Village Garden Club thank you for asking me to speak about hawks and other diurnal birds of prey.

To the Author's Guild of Tennessee for inviting me to chat a bit about the authoring of my three books published by the University of Tennessee Press.

To my friends at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, thank you Tiffany for asking me to speak about the "Secrets of Backyard Birds."

And finally to Dana and Marti with the Great Smoky Mountains Association for asking me to talk about local owls. I even tried to call in a northern saw-whet owl but with the overcast skies and rapidly approaching storm, they were rather taciturn that evening.  

Tellico Village Garden Club
Author's Guild of Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains Association members


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Wendy: rattlesnake whisperer

Traveling around the country, you meet a lot of interesting people, single-minded folks with convection. In April, I met Wendy Shaw, a passionate conservationist and self-confessed rattlesnake whisperer, i.e. protector and rescuer.

Yes, rattlesnakes. 

As her tagline states, "Rattlesnakes aren't really monsters. They just play monsters on TV." 

Wendy Shaw with night snake
This is the season in Washington state when snakes are on the move. Boy snakes looking for girl snakes, that sort of thing. 

Often at night they find themselves on darkened highways where their flattened scales do not find much traction and inevitably a car or truck comes barreling along. The thick, large scales on their bellies are called "scutes," and they are not particularly good at gripping asphalt. 

Western spadefoot toad
Let us hope that Wendy is behind the steering wheel of the oncoming car because she will kindly pull off the road and rescue the reptile (or even amphibians like spadefoots). Wendy will carry the herpetological creature out of harm's way, moving it as far from the thoroughfare as she is able. Wendy is not funded. Her mission is fueled by the goodness in her heart. She is just their sovereign protector like Wonder Woman.  


After a day's work, she is out until midnight or even into the wee hours, if it's a busy night, on snake patrol.

If there were a Nobel Prize for kindness, Wendy would get my nod.  

Click here and Wendy tells here own story, night patrol.  

For other posts on my trip to Yakima, click:

Friday, June 9, 2017


Feeling stressed and overwhelmed by your job? Or your life? Your place on the planet? Then turn off the news, the cell phone, the tablet, the kindle, the flatscreen. It's time to de-stress, slow down, relax and find inner peace. Time magazine just published an entire issue dedicated to the therapeutic benefits of Mindfulness. Ijams has been organizing Mindfulness Walks for two years. And they are so calming.  

If you have never been to an Ijams program
this may be the one for you.
I will be hosting two mindfulness activities in the next week.
Take some time to stop and smell the roses.
Sunday, June 11, 2 p.m. 
Mindfulness Nature Journaling  
(Ages 14 and up) Unplug from your cell phone and all electronics and join me for a no-talking nature journaling experience and record your inner peace. Bring a notebook or journal, pencil or pen and whether you draw, write prose or poetry, let nature be your inspiration. 

Saturday, June 17, 9 a.m. 
Mindfulness Walk
(Ages 14 and up) Mindfulness walks are calming strolls. Based on the therapeutic Japanese practice called Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing, it’s a meditative, calming stroll, exploring the forest using all five senses. By removing distractions such as cell phones, cameras and even talking, participants are able to truly engage with their surroundings and experience the restorative properties of nature. 

For both we meet at historic High Ground Park
1000 Cherokee Trail, Knoxville, TN 37920. 

For more information or to register go online 

High Ground Park

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

look who's talkin'

Authors Guild of Tennessee Meeting: Thursday, June 8, 6 p.m. at the Farragut Library, 417 N. Campbell Station Road. The guest speaker is Stephen Lyn Bales (c'est moi), award-winning writer, photographer and senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center. Published authors are invited to attend. 


Father Birds. Saturday, June 17, 1-2 p.m. Celebrate Father's Day with Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike, ste 164, and Ijams senior naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales (c'est moi encore une fois) for a lighthearted look at the bad dads and good fathers in the local bird world. Learn which species are paternal and which are no show papas.

Please RSVP to WBU at (865) 337-5990 so that we may allow for the appropriate amount of seating.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Yakima snake protector

Wendy Shaw with petite "night snake" and Mark Fuzie, English professor and poet at Yakima Valley College

To paraphrase a line from the original TV series Twin Peaks, "The snakes are not what they seem." And since I was in the Pacific Northwest at the time, borrowing from David Lynch & Mark Frost seems appropriate.

Snakes are not what they seem, since many many people seem to think they are sneaky demons. But they are much more cautious of us than we should be of them. And why not? We have been chopping off their heads with garden hoes for centuries. (Have garden hoes been around for centuries?  I must check that.)

They are predators. They eat mice, insects, lizards, fish, frogs, even other snakes. They're low to the ground. It's that simple.  

There's an absolute beauty to the way a snake moves, an economy of motion. Streamlined, without the benefit of legs which they evolved away from, they get along just fine. Their bodies are muscular and their ventral (belly) scales are large, oblong and especially low friction enabling the snake to grip the ground for traction, although they are not that good on asphalt. Crossing a road can be difficult.

So why all this about snakes? 

At the Yakima Valley College Earth Fest that I attended recently, I met Wendy Shaw a self-confessed snake protector and rescuer. She approached my naturalist table with a completely docile night snake (Hypsiglena torquata) and we talked all things snake especially the one she had weaving itself through and around her fingers.

"They have a unique defensive posture, which is pretty adorable," emailed Wendy. "They form a compact little coil rather like frosting on a cupcake. I caught one in the act last summer during a routine snake rescue patrol and snapped a couple of shots before scooping him off to safety."

Rescue patrol? Wendy's hobby/avocation/passion is saving snakes at night from the local roads before they become roadkill but more about that in an upcoming post.

Until then, attend my Snake-ology class at Ijams this Sunday, June 4 at 2 p.m. To preregister call 577-4717, ext. 110.

For other posts on my trip to Yakima, click:

Night snake cupcake, defensive posture

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 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 and Live@4@5 producer Lee Ann Bowman

- 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 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:…/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