Saturday, April 25, 2015


"A small and secretive bird of shrubby areas of the eastern and southern United States, the White-eyed Vireo is more noticeable for its explosive song than its looks," writes Cornell. 

They got that right.

This bird's white eye and song mnemonic, "Quick with the beer check!" describing its explosive song are its most memorable features. 

I heard the song this afternoon in dense shrubs near the river at the nature center. But actually seeing its white eye? 

I didn't get close.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

taking w/ the red-eye

Red-eyed vireo photo by John Benson
We're old friends really. And even though you hardly ever see them or their tiny red eyes, you know they're there in the canopy endlessly singing...or chattering short phrases.

Walking out to the mailbox this morning I heard one over the driveway. Chattering. Back from its winter in South America. Back to my woods.

This olive drab passerine with grayish noggin may sing for long periods, endlessly repeating the same quandary, the same back and forth. A tireless songster, the red-eyed vireo holds the record for most songs given in a single day among bird species. More than 20,000 phrases in a day. Day after day after day. 140,000 in a week. For me the chatter began today:

"Look at me...I'm up here...Really I am...Way up high...Oh, see me...How can you not?...Give me a look." 

Monday, April 20, 2015

sneezy hooded

There it was. Passing through. On its way to nesting grounds farther to the north or in the Smokies, the hooded warbler or as the early French explorers would say, "Paruline à capuchon."

I didn't see it although I tried. It was tucked away in the understory of the neighbors bushes but I heard it singing ""ta-wit ta-wit ta-wit TEE-YO" which always reminds me of sneezing: "Ahcha-ahcha-ahcha-ACHOO!"

They like to stay hidden. In the Smokies they nest in rhododendron thickets but not here, not in the foothills. My sneezy bird was only passing through on a morning after a rain with everything sodden and dripping. Perhaps that's why it was sneezing. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

a burst of winged sunshine


Prothonotary warbler

If you see but one bird. Yes, gaze upon just one bird over the next few weeks. Then truly you should make it a prothonotary warbler.

If you look up the word exquisite in the dictionary, I think there will be an illustration of a prothonotary beside the entry. Sunflower yellow, gray-green wings, it is indeed exquisite and blithe—a burst of winged sunshine.

The name "Prothonotary" honors the color of the bright yellow robes worn by the clerks in the Roman Catholic church.

They spend the bulk of the year like most warblers far to the south in the tropics: Central America and just a brush with the northern countries of South America, primarily Columbia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.  

In late spring and summer, this wood-warbler haunts our wetlands, swamps and river shorelines and they nest in hollow tree cavities or even bluebird boxes near the water. To my ear, their high-pitched songs rotate like a squeaky wheel.

A good place to begin your search is along the River Trail at Ijams, but you have to stay sharp, they're lively splashes of yellow like a Van Gogh canvas dripping with saffron.

Monday, April 13, 2015

hummers back?

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Like most early spring bloomers, the red buckeye, a.k.a. firecracker plant is flowering. This means the hummers are probably back as well, although I have yet to see one but my feeders are out.

The ruby-throated hummingbird migration northward every spring follows the flowering of this native tree. And as you can see, they have red tubular blossoms to lure the fast-flying hummers. The flowers are narrow, their sweet nectar tucked away deep inside so that only the long-billed birds can partake. Zipping about—a sip here, a sip there—benefits the buckeyes by spreading the sticky pollen from tree-to-tree.

This relationship was forged long before man-made sugar-water feeders were invented. Could the hummers survive without the buckeyes? Probably, the ruby-throats would just migrate later when other plants with tubular flowers bloomed. Could the buckeyes exist without the hummers? Perhaps not. But yet, for the tiny birds, pollinating the plants with blossoms especially designed for their bills—form follows function after all—is their
raison d'être.

And we all need a reason to exist.

Friday, April 10, 2015

it has begun

Northern parula warbler

It's April and it has begun! The migratory birds are starting to arrive. The neotropical migrants that spent the last six months in Central and South America. 

Tuesday, on a walk to the mailbox after a rain, I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak and the first wood thrush in the woods that surround my house.

At Ijams, Sammi heard Northern parulas around the parking lot at the Visitor Center. There's also reports of a prothonotary warbler checking out a nest box and ruby-throated hummingbirds in the county, so get those feeders out.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Eighth trip to Panther Nation

Powell High School AP Environmental Science class spring 2015
Today, I once again visited with the AP Environmental Science class taught by Coach Will Roberts at Powell High School, a.k.a. Panther Nation. It's become a biannual tradition.

We talked about conservation, environmental studies, urban wildlife, book writing and my job at Ijams Nature Center
. Each student had been assigned to read a portion of my two books: Natural Histories and Ghost Birds.

Topics we visited included the biology of freshwater mussels, the Native American uses of passionflower, the marsupial opossum and the recovery of bald eagles. Also of interest were my love of hawks and the new hiking and biking trails in the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South Loop adjacent to the nature center. Click here for: map.

Eastern coywolf
We also discussed the canids: dogs (Canis familiaris), coyotes (Canis latrans), gray wolves (Canis lupus) and the failed attempt to reintroduce red wolves (Canis rufus) into the Southeast. AND the surprising success of "Eastern" coyotes and their interbreeding with their once sworn enemies—gray wolves. A union that produces hybrids called coywolves (Canis anybody'sguessus)

Nature abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it. Coywolves are becoming the midsized predator the east has lost through human persecution and a means for nature to control the soaring population of raccoons. 

Best of luck to all of you! Thanks, Coach Roberts. 

Thanks, Karen Suzy.

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Fall 2014

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Birding & Breakfast

Blackburnian Warbler

 It's time for another Birding & Breakfast at Ijams. 

Saturday, April 4, 9 a.m.

This time the topic is Migratory Birds: vireos, tanagers, thrushes and warblers. Join me for this indoor program (rain is predicted) about the birds that migrate through the valley in April. Many of them will pause for a day or two in your neighborhood, so be on the lookout.

Migration is an exhaustive process. Migrants can lose over one third of their body weight. Most ultimately fly farther north. The Tennessee warbler practically leaves the country. But many remain in the Volunteer State to nest in the Cumberland and Smoky Mountains. 

Plus, as always for our B&B, Peg will be serving a traditional breakfast. Fee: Ijams members $7, non members $12. But register soon. Space is limited to first 20 people. Call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

Baltimore Oriole
Cerulean Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Northern Parula Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler

Monday, March 30, 2015

ants in the plants

ahhhh. It's spring and a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of germination. The woodland wildflowers are punching their way to the surface, but some need a little help finding a location.

Wherever you find bloodroot blooming, you know there's been ants in the plants. Yes, ants. This forest perennial's seeds are collected and spread by ants through a process called myrmecochory (mùrmekō káwree). Was that really any help?

The insects carry the fleshy seeds back to their nests, eat the nutritious portion called the elaiosome (another good Scrabble word: six vowels, wow) and discard the seeds in their nest debris where the following year they germinate into new plants. And since they are perennials, they'll be there for years to come.

Yes, the unseen ants. Deus ex machina.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Mindfulness Walk

WBIR Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud

Join me for a Mindfulness Walk tomorrow at Ijams at 1 PM. No talking. No cellphones. No cameras. No stressful distractions of any kind. We will simply be in-the-moment, at peace in the woods, practicing the health enhancing Eastern disciple of Shinrin-yoku, Japanese for "forest bathing," just like WBIR Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud and I were discussing Wednesday. 

But wait a minute! Is that someone's cellphone ringing? Watch the interview for the perfectly timed, albeit unplanned mindfulness-busting ring. Click: ring-a-ding.  

To register, call Ijams, (865) 577-4717, ext. 110, but leave your cellphone at home.

"Each time you take a mindful step, you are back in the arms of your Mother Earth and reminded of your true sweet home in the here and now," writes Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why we remember Rafinesque

Imagine that you find yourself in a new world, brimming with life. Others may have explored it, but you bring a pair of fresh, learned eyes; you bring an attention to detail like none other.

You are a naturalist, thrilled by everything you see and virtually everywhere you look, you discover something you have never seen before. Dare I say, a plant or animal that’s new to science.

While at the same time, the scientific community itself is experiencing something of an overhaul. Swedish botanist and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus had adopted a new system of naming all plants and animals. Prior to him, the names of species were wordy polynomials, i.e. long descriptive paragraphs. Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae published in the late 1700s provided a new, simpler method. Known then as Linnaean taxonomy, today we call it binomial nomenclature or simply binomials. Hence fore, every living thing was given a unique two-part scientific name generally in Latin. The first word designated its genus, the second its species.

The Southern red oak in your front yard became Quercus falcate, while the related, but different chestnut oak beside it became Quercus prinus. The family dog was designated as
Canis familiaris, while you and I are Homo sapiens. Often the original describer would be honored in the binomial itself as is Linnaeus in the red maple, Acer rubrum L or Tennessee’s own State Tree, the tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera L.

Into this world entered Rafinesque...

For the rest of my article about early American naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, check out the current issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.

Thank you, editor Louise Zepp! 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

quest completed


Ijams American woodcock searchers and soup-eaters enjoyed Peg's belly-warming soup then completed their quest, finding the elusive squat, upland shorebirds just before darkness fell last night.

American woodcocks are migrating through the county on their way to their breeding grounds to the north. A few nest in East Tennessee, we are at the southern edge of their range but who the heck could find a nest. It's hard enough to locate the re-peenting displaying males.

"Superbly camouflaged against the leaf litter, the brown-mottled American Woodcock walks slowly along the forest floor, probing the soil with its long bill in search of earthworms. Unlike its coastal relatives, this plump little shorebird lives in young forests and shrubby old fields across eastern North America. Its cryptic plumage and low-profile behavior make it hard to find except in the springtime at dawn or dusk, when the males show off for females by giving loud, nasal peent calls and performing dazzling aerial displays," states the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

Superbly camouflaged, indeed. And finding them in the twilight is always a challenge. This is an annual pre-spring ritual at the nature center.

Special thanks to all who accompanied me out into the mud.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Lynns in conjunction

We had a very rare “planetary alignment” of three of the four "Lynns" that routinely work or volunteer at Ijams Nature Center this morning.  And oddly, each spells their name a bit differently.

Flanking this Stephen Lyn is volunteer naturalist Lynne Davis on the left and on the right is Ijams children's story time reader Lynn Keffer. If only wildlife rehabilitator Lynne McCoy had been there, it would have been all four Lynns in conjunction.

Photo taken by Lynn's son. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Woodcock supper walk

American woodcock. Photo Wiki media

Each year is marked by passages: the return of chimney swifts to my chimney, the first blooming Mayapple in my woods, the first hummingbird at my feeder.

And to that end, sure signs that winter is giving away to spring are the calling of spring peepers (extra loud today) and the displaying of male American woodcocks
 (Scolopax minor), stocky camouflaged upland shorebirds that "peeeeeent" to find a mate.

Join me for this annual rite of spring! This Saturday, March 21 at 6 p.m.
(Because of the recent rain and mud we moved it to the 21st) is Ijams' annual woodcock walk in search for the displaying males. It's open to all ages. Join as we search for the secret locations for the whimsical mating display of male woodcocks, a.k.a. timberdoodles. Filled with struts, peents, flutters and tweets, it is one of the most unique performances in the birding world.

Plus Peg’s kitchen will also be serving a traditional soupy supper to warm our bellies before we go adventuring. And NO we do not eat the woodcock. 

The fee for this program is $10 for Ijams members and $15 for non-members. Dress for MUDDY conditions and bring a flashlight. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

Each year we search at twilight in big boggy fields. Here's a peek a woodcock walk search in 2013. Click: Woodcocks in March.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

the color of sky

A fortnight ago, we had two weeks of snow and ice. A last slap of winter.

On a walk at the nature center yesterday, I found several clusters of a low-growing speedwell in bloom.

Although they appear delicate, they are blooming in the cold and damp of late winter, official "calendar" spring is a few days away. I was lightly bundled; they were not. The flowers are tiny, the size of crowder peas, easily overlooked, just little splashes of color as though dropped from Claude Monet’s brush. Middens from one of his masterworks.

Drop. Drop. Drop. A spot here, a spot there, sprinkled on beds of verdant green. It's a watery shade of blue known by some artists as the color of the "sky after a rain."

Need I say more?

Monet's painting "Impression, Sunrise" led to the term for the art movement he founded: impressionism. Note the same blue.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

little spitfire

Trust me. She's a cold-blooded killer.

In the past 17 years, I've worked with several birds of prey at the nature center. All have been injured in some way, that's why we have them. All have had different – for want of a better word – personalities.

The dictionary defines feisty as: full of animation, energy, or courage; spirited; spunky; plucky. This American kestrel, le petit tigre, is all that plus she's loud! She's got cap A attitude. Female kestrels weigh roughly four ounces. If she was as big as a golden eagle, this little spitfire could dismember me in seconds. If you find yourself in a street fight, you'd want this bird on your side, she's a four ounce pitbull.

Kestrels eat small rodents and insects. In the summer, they love crunchy grasshoppers.

I know she's cute. Once called sparrow hawks, not because they ate sparrows but because they're petite like sparrows, kestrels are now known as falcons. Yet, recent genetics studies indicate that the falcons are more closely related to parrots than to hawks, so she's parrot-pretty. But the Ijams kestrel ain't no Polly, she's too pugnacious. She'd make a great scrappy faux parrot, sitting on the shoulder of a rogue pirate captain like Jack Sparrow...hawk. 

Even though it is raining off and on, stop by Ijams today for one of our Creature Features at 10 am, 2 and 3 pm. They are free! 

All photos by Chuck Cooper. 

If you're a grasshopper, this could be the last face you ever see.

You want a piece of me?
Female American kestrel—parrot pretty.

Friday, March 6, 2015

snowy eagle

Photo: Pennsylvania Game Commission

Glen Spidell sent me this story and photo of a parent bald eagle protecting its clutch from this week's winter storm and almost being completely buried in the snow. Needless to say, parenthood endured!

No one I have ever spoken to says that parenting is easy. Done properly, it's selfless. Done improperly is selfish.

Join me in the morning at Ijams for a Birding & Breakfast program about Nesting Birds. And no, it's not easy raising a family of hungry nestlings. Try regurgitating a lump of partially digested insects into a newborn's mouth some time.

This story nicely ties into the great horned owl story posted earlier. It is simply my experience that bird parents are loyal parents. They rarely abandon their clutches. 

Here's the link: snowy eagle.

Thanks, Glen.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Rose Glen 2015 was Saturday last

The sixth annual Rose Glen Literary Festival was held last Saturday in Sevierville at the Convention Center on Gists Creek Road off Hwy 66.

Rose Glen is designed as a vehicle for local authors to come together once a year and talk about and sell their books. I've been a part of Rose Glen since the beginning, even serving as the initial keynote speaker at the luncheon. Since then, local authors Dr. Bill Bass, Fred Brown, Bill Landry and News Sentinel columnist Sam Venable have keynoted. This year's keynoters were a married duo, author Wendy Welch and her husband Scottish folk singer Jack Beck.

Special thanks to Carroll McMahan and Brenda McCroskey and the rest of the staff of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce for organizing Rose Glen.

One of my favorite aspects of the festival is getting to meet and talk to other writers. Three years ago, I met Luke Copas, promoted as the youngest author there. He penned and illustrated a book about the tragic sinking of the world's most famous ocean liner called, "Facts for Kids about the Titanic." Luke is well on his way of becoming a Titanic historian; he's now working on his third book about the 1912 disaster.
Wendy Welch author of "The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book" served as keynote speaker. The title says it all. Welch spoke of her book and the perils of starting your life over, opening a bookstore without any books in a town of only 5,000 people and succeeding against all odds. But, heck, who pays attention to the odds?

Event organizer and historian Carroll McMahan has a book of his own, "Elkmont's Uncle Lem Ownby: Sage of the Smokies." Growing up in Gatlinburg, I remember when everyone's Uncle Lem still lived upstream from the Elkmont Campground. He had sold his land to the national park movement in the early 1900s but with the agreement that he got to live on it until his death. And Uncle Lem lived a long time. 

"Jellybeans for Breakfast?" The author, Shawn Cline, wrote the story and paired up with illustrator Teresa Glaze to produce this beautiful children's book. This book is educational in a fun way. Shawn's love of children and animals inspired her to write about animals and nutrition. Teresa Glaze, with her love and artistic talent has beautifully illustrated this story. Together Teresa and Shawn bring the story to life. 

When asked how many books he has written, everyone's favorite Sam Venable usually replies "a bunch." He isn't being glib, he probably doesn't know off the top of his head. I have several on my shelves and I'm lucky that he wrote the introduction for my first book. Sam's "A Handful of Thumbs and Two Left Feet" is a collection of his outdoor stories.

Multitalented Elyse Bruce is a musician, composer, singer-songwriter, visual artist, illustrator, playwright and the author of the “The Missy Barrett Adventures” book series, “The Missy Barrett Conversations” book series and the “Idiomation” book series. "The Secret Ingredient" is the third book in Bruce's Missy Barrett Adventures. In it, Missy visits Grandma and makes Nôhkom’s Artisan bread and chocolate chip cookies and learns what's Grandma's secret ingredient.

Since I also illustrate my books, I generally spend time at Rose Glen talking to young people about drawing. All kids draw, some, like me, do it all their lives. I met Jordan Roberts several years ago at the festival (she's gotten taller, I grayer) and enjoy seeing her every year to talk about art. She likes to draw animals, as I do.

And to all of the dozens of authors I didn't get to meet and talk to this year, there's always next year's Rose Glen set for February, 2016.

Author Wendy Welch

with Faye and Glen Cardwell author of
"The Greenbrier Cove Story" and "A Dream Fulfilled: A Story about Pittman Center."

Annetta, budding young artist
Sam Venable with my high school friend Ruth Carr Miller
Artist Jordan Roberts
Author Shawne Cline
Scottish folk singer Jack Beck
Author Elyse Bruce
with authors Luke Copas and Carroll McMahan

Monday, March 2, 2015

ice age melting

The ice and snow of the past two weeks have all but disappeared and the last herd of American mastodons (Mastodon americanum) was seen walking back across the melting Bering Sea land bridge towards Cincinnati and Big Bone Lick State Park at Big Bone, Kentucky. The name of the park comes from the Pleistocene megafauna fossils found there. The mastodonsfrom the Greek meaning "beast" plus "tooth" for obvious reasonsare believed to have been drawn to the Big Bone location by a salt lick deposited around sulphur springs.

Now ice and mastodon-less here in East Tennessee we're reverting back into our normal past time—throwing Clovis spear points at passing trains.

Last of the snow.