Saturday, October 22, 2016

spider-ology 101

We will be looking for you!

Yesterday afternoon was my third Invertebrates class for the Ed-Ventures home school families. After a short indoor formal class on insects, spiders and myriapods we did outside biological field work with swept nets and little cups to hold our catches and we found more arachnids than any other group. 

WBIR Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud dropped by Ijams to check out the activity and talk about our upcoming Spider-ology 101 class open to the public scheduled for 2 p.m. tomorrow. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110. Fee: $5 for Ijams members, $8 for non-members. Children under three are free.

Ijams Nature Center has been connecting kids and their parents with nature since 1968.

Rumor has it that Emily actually touched a tarantula. Here is her WBIR report. Click:

Thank you to all!.

Nothing brings a bigger smile than catching a really cool bug.

Monday, October 17, 2016

familiar monarchs

Group facilitator Angelique shows Sara Cate a monarch up close

We still have monarch butterflies migrating through the Tennessee Valley.

Yesterday Jennifer and Wayne Roder with their four-year-old wee one Sara Cate went to Cades Cove to tag the orange and black lepidopterans (place numbered stickers on) with a group organized by Tiffany Beachy's citizen science program at Tremont in the Smokies.

Wayne caught one and Sara Cate (with a little help from Mom) caught two ornate moths, a common buckeye butterfly and a skipper. 

Jennifer is education director at Ijams and knows it's beneficial to get young ones tuned into nature at an early age, especially if it is in league with their parents. Bonds are formed, both familiar and universal. Jennifer is the creator of the new home school program for kids and their parents at the nature center.

Sara Cate had a memorable time, undaunted, even though her net was just a bit overwhelming. 

While they were there the group caught 15 monarchs including WJX869 three times. It happens.

For my monarch adventure, click: tagging

"I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, 
which lets them slip through our fingers 
when we clutch hardest, 
to be the most unhandsome part of our condition."  
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, October 14, 2016

monarch tagging

Oliver with one of 14 monarchs he caught

Last Friday found me on Sparks Lane in Cades Cove. We were there to net and tag monarch butterflies.

Clare Datillo and Aimer Davis are both volunteers for Tiffany Beachy in the Tremont citizen science program and it is monarch-tagging season. With us were several parents with children from the home school classes I lead at Ijams: Marie with sons Carpenter and Auzlo, Amy with daughter Kylie, Christina with son Malachi, Aimer with son Will, Clare with Oliver, Annabel, and Fern, plus visiting New Yorker Annie Novak, author of "The Rooftop Growing Guide," in Tennessee chasing and tagging monarchs on her own researching a book on monarchs

Monarchs have been tagged with tiny numbered stickers for decades in order to learn their migration patterns and get a sense of their overall population which has been in decline of late. 

For a creature that flutters and stutters, moving along rather capriciously, they can be remarkably difficult to catch. Their overall behavior is certainly not aimless. To catch one, I knew I needed to fall in with a master. Therefore, I followed 10-year-old Oliver who has the necessary lepidopteran expertise. I’ve worked with him at Ijams. He’s focused and, indeed, soon he spotted one.

“It’s yours,” he said.

Nodding at his selfless act, I made it so. Swish! Later it was tagged with the number WJL735, just in case you see it.

The flowering colony of white asters proved to be a sweet spot, an oasis. That plus a favorable breeze that had kicked up from the northeast made the late morning and early afternoon bountiful. After my initial catch, Oliver caught three in one net, then four in a second, then five in a third, each time trying to outdo the catch of the one before. Others from our group began to join us. Multiple monarchs were caught then taken to Clare and Aimer to tag and record.  

In all, 34 monarchs were netted, tagged and released by our group. Oliver caught 14 of them.

“This was the best trip I was ever on,” said volunteer Aimer. “Many times we come out and do not find a single one.”

“Best day of the year!” said Clare.

- Supplied photos by Clare Datillo and Amy Roberts

Sparks Lane

Clare Datillo and the difference between a monarch and a viceroy
To the hunt

Field of white asters

My first catch, tagged with number WJL735
Our group

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Thank you, Citywide

Thank you to Mike Nichols and the Citywide Service Club for inviting me to speak at their noon luncheon

I spoke about the University of Tennessee Press, publishing and the publication of my first book Natural Histories plus some of the curious tidbits of natural history it contains. 

Topics included chickadees and language, Lewis and Clark's encounter with pawpaws, hedge apples at the Battle of Franklin and possum pelts in the Lost State of Franklin. What does any of these have to do with the other?

Well, it's in my book.  

Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Coming in 2017
And watch for my new UT Press book Ephemeral by Nature coming in 2017.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

meet and greet

Photo by Chuck Cooper
It's a splendiferous day to visit Ijams. Today you can meet one of the injured animals the education department cares for at the top of every hour beginning at noon.

Today's featured animals include our albino black rat snake I call Frostbite and Stay Puff our partially blind male barred owl. The Meet and Greets are free but donations are always appreciated. The money is used for the care and feeding of the animals and an adult barred can eat $3 worth of mice a day. Yummy. The snake? About $2 a week.  

Friday, October 7, 2016

blending in

Where's Waldo?

Can you spot the bird? 

Those that survive are those that better blend into their environs. 

Ijams regular Jason Dykes writes, "I was recently looking through some of my photos and remembered a warbler I photographed that I never did identify. I was hoping you might be able to help me out or perhaps point me in the right direction. 

It was taken in October at Norris Dam State Park on the birding trail. There was someone there who had come specifically to see the bird who pointed it out to me. Unfortunately they weren't familiar with it either, just that it was an unusual warbler. Also, do you happen to know what type of plant the bird was eating from?"

The plant is easier. It's a beautyberry, probably American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).

The warbler is harder, it's in winter plumage, very confusing. But an educated guess with the help of my Peterson's field guide, would seem to indicate that it is a yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia) in drab non-breeding plumage. Another clue. Warblers primarily eat insects but yellow warblers sometimes eat berries. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

hedge apples?

My friend Tamera Partin from Mast General Store sent me this photo of her niece Nora taken near Fort Loudoun State Park in Monroe County. Nora is holding the fruit of an Osage orange tree, a.k.a. hedge apples. They actually look like green brains but do not let the moniker "apples" fool you, absolutely nothing currently living on earth will consume one of these. It is believed by some that dinosaurs may have eaten them but there is not a single Ankylosaurus, a low-to-the-ground herbivore, left alive for me to interview.  

Tamera had heard the odd looking things repel insects and wondered if this was true. 

Osage orange is a topic I know well, I wrote about the curious tree in my first UT Press book. Here's an excerpt:

"The wrinkled fruit has a distinctive citrus smell. It’s filled with a foul-tasting sticky white latex; a sap that looks like Elmer’s Glue. Cut up sections of the fruit were once used as a natural insect repellent. They contain the chemical 2,3,4,5-tetrahydroxystilbene which has been proven to drive away household pests like cockroaches, ants, spiders, fleas, and crickets. A single fruit placed under a sink or other problem area will last for up to two months and force the roaches to relocate."

Excerpt from my book Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Coming in 2017
And watch for my new UT Press book Ephemeral by Nature coming in 2017.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

who's got your back?

She's a man-eater!

"If you're in it for love, you ain't gonna get too far, Oh-oh, here she comes. Watch out boy she'll chew you up. Oh-oh, here she comes. She's a mantid-eater," sang Hall & Oakes in 1982. 

Well, not quite, I inserted the word "mantid," but you get the idea. 

Praying mantises! This is their mating season and the large predator insects are looking for mates. If you have any single, unattached male mantids in your yard call me, perhaps I can play matchmaker. This one watching over me has been hanging around the Plaza Pond in front of the Ijams Visitor Center. 

But, keep in mind that the female often eats the male after they have coupled, so it may be a death sentence for him. (Studies have shown that she is less likely to consume her mate if she has recently eaten, so perhaps he needs to take her out to dinner before any amorous overtures are made.)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

blue morpho

Beautiful Morpho Phia-ides in center. Photo by Linda Knott.

We had a rare visit from a blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides) last Sunday afternoon at my Flutterby-ology class at Ijams. Considered one of the most spectacular butterflies on the planet, the blue morpho can have a wingspan of from 5 to 8 inches. The dorsal side of the wings are made up of tiny iridescent and metallic blue scales and the forewings are quite elongated. Normally, they are found only in in the tropical forests from Mexico to Colombia.

For a look at the rest of the class click: Flutterby-ology.

Thank you Phia for being so creative!

Giant blue morpho. Wiki commons.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

canoodling wrens

As far as we know, Carolina wrens mate for life and spend 365 days a year close to one another foraging for insects, spiders, sunflower seeds, whatnot

When nesting season is over—and they can have up to three broods year—they travel around our houses, watching each others back, ever mindful. If something seems harmful, they send out an alarm call.

They also roost near each other at night. Tiffiny and Warren Hamlin noticed their pair were spending the night in separate ends of blinds they have on their screened-in porch, but as Tiffiny emailed, they recently "caught them canoodling in the same blind." After being discovered, "They quickly split up and went to their respective blinds."

Don't you just love the word canoodling?  

The Hamlins are assistant managers at Wild Birds Unlimited on Kingston Pike. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

soldier fly: well, I never

Soldier fly
Hold on to your accent Sir David Attenborough, the most beautifully odd lifeform we found Friday with the Ed-Ventures @ Ijams homeschool class on aquatic macroinvertebrates was a soldier fly larva, a common and widespread fly of the family Stratiomyidae. Unlike many other fly species neither the larvae nor adults are considered pests or vectors. They exist pretty much unbeknowst to us.

And I had never seen one of the juvenile form before. 

Shown at top resting on my thumb, the creepy larva is essentially an aquatic "maggot"—little more than a wriggling, writhing digestive canal: a head and mouth, a long intestine and an anus, with no walking legs whatsoever.

Ed-Ventures @ Ijams Homeschoolers

Friday, September 16, 2016

opening pandora's box?

As the Ancient Greeks would have us believe, out of simple curiosity Pandora opened a box and all the evils of humanity spilled out. Must have made quite a mess. That's a lot to lump on poor Pandora. I've perhaps opened thousands of boxes in my life and other than a few gasped expletives at odd Christmas presents I've not wreaked havoc on anyone.

Charlie Morgan found the above moth, dead, splayed out, a perfect specimen of a Pandora or Pandorus Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha pandorus).

At the nature center, Jen Roder found a chunky brown caterpillar with sizable spots that's the other end of Pandora's life cycle. No evils connected to this one.

When resting, sphinx moth caterpillars fold their front legs and head underneath giving themselves rather sizable front ends which reminded someone long ago of the Egyptian Sphinx, hence the name.

And if you know the Greek myth, once the evils were spilled upon the world the only thing left in Pandora's Box was hope. 


Something for your curiosity to ponder while the evils of the world grab all the international headlines. And curious camo green miracles wrapped in ponderous mythology are relegated to the fringes of the information age—obscure blogs.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

stalking invertebrates

Josie and the Chilopoda

Centipedes are in the invertebrate class Chilopoda. They are carnivores. They bite with a pair of modified front legs called forcipules. It feels like a bee sting, so we avoid the real ones. That's why Josie is getting up-close to an oversized centipede made out of plastic. 

We had a great time recently stalking invertebrates with the Family Nature Club @ Ijams.

For more details on the club's outing, click: bugs

The centipede most often encountered indoors is Scutigera coleoptrata, or more simply "House Centipede."

Monday, September 12, 2016

work of art

Ermine moth (Ailanthus webworm)

TN Naturalist @ Ijams student Kathy Reilly has been seeing a small insect with odd coloration. I knew what it was, her description brought to mind a story I posted four years ago...

High on my "to-do" list was getting a photo of an ermine moth—specifically the Ailanthus webworm—because the boldly patterned, black, white and orange insects remind me of one of my favorite artists, French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet. Although I do not remember the color orange as being part of Dubuffet's pallette.

As their scientific name suggests, the moths are generally found on their host plant ailanthus, an introduced tree also known as "Tree of Heaven." The webworm moths are native to the tropics and south Florida but have expanded their range north as the alien trees became widespread.

Nature is in a constant state of flux. Give and take. Yin and Yang.

Although linked to the ailanthus, this week I located several of the short (slightly less than an inch in length) moths on common milkweed at Ijams.

Outdoor sculpture
Monument with
Standing Beast

by Jean Dubuffet
located in Chicago.

Friday, September 9, 2016

powder white sprite

Warren and Tiffiny Hamlin can be found at Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop on Kingston Pike. They love birds. And if you love birds you tend to watch a lot of birds. And, as this thread of logic goes, if you watch a lot of birds every so often you see something wondrous. 

Nature has a way of revealing its moments of awe when you least expect it.

The Hamlins had just gotten home from a vacation and were tending to the hummingbird feeders in their backyard when voilà they DID see something wondrous: a powder white sprite, a leucistic hummingbird had stopped by for a visit.

Similar to albinism, leucism is a genetic disorder resulting in "white, pale or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticle, but not the eyes" as in a true albino. Unlike albinism it is caused by a reduction in multiple types of pigment, not just melanin as in albinism.

But that's a lot of nuts-and-bolts science talk when the end result is something very rare and very beautiful: a pallid pixie like Tinkerbell. And it underscores the importance of being awestruck every now and then. It rocks your world. 

We are at the peak of fall hummingbird migration. Keep your feeders out and clean and fresh. Let's hope the powder white survives the fall migration and comes back next year.

Thank you, Warren for sending me the beautiful photographs. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

miracle of life

Hickory horned devil

In a natural world full of miracles, this may be one of the most profound. A moth or butterfly caterpillar spins a cocoon, creates a chrysalis or, in the case of the above hickory horned devil, burrows underground to form an earthen chamber. Then it pupates. The cellular organization that was once its worm-like body breaks down into a rich goo and then rearranges itself into a winged creature. This wondrous transformation is yet to be fully understood by biologists but it is one of the most sacrosanct undertakings in all of nature.

(The Cubs winning the World Series would be a miracle of equal amazement, but we'll wait and see about that.)

Two weeks ago was Sophia's first day of school. That's life-changing. AND to complete the analogy, she also acquired the oddest creature she had ever seen. It too would soon be going through something life-changing.

Metamorphosis: [met-uh-mawr-fuh-sis] noun. Biology. a profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism.

Photo by Shirley Andrews
Both "Soph" and her hickory horned devil caterpillar were about to go through metamorphosis. Sophia was becoming a student and the large green spiky lepidopteran larva would transform into a royal walnut moth, a.k.a. regal moth (Citheronia regalis). 

Wow! The miracles in our lives.

To prolong the enchantment, I created a terrarium with appropriate tasty leaves for the devil, but it soon eschewed the edibles to burrow underground below the dirt and detritus. It was its time. After a few days, I gently moved the material aside and found the pupa: a shiny dark capsule that held a miracle in the making.  

Good luck in school this fall, Sophia. Good luck with the transformation of your own. 

Thank you, Grandmother Linda and Mom Karen. 

For the initial post, click: big day for Sophia.

Sophia with her foundling caterpillar as long as my opposable digit!
The horned devil/regal moth pupa hidden under leaves.
Regal moth: What the horned devil will look like after metamorphosis