Saturday, June 27, 2015

welcome outdoor writers

Early bird writers in front of a giant Rubik's Cube, one of the few remaining symbols of the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair.

The early bird gets the worm, i.e. a fresh start to the new day.

A warm welcome to the Outdoor Writers Association of America attending a conference in Knoxville this weekend.

I met a group of early birds for a guided 7 a.m. nature walk from the Holiday Inn at World's Fair Park to Second Creek just before it flows into the Tennessee River at the University of Tennessee, or from a well-manicured cityscape to a more natural lush riparian habitat.

The early bird writers were from a mix of states. 

Thanks goes to member and past president Rich Patterson for arranging the walkabout, and to the weatherman who arranged a cooler, damper morning.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Osprey brunch

Oh, did I mention how much I love osprey?

The second annual Ijams Osprey Brunch was held a week ago and the osprey did not disappoint. There was a lot of activity at the nest and around the area. 

The brunch is timed for late in the nesting when the nestlings are almost grown but yet to fledge. This year's clutch of three are almost as big as their parents. 

Historically, this fish-eating bird of prey only had a limited presence in the Tennessee Valley and the widespread usage of DDT curtailed even that. Today, with the banning of the pesticide in 1973, the species is making a robust comeback and expansion of their range. In modern times, osprey have only been in East Tennessee since the early 1980s. Now there are multiple nests up and down the chain of TVA lakes.  

Thanks to all who joined me. And thanks to Kodie for the brunch and Jim McCormick for the osprey photos!

Click the below links for a look back at other 
Birding & Brunch outings

Monday, June 22, 2015

Martian seeks audience with Earth elders

Rumor has it that Lord Roch Vole-Téck, supreme ruler of Mars, visited Ijams' summer Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp earlier this month. He wanted to speak to the Earth Elders, the really old, old ancient ones.

And just who are these elders? 

They are the unassuming, slow-moving millipedes who have roamed this planet for over 420 million years.  These "thousand legged" creatures (none actually have 1,000 legs, but they do have hundreds) are lowly detritivores. They consume detritius, the organic material — dead leaves and plants — that fall to the forest floor, helping to convert it into soil. 

The campers learned the difference between millipedes, harmless vegetarians, and centipedes, carnivores that can sting, sworn enemy of all millipedes.
FYI: The scientific study of millipedes is known as diplopodology, and a scientist who studies them is called a diplopodologist. Just so you know.

The future diplopodologists — that would be the camp kids — were able to find several handsome Tootsie Roll-sized millipedes, docile creatures to converse with and study. 

And the Earth was saved once again for the thousand-legged meek to inherit.

Not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction.

Vole-Téck's young apprentice holds tub full of millipedes.

Future supreme rulers of Mars

Monday, June 15, 2015

don't let me be misunderstood

Dr. Frankenstein and his monster were created by young Mary Shelley on a dark and stormy night in 1816. (She was still a teenager.) 

Born in lightning, the creature was switched together from various stolen body parts. An inanimate body brought to life. A good example of science overextending its reach.

But as we know from the story, the cobbled together creature was no monster. He became an outcast, the village pariah. Too ugly, too much a freak to be around polite society. 

Ijams' very own Frankenstein stopped by Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp last week. And as it turned out, was only looking for a friend and, of course, acceptance of who he was, the big green-faced lug, fully formed yet new to all around him.

"The world to me was a secret, which I desired to discover," wrote Mary Shelley.

The day-campers decided to befriend him and gave the poor thing a more user-friendly sobriquet than "Frankenstein's monster." They called him "Bob," and promptly took him exploring on a nature walk, showing him some of the things they had learned about...dragonflies, milkweed, metamorphosis.

Bob was pleased.

Not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster.


FYI: The original movie Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff was the number one box office hit of 1931.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The wolf in us all

Unmasking the truth about nature's monsters.
Possible wolfman sighting by Jill Sublett

Time for some summer fun. 

Ijams summer camps began last week, and wouldn't you know, it was on a full moon. This brought out Max, the Southside Where?Wolf, who made a guest, albeit in chains, appearance at the Monster! Nature Day Camp.

The second, third and fourth graders, got to interview a werewolf, an unfortunate monster. For 28 days, Max is a normal man, a mechanic who specializes in vintage MG repair. Then on the night of the 29th day — every full moon — he becomes a werewolf and pitches a super bad temper tantrum. He goes berserk!

This time, after his hissy fit, the wolfman broke from his chains and raced into the forest, but the camp kids were able to track him. They found Max waking from his delirium in the woods by the river, somewhat embarrassed by his lycanthropic conniption.

Max warned all the campers that learning to control their tempers was hard but they could do it, because you often hurt someone you love with your beastly outbursts. 

Not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. But these animals are not pernicious, they have their role in the natural world. Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction and to have a little fun doing it.

- Photos by Augusta. Monster wranglers, Chloe and Fireball.

Monday, June 1, 2015

On top of Old Smoky

Did someone say "Nevermore"?

While I pondered weak and weary...

Join me for another Birding & Brunch @ Ijams this Saturday, June 6, at 10 in the a.m.

Our topic? On Top of Old Smoky: The Birds of the Higher Elevations, above 4,000 feet. It's heating up in the valley but on top of the mountains it's cooler and pleasant, a most comfortable place to look for interesting birds. We're talking peregrine falcons, saw-whet owls, red-breasted nuthatches, red crossbills (good luck on that), black-capped chickadees, blackburnian warblers and those throaty, Poe-inspiring Corvids, the ravens. Nevermore.

Fee: Ijams members $5, non-members $8 with Ijams providing the brunch. Call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register. Seating is limited.

Now, back to Poe...While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping. As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

Is that someone at my door? Surely it's UPS, and nothing more. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Smokies Life: winter wren

In May and June, if you park your car along Newfound Gap Road at the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead and begin to climb the steep southern flank of Mt. LeConte, you pass through an old northern hardwood forest that features buckeye, beech and birch, towering giants still. If you listen closely above the roar of Walker Camp Prong that flows into the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, you’ll hear an avian chorus that features the chit-chatty red-eyed vireos, flute-like wood thrushes, the hollow swirling song of veery and the high buzzy thin notes of blackburnian and black-throated blue warblers, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zee. All add a lithe sweetness to the damp vernal air.

The understory here is thick, often sodden, with rosebay rhododendron, blooming dog-hobble, primordial looking ferns and moss. It’s lush with life; in the spring it’s wet and fecund.

Still you climb, past Arch Rock, past the rock hugging heath balds, past Alum Cave Bluffs and the screaming peregrine falcons, kak, kak, kak, that dominant the rocky spur, the Eye of the Needle, that points west to the cove hardwoods far below and Sugarland Mountain beyond. 

Yet, still you climb higher, passing through the zone of Eastern hemlocks and above 5,000 feet you’ll find a taste of the Canadian woodlands pushed south by the last Ice Age. You are now in remnants of spruce-fir forests long since left clinging to the tops of the Smokies like castaways on isolated isles.  

Here in the high country it gets quiet, almost spookily so. Yes, occasionally you hear the deep-voiced gurgling croak of a raven as it flies overhead and if your ears are so attuned they grasp the high-pitched whistled three-notes of the black-capped chickadee, hey, sweet-ee and the barely audible kinglets, tsee, tsee, tsee. But, beyond this, if you are lucky, you soon hear one of the longest, most melodious songs, as spiritual and zealous as any Gregorian chant ever quavered by any Benedictine monk. Yet the songs are not solemn or mournful, their joyousness is unmistakable. It’s life affirming and sweet. Dr. Fred Alsop calls it a “musical series of bubbling warbles and trills that may last five seconds or more.” You are in what Alsop calls “the dark haunts of the spruce-fir forests,” the high domain and lofty cathedral of the winter wren...

For the rest of my article about the winter wrens of the Smokies, check out the current issue of Smokies Life magazine. 

Thanks to editor Steve Kemp, Lisa Hortsman and all the rest!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


In the speak-easy days before spell check, heck I'll go one better, before Mr. Webster's dictionary, spelling was more an art form than a science.

Case in point: the Native American Catawba tribe lived in the Southeast along the border of what is today North and South Carolina. Beautiful country, I've been there.

The Catawba were primarily an agricultural people that were friendly towards early European colonists but constantly at war with other Indian tribes. (Big mistake! If the tribes had worked together and driven us out, we'd all still be living on the moors.) 

Today, roughly 2,600 Catawba still remain, mostly in the Palmetto State. The group has a tribal totem: a tree with showy white flowers. The tree bore their tribes’ name: catawba but because of a spelling error, the describing botanist—a man named Scopoli—recorded the name as “catalpa,” and that’s the moniker we use today.

Catalpa or catawba, misspelled or not, it’s still a beautiful tree when it’s in full bloom as it is now. With large heart shaped leaves, it's a fine example of southern treedom, which really isn't a word but in the spirit of freestyle spelling, I'll use it anyway.

- Photo taken along Baskins Creek in Gatlinburg

Friday, May 22, 2015

Broadwing Farm

Broadwing Farm in Hot Springs, North Carolina

Just perfect.

A special thank you to Mary and Pete Dixon. We rented one of the cabins on their organic Broadwing Farm in Hot Springs, North Carolina the past several days and as the name suggests, it's a wonderful place to watch migrating broad-winged hawks pass on their spring and fall migrations, albeit we got there a little late this year.

Karen Sue and I enjoyed the quiet, solitude and peace of the most secluded cabin. A wonderful place to get away from it all and recharge, watching the clouds pass overhead. Last night we listened to the spring peepers by the pond and a lone enthusiastic whip-poor-will calling from the hillside.

Oh, did I mention every cabin comes with fresh produce from the garden, a dozen eggs from, well...the chickens, and a hot tub filled with 85-degree mineral water pumped straight from the ground. Hot water from the ground, imagine that.

Good luck with your purple martins, Pete!

5 Stars (Well, actually I counted more than that drift over the hot tub in the dark.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

attention span?

This story made the rounds last week. 

It seems that the average goldfish (Carassius auratus) a relatively small member of the carp family native to East Asia, has an attention span of 9 seconds. But a recent Microsoft survey discovered that because of smart phones, the Internet and other quick electronic ways of keeping in touch and informed, the average well-connected human's attention span has dropped to 8 seconds. 

This is such an insul 

(I've already moved on to something else.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Return to Tremont

Going to Tremont is like a trip back home.

For a time, my ancestors lived in the next watershed over at Elkmont on Jake's Creek. Heck, they lived with Jake. (Jacob Houser's second wife was my great, great, great grandmother Anna Bales who begot Caleb, who begot Jim, who begot Homer, who begot Russell, who begot me. That's a lot of begetting.)

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is so comfortable it IS like going home. Thank you, citizen science coordinator Tiffany Beachy for inviting me to speak to your birding class about the "Secrets of Backyard Birds." It's always great fun. Courtship, territory selection, choice of mate, divorce, all that avian amour (pair bonding), angst and aggression. Backyards can be lively places; sometimes even "Peyton Places." So, who knew? 

And yet, they still have time to make a lot of baby birds, multiple clutches even. That's a lot of begetting.

See you next year, Tremonsters!

Tiffany Beachy speaks to the group

Tremont is so cozy, even the speaker gets to go barefoot.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Birding & Brunch

Thanks to all who attended my May Birding & Brunch @ Ijams program this morning.

Eastern kingbird
This is a monthly series. Today's topic was Summer Birds or the birds found at the nature center and Knox County only from late spring through summer. 

They also nest here in local environs but choose to spend their winters farther south. Most are insectivores. The eastern kingbird specializes in eating bees. That's quite a niche. (Perhaps that's why their Latin name is Tyrannus tyrannus! Long live the king!)

Great crested flycatcher
The great crested flycatcher likes to decorate its nesting cavity with a shed snakeskin. A wood thrush sings with dual vocal cords. Other spectacular summer species we looked at were the indigo bunting, common yellowthroat, white-eyed vireo, green heron, yellow-breasted chat and the diminutive blue-gray gnatcatcher. 

Thanks Kodie, for preparing the brunch!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

barn as art

This reminded me of the work of British sculptor and environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. You could call it, "Tennessee barn floating in yellow."

That's Bluff Mountain in the background.

- Photo taken in Sevier County

Sunday, May 3, 2015

place of peace

Ijams staff members Dr. Louise Conrad and Rex McDaniel

Thank you to all who joined me for a sunset picnic at Chota, the Cherokee Peace Town. The site is sacrosanct and spiritual. It remains as it was to the Native Americans so long ago, a place of peace.

We visited the Chota Memorial and paid our respects at the grave of Oconastota, the great Cherokee Warrior Chief who died of old age at Chota in 1783.

Our group also hoped to hear male Chuck-will's-widows and whip-poor-wills calling in the twilight. Both are possible. I write about it in my book Natural Histories.

In the end, we heard only Chucks, and ironically the closest was in the parking lot where our picnic began.

In the dark, Jason made an audio recording of that one greeting us as we arrived back at our cars guided by our flashlights. Click: Jason's chuck. 

Thank you, Amy and Jimmy for providing the picnic!