Monday, January 15, 2018

house guests again

A forecast of 9 degrees for Wednesday morning chills us all. And remember, small birds have a harder time retaining their body heat than larger ones.

"Small animals cool rapidly because they have proportionally much more body surface than body volume," writes David Haskell in his "The Forest Unseen."

Just in case you are worried, the three small injured birds-of-prey we care for at the nature center are back at my house for a few days. The forecast looks Arctic. 

Ijams does not have a permit to be wildlife rehabilitators. When we take one in it has been determined to be non-releasable. We care for it the rest of its life. A one-eyed owl would not survive very long in the wild.

The one-eyed screech-owl is looking forward to watching the David Attenborough episode about "small rodents." She says it's like looking at a menu from a "fancy" restaurant.

Ijams is a non-profit. A gift of $50 marked "animal care" will buy 50 mice. A bargain really. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

ephemerality on TV

Visited with my good friends both in front of the camera and behind at WBIR's Live@5@4 today to talk about my new book. 

Dare I say the title again... Ephemeral by Nature with stories about freshwater jellyfish, monarch butterflies, hummingbirds, Appalachian pandas and, yes, eastern coyotes. In all, 12 chapters that examine a variety of flora and fauna that in one way or another can be described as “ephemeral”—that is, fleeting, short-lived, or transient.

For interview, click: Beth and Russell

Thank you. Lee Ann.

And they were also celebrating behind-the-scenes Eric Fox's birthday.

Friday, January 5, 2018

special suet cakes

Living in the woods, I really do not get bluebirds. They eschew everything my forest has to offer, well not exactly everything. 

In November with the help of some of the homeschool kids that come to the nature center, we made special suet cakes with vegetable shortening, peanut butter, oats, corn meal, sunflower seeds and berries gathered around the Visitor Center.

I like to use recycled yogurt containers. It makes the whole process tidier and it's easy to store them with lids on in the bottom of the fridge until they are needed. And with the temperate below freezing for yet another day, they are the spécialité du jour, visited routinely by bluebirds and the other traditional backyard feeder birds, even yellow-rumped warblers.

I also maintain a heated birdbath from Wild Birds Unlimited. That, probably more than the suet is an attraction as big as Disney. Where else are the birds going to find water when it is 20 degrees outside?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

house guests

We are all getting a sense of what it must be like to be a TV dinner or a half gallon of Mayfield Pistachio Almond ice cream. 

Since it is not expected to be above freezing for several days, we have decided that it may be too extreme for the three small captive, injured birds at Ijams. Their room-temperature mice soon freeze solid as does their water dishes. We have decided to let them go on a sabbatical to my house. 

The two screech-owls and kestrel stay in their travel boxes most of the time and I take them out occasionally for a tour of the house. 

Although they stay in the music room, they are particularly fond of the conservatory and library. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #1

A once in a lifetime moment is just that. And I have waited a lifetime.

A total eclipse of the sun, Monday, August 21, and we only had to drive 15 miles for totality, to soak in the sun and then the lack of it. It was bumper to bumper traffic to get there, so it wasn't exactly a chip shot. Our 21st century brains knew what was going on, we learned about it in elementary school. But our Neanderthal DNA quaked at the eerie sight, making us want to sacrifice a goat. But no one seemed to have a goat. 

Click: once in a lifetime.

And now it is on to 2018, the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four singing "Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra. La-la, how the life goes on." 

As indeed it does. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #2

Last April, I was invited to speak at Yakima Valley College by anthropologist Eric Anderson. In three days, I presented four talks about my book Ghost Birds, writing and publishing, practicing mindfulness plus a preview of my new book Ephemeral by Nature, at the time still six months away. 

I also participated in the college's Earth Day observance, getting to speak to many students one-on-one, so they met a real Tennessean, not a red one but a green-blue one. I think you call that teal. 

I made new friends including Wendy, click: rattlesnake rescuer and got to see a bevy of...darn, I am a writer, I cannot use the cliché word, adorable...but what works? oh heck, adorable...California quails trundle along on their merry way. Did I say adorable?  

I got to reacquaint myself with one of my favorite Corvids, the Steller's jay, named to honor German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. I haven' seen one since June 1988. Look at that boss crest! Also while sitting on campus, I watched a pair of introduced so not exactly beloved Eurasian collared doves court, and dare I say, mate. (If you are going to do it balanced on top of a light pole, don't expect folks not to watch.)

Yet, it is hard to condense six days into on a few favorite moments, but here is an overview. 

Click: YVC.

2017: favorite nature moments #3

After finishing my talks at the college, I accompanied Chandra and Eric Anderson on a hike in Cowiche Canyon. We were kinda, sorta looking for birds, but mostly I was taken by the terrain itself.

Click: Cowiche Canyon.

2017: favorite nature moments #4

My exit from Yakima was through its namesake valley carved through layers and layers of volcanic basalt by its eponymous river on the way to the Columbia and the Pacific.

Click: Yakima Valley. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #5

Two hundred years ago, 1817,  British artist Robert Wilkinson Padley produced a painting titled "Dun Diver," a.k.a The Goosander or Merganser. It's a lovely natural history painting of one of the most beautiful female ducks in North America. Normally, female ducks are drab to better hide on the nest.

Hold that thought.

Laura Twilley and Cindy Moffet are best friends and they both are graduates of the TN Naturalists@Ijams program at the nature center. In December, Laura wanted to give Cindy a special birthday present, she wanted me to take them birding, hoping that Cindy could add a few new birds to her life list.

I routinely do this sort of thing for Ijams in my role as a nature guide. Laura was also interesting in sparrows which very few birders are. They are generally dismissed as LBJs or "Little Brown Jobs."

On a heavily overcast, misty, damp day we drove to Seven Islands State Birding Park home of acres and acres of tall grass meadows. We soon found dozens and dozens of lively yet sodden sparrows, always moving and bobbing about in search of a morsel of food. It was a real mishmash of species all with subtle field markings: spots, streaks, no streaks, crown stripes, no crown stripes, eye rings, no eye rings, rusty, buff, brown, black parts. The only true way to get a good look is to trap one in a mist net and hold it in your hands. But, that of course, is something we did not do.  

At Seven Islands in the winter, song sparrow, white-throated sparrow, field sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, swamp sparrow, fox sparrow, savannah sparrow, chipping sparrow and grasshopper sparrow are all possible. (Don't worry about taking notes, there's no quiz at the end.) And in those squishy fields we found a sparrow whoop-de-do. Cindy added swamp and white-crowned to her life list.

After we slogged through to the backside of the old farmland and to the French Broad, it was pleasant to be looking at something other than tall wet brown grass and fidgety brown sparrows. Padley would have used an entire tube of burnt umber to paint the scene. Luckily, the river held something quite extraordinaire: a beautiful strange duck unknown to us. We scrambled to check our field guides both modern-day digital and old-school Peterson's, yet it was the latter that revealed the answer to our puzzlement first.

A female common merganser or goosander in Eurasian (Mergus merganser) like in the Padley painting at the top of this post, two centuries after he painted her. Further checking revealed that although common is in her name, as she is in the west and Eurasia, she is certainly uncommon here, only listed as being rare in East Tennessee in the winter.

BAM! A life bird for all three of us! Happy birthday, Cindy.

Thank you, Laura.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #6

Photo by John O'Barr
When the word got to me in July it was a bit of a Gomer Pyle "shazam" kinda moment.

Local birder John O'Barr stopped by the nature center and told me that a roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) was in Blount County.  Yes, a large pink Gulf Coast bird with a mixing-spoon shaped bill was here in the foothills of Old Smoky. Shazam!

In the 1930s, the spoonbill was vanishing, only found in a very few places. I wrote about it in my second UT Press book, Ghost Birds. But it wasn't a life bird for me. I saw one in Florida on November 14, 1987. 

But it would be a Life Bird for Rachael Eliot, a.k.a. Starbuck.  And it was almost too easy. O'Barr gave me the street address, the house with a pond behind it, and there it was. We hardly had to leave the car.  Did I say, Shazam?

Click: spooner

Thanks, John. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #7

This moment could have gone either way. Without a doubt, my favorite singing bird is a wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelinah). They winter in southern Mexico and Central America but in the summer, a few live and nest in the woods behind my home. 

In September, when I was walking up the driveway, I spooked one forging in the leaves to my right and flying away from me, it crashed into my studio windows. I rushed to it in a panic as it lay woozy on the ground. Taking a deep breath, I mustered all the aid and comfort I could manage. Had it broken its neck? Was it going to die?

For awhile, this beautiful creature lay addled in my left hand. 

Click: aid and comfort.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #8

This memorable moment happened in May on live TV. We really had no idea how the captive-bred corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) would react for her closeup during her interview with reporter Emily Stroud, a reporter for WBIR's Live@5@4.

The topic was my upcoming Snake-ology class at Ijams and the beautifully gentle snake did her part. She actually showed a great curiosity for the lens of Brian's camera.

Click: snake closeup.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #9

Jen Roder examines some of the specimens from 2004

This came as a complete surprise: periodical 17-year cicadas where none should be. 

In 2004, we had a big population of these cicadas emerge at Ijams in May. They were part of Brood X and I wrote about it in my first book Natural Histories, but, if you do the math, they are not due back until 2021. But last May some confused ones emerged early. It was first noticed by my supervisor Jen Roder and Ben Nanny. He knew instantly what the golden winged hemipterans were, he was at Ijams in 2004.

We had great fun with it for several days, then the partial emergence fizzled out. 

Click: cicadas appear when none should be

and Ijams cicada news got bigger.

Friday, December 22, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #10

It started with a Serenity Saturday in early November at Ijams hosted by naturalist Christie Collins and me.  After a Mindfulness Walk we did a salute to British artist Andy Goldsworthy. We all created our own piece of impermanence.

We were lucky, the leaves were at their peak color and were falling to the ground all around us, calling to be arraigned. Goldsworthy is a master of ephemeral art. He creates it. Takes a photo, then walks away. Of course, it doesn't last. But that is the point. Call it an analogy.

Ephemerality was on my mind then since my third book Ephemeral by Nature had just been released. After our Goldsworthy playtime for adults, I found myself arraigning the minutia of autumn everywhere I went, like a 6-year-old. But somehow, like being six years old, it didn't last, but it was fun while it did.

Click: Ijams Serenity Saturday

Thursday, December 21, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #11

Working with kids at the nature center probably should occupy all my top fifteen spots. It is always memorable. In late August we kicking off our second year of Ijams Homeschool Academy

It was hot, so we headed to Toll Creek in search of aquatic life: fishes, larvae and crawdads...maybe even a turtle or snake.

Click: creek fun

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #12

British biologist J.B.S Haldane is reported to have said that "the creator had an inordinate fondness for beetles because he had made so many different species."

Myself? I have an inordinate fondness for the arthropoda in the class Diplopoda known as millipedes. The slow-moving detritivores that eat dead leaves aiding in the decomposition of that plant material. And since I have been raking leaves off and on for weeks, I can certainly use their services. 

In September, I took a yellow flat-backed millipede (Cherokia georgiana) on live TV, namely WBIR's Live@5@4 (a first for the perennial program) to talk to Russell Biven about the curious, and very necessary, little multi-legged invertebrates, plus the Big Bug Safari we were having at the nature center.

Click: Live@5@4.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

welcome Emily #2

We will welcome WBIR Live@5@4's Emily Stroud and new reporter Emily DeVoe to Ijams on today's program. Yes, now we have two Emily's!

At the nature center, new Emily began to learn what to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of in the natural world around this case, a harmless corn snake. (Can you guess, it was the first time Emily#2 had ever held a snake not made out of rubber.) 

East Tennesseans—especially curious kids—have been enjoying the wonders and sanctity of nature at Ijams since the summer of 1923.

Monday, December 18, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #13

It has been very cold of late, what you would expect for December which makes it a bit difficult to recall the heat of summer.

In early July, I was the nature guide for a quiet, no-talking, no cell phones walk through the fields of sunflowers planted at Forks of the River WMA near Ijams. Because of the heat, we met early and mindfully, silently, slowly strolled at sunrise.

Click: sunflowers

Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #14

Adding a new species of bird to your Life List is a big deal if you are a birder. Locally, there's roughly 175 species you can find at different times of the year.

That's why it's a big deal when an odd one, lost one—a species that really should not be here—makes an appearance. Finding it, even with directions from other birders is an Indiana Jones kind of moment. Yet, the brant goose in early December was almost a bit too easy. There the lostling was walking around the parking lot at Pellissippi State Community College in the company of larger Canada geese. You really didn't have to leave the car but Rachael Eliot and I at least walked to find really wasn't hard.

Click: brant goose

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #15

It is perhaps a little hard to imagine that a fungi would make my top 15 favorite nature moments. And in truth, I have had dozens and dozens of favorite nature moments in 2017, but I had to start and stop somewhere.

In September, Ijams volunteer naturalist Nick Stahlman got us all excited about 'shrooms when he led a nature walk focused on the topic for our TN Naturalist@Ijams. 

It was only a few days later that Ijams staffer Lauren noticed the odd mushrooms by the greenhouse. They turned out to be inky caps, an extremely appropriate name since within 24 hours each cap turned to a liquid black nothingness. Yes, talk about ephemeral!

Click: inky caps.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

top nature book read in 2017

As you might suspect, I read a lot of nature/natural history books. It is just who I am. Occasionally, I will drift to another genre, as when my friend Charlie convinced me to read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in the spring, and she was right—spooky, weird, dark humor.  But as a rule, I’m a nature boy. As Annie Dillard advised, "you read the genre you write because that is what your brain thinks about" and I have written three books on nature and natural history so Annie knows best.

I would probably make a lot more money if I read and wrote spy novels, but hidden in the woods as I am, I'm a long way from espionage.

My favorite nature book that I read in the past year was a bit of a surprise: Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Who would want to read or even write a book about starlings? Don't we all hate them? Yet, it was the Mozart hook that got me. And yes, indeed, the famed composer once kept a pet starling he named "Star."

Haupt weaves a curious tale. She brings to the table a love of birds, knowledge of classic music especially the stringed instruments and an obvious admiration of quirky, off color, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (If you have seen the play or movie Amadeus, you know what I am talking about.) But Haupt also goes as far as taking in a pet European starling herself and it is perfectly legal since it is an introduced troublesome species that has no Federal protection. Introduced from Europe, the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) even has the the word vulgar in their scientific nomenclature. Her starling "Carmen" provides the humor in the book. The author even manages to travel to Vienna in search of all that is left of the prolific, yet died in poverty, composer himself.

But where Mozart’s Starling transcends other books about birds comes in the closing pages where Haupt goes from the beauty of starling murmurations into the realm of philosophy and why we all have a cosmic role to play, a creative force, a uniqueness, part of the collective yet singular too. I read the closing pages three times marveling at its message and beauty. 

And as you might suspect, gained an entire new appreciation of starlings.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

winter begins with wren

Call Better Homes & Gardens

On second thought, don't waste your dime as if a phone call still cost only ten cents. Or maybe they cost less. I was told the phone calls were free, I was only paying for the data. "But if the calls are free, why do I need the data"? One could query as did I. "You may want to do some streaming." Yes, I go streaming a lot in the summer but the streams are free too. Are we falling into "circulus in probando," or circular logic with this? Let's move on.    

The above photo is the bench on my front porch. As has been the custom in my Smoky Mountain ancestry, I have been gathering dead branches for the past two months to use as kindling in the fireplace. And on a cold night in December, which just happens to be an accurate description of this very moment, I'll start digging out my bench.  

OK. The wood pile may not look respectible, but the neighbors do not mind. They have been doing it too.

A fireplace is the best location—well hearth and home simply go together— to pass the time on long cold, cold nights. But a good brush or wood pile has a secondary raison d'être. They are irresistible to winter wrens (Troglodytes hiemalis) and I had one of the winter-only petite passerines hoping around my front porch just a few mornings ago.

Winter is coming. Winter is coming. It seemed to posit.

I think the sticks on top of more sticks passed its inspection and I would have invited it in to share the warmth if I only knew where it chose to roost. Somewhere deep in a brush pile no doubt.

Don't you just love those chunky little puffballs.

Monday, December 4, 2017

brant on a local sabbatical

Birds fly. Well, duh! 

Because of this special talent they really can go almost anywhere and sometimes they end up in places a long way from their traditional range. And when this happens, the bird-watching community scrambles to see the out-of-place wanderer to add it to their life lists, a coveted accounting of all the different species a birder sees in their lifetime. And a brant (Branta bernicla), a smallish northern goose, is rarely seen this far south and inland. 

Brants nest in northern Canada and they migrate in winter to the Atlantic seaboard and saltwater estuaries from New England south to the Outer Banks. They are only rarely seen inland on freshwater, even more rarely seen in the Tennessee Valley, even odder still, on the campus of Pellissippi State Community College in Hardin Valley. Why so public a place? No one knows.

The wanderer was first noticed by Terry Crowe, Deputy Chief of the campus police on November 14. Crowe is originally from Maryland and knew exactly what the odd small dark goose was. The nomad seemed quite comfortable with the college's resident Canada goose and muscovy population. (The smallish brant is hanging out with much larger Canada geese.)

Rachael Eliot and I saw the brant last Saturday as did Ijams volunteer Nick Stahlman and Jason and Charlotte Dykes.

This is reminiscent of last July when Starbuck got bird #149. Click: roseate spoonbill

- Thanks for the brant photos Jason and for the information Terry.  

Size comparison: Cell phone photo of brant in foreground 
with larger Canada geese.