Friday, July 29, 2016

turk's cap

I’m working on completing my collection of photos of orange-flowers. Why? It’s such a finite set; there are so very few of them.

To locate the native orange lily, you have to drive up into the mountains. (I’ve already posted on two non-native imports: tiger lily and orange daylily.) Although it looks something like a tiger lily, the Turk's cap lily has been here all along, it's not an import. It predates even my hillbilly ancestry and grows in the higher elevations of the national park in mid-summer, essentially on top of Old Smoky.

The petals of this statuesque wildflower curve sharply backward on themselves. This once gave someone the impression of the caps worn historically by the Turks, hence the name.

For some reason, in the floral world, nature eschews the color orange. 

Even UT orange was originally picked because of the center color of the ox-eye daisies that grew on the Hill (that's where I took my science courses). And if you know your flowers, that's more of a Pittsburgh Steelers golden-yellow than orange. 

From the UT Traditions website, "The school colors of orange & white date to April 12, 1889, when Charles Moore, president of the University's athletic association, chose the colors for the first field day. His inspiration came from the orange and white daisies which grew profusely on the Hill. In 1891, students again wore orange and white to the Sewanee football game. In 1892, students endorsed the colors at a special meeting called for the purpose, but two years later were dissatisfied with the choice and voted to drop the colors. After a heated one-day debate no other colors proved satisfactory, so the students returned to orange and white."

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). There were no "orange" flowers growing on the hill when UT picked out their uniform colors.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

spider 101

Photo by Shirley Andrews

The best way to teach basic spider anatomy—pedipalps, carapace, cephalothorax, chelicera, abdomen, spinnerets, etc and don't forget, most of them have eight eyes—is with a large living spider, in this case a Chilean rose hair tarantula.

This was so at last Saturday's Creepy Crawly: Insect and Spider class for this year's group of TN Naturalists @ Ijams.

We also ventured outside in the heat to sweep net insects in the meadow. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

big weekend, big bug

We have two big programs planned for this weekend at the nature center.

First: Our first ever Scout Weekend open to both Girl and Boy Scouts, ages 8 to 12, or even non-scouts that age. The activities planned—canoeing, rock-climbing, team building, etc—fit badge requirements, yet even non-scouts will love them. Two days plus an overnight camp out. To register call 577-4717, ext. 116.

Second: Our annual Bug Night. Bring plastic containers and we'll catch insects at various locations around the park and come inside after dark to have a Bug Beauty (or Ugly) Contest. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110. 

To promote the events, our Giant Stag Beetle made a guest appearance on WBIR's Live@5@4 yesterday. For three minutes, it was the most famous beetle in town.
To see the interview with Beth Haynes, click: Big Weekend.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

it's what I do

Photo by Karen Claussen

Some people race cars or repair cars or build skyscrapers or sell apples or put out fires or work in banks or hospitals.

I'm a naturalist. And some days I show snakes to kids and tell them about their life histories and what to be wary of and what not to worry about. Like most of us, snakes need something to eat, a safe place to sleep and ultimately, they want to be left alone.

In this case, today it was an albino rat snake that had been found locally in someone's basement. It now lives at the nature center where we feed it, give it a safe place to sleep and, generally, we leave it alone.

It's what I do.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

bee bars open on top of old Smoky

This time of the year, Indian Gap on the Smokies crest can be a very busy place, a regular honky-tonk district. Very close to where I once found a cloaked knotty-horn and often hear saw-whet owls in late May, the bee bars (or in this case wasp-bars) are opening for business.

Filmy angelica is a robust wildflower that grows at the high elevations of the national park in early August. Although angelicas are in the culinary herb parsley family, by contrast, they are dangerously poisonous. Despite the angelic name, they do not belong anywhere near your kitchen. 

Bees and wasps apparently become intoxicated after feeding on the toxic flowers. It is reported in “Wildflowers of the Smokies” that they have been observed behaving crazily after a visit to angelica.

The only odd insect behavior I usually see is lethargy but I don't get too close. I'm OK with bees, my Dad was a beekeeper, but wasps I avoid because could there be anything more agitating or agitated than a drunken yellow-jacket?

Could this be the origin of the term “getting a buzz on”?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Chinese students visit

Local fitness expert Missy Kane led a group of visiting Chinese college students to Ijams last week.

The students from Shanghai University of Sport (SUS) were in this country taking classes at the English Language Institute (ELI). The group is hosted in Knoxville by UT professor Rob Hardin. His department (Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies) is providing a Sports Studies Seminar for the 14 students and 2 faculty.

One of the classes was outdoor recreation. They visited with me at Ijams and met two of our educational animals then Missy led the group on a hike to the sunflower fields at Forks-of-the-River WMA.

Welcome to Ijams and Tennessee! 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


 Sunday, July 17, 2 p.m.
Cicad-Academy at Ijams

Join me for this fun and lighthearted look at some of the creepy crawlies that live in East Tennessee. These programs are great for families and the young-at-heart. This month we’ll take a special look at the noisier buzzy-bugs like katydids, crickets and cicadas. We’ll venture into the meadows to see which bugs can be found and learn more about our talkative buggy buddies. If you’ve been to our “ology” programs before, you know there will also be some fun, bug-themed food. Feel free to bring something to share, or just come partake in our creepy crawly snacks! The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members $8 (Children under 3 are free). Space is limited; to register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

Here's the Live@5@4 report, click: Sunflowers and Cicadas

Friday, July 8, 2016

visiting royalty

Regal moths, a.k.a royal walnut moths (Citheronia regalis)
One of the great things about summer are the visitors that show up on your backporch at night, attracted by the bright lights. Two weeks ago it was a giant stag beetle.

This morning, I had a twofer. 

It would be tempting to think that these royal walnut moths are the adult version, several generations removed, of the caterpillar I found and blogged about in August 2010: junior devil. It's probably not, odds are overwhelming against such an occurrence, but it's fun to imagine that I could be so lucky to be visited twice by the same creature in two different forms, although in this case the incredible green hulk morphed into handsome physicist Dr. Bruce Banner, although I don't remember him being a redhead.  

The adult royals have the largest body (not the greatest wingspan) of any moth that's found north of Mexico. The caterpillars ARE incredible hulks—the legendary, green and over-sized hickory horned devils.

Hickory Horned Devil

Thursday, July 7, 2016

You go girl!


Congratulations, Starbuck! You slew the beast!

Rachael Eliot, you just finished Differential Equations, or “equations that involve derivatives of a function.” Don’t ask me, it’s advanced, advanced math that doesn’t use numbers but only Native American petroglyphs or Egyptian hieroglyphs, or something like that. This wraps up your sophomore year at UT. You be a junior now! You go girl!

To celebrate, we went to Forks of the River WMA to look for meadow birds: chats, blue grosbeaks, yellow-throats, indigo buntings and field sparrows. But the oceans and oceans of planted sunflowers overwhelmed our sensory inputs. We were bedazzled.

It was a day to be heady with golden achievement. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

raptor anniversary

I was just a puppy when it all began.  

Happy anniversary! Today, celebrating 18 years of working with the birds of prey at Ijams Nature Center. A major milestone and great turning point, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Thank you my friend, Pam Petko-Seus! 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Happy Holiday

Happy Fourth of July Holiday Weekend!

Ijams Visitor Center will be open with free animal presentations and chats at the top of the hour. Bird, snake, opossum, turtle, spider, what will it be? 

Drop by for a visit and see.

Gray ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides) named Grandpa (the snake not the naturalist)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

granite pillar

We would be remiss not to note the unimaginable passing yesterday of Coach Pat Summitt, the granite pillar of Rocky Top. She was head coach for 38 years, winning 8 National Championships. I may be a naturalist but I grew up in a sports family, and there was no sport bigger than Lady Vols Basketball. This would have broken my late father Russell's heart.

Photo taken an hour ago at Pat's statue on campus. For you Dad.  

Saturday, June 25, 2016

katy did it

Mark it on your calendar. Summer has now officially arrived, forget that solstice whatchamacallit; that crazy tilt of the planet thingamabob.

The first bush katydids of the season just started singing their rackety song in the night.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Turtle-ology 101 is Sunday

Join me for this fun and lighthearted look at some of the common turtles that live in East Tennessee. We're talking cooters, sliders and stinkpots!

Sunday, June 26, 2 p.m.
Turtle-ology 101 at Ijams

Our -ology programs are great for families and the young-at-heart. We will even get to meet a few of the shelled-reptile residents of Ijams. If you’ve been to our -ology programs before, you know there will be some fun and turtle-themed food. Feel free to bring something to share, or just come partake in our scaly snacks! The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members. (Children under 3 are free). 

Space is limited; to register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

For WBIR's report, click: Live@5@4.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

ready for a fight



Photo by Rachael Eliot
OK, finally, celebrating the first full day of summer. The six-legged joy of the season is here, e.g. big insects are starting to turn up on my backporch. Just leave the lights on and see what comes to the party. 

This fierce looking giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) was first identified and named in 1775 by the Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius who specialized in "Insecta," which at that time included all arthropods: insects, arachnids, crustaceans and their ilk.

Worldwide there are about 1200 species of stag beetle. Only the males have the impressive Road Warrior armament that they use to feign and posture, even fight each other if they have to, over territory, typically a log, and the females which lack the bluster. This one seems ready for a fight, but despite their intense demeanor, they are actually vegetarians that eat tree sap or other sweet things.

The one on my finger has a fondness for purple plum pulp.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ephemeral jellies

If they appear at all, look for freshwater jellyfish during the hottest part of late summer in local stillwater quarries and lakes.

In the Tennessee Valley there’s a small gelatinous creature that is virtually transparent with only a slight hint of white or maybe green to give it any sort of hue. Its body is 99 percent water and has no skeleton or head or brain or organs for respiration or excretion. The creature does have a mouth, long tubular stomach and reproductive organs, but little else. So it can eat and make babies, or clones of itself. You might think that such a small biological oddity would live their life unnoticed. Most of the time they do. Yet one week last summer they garnered serious media attention.

What can be so newsworthy?

Freshwater jellyfish are indeed odd, ethereal aquatic animals that live a double life. For most of their existence, they’re underwater polyps, so small and well camouflaged they are virtually invisible. Studying them, or even finding them is a difficult undertaking. At times however, on hot summer days, these polyps go through a transformation. They produce umbrella-shaped adults called medusae that look like the beached jellyfish that most of us know from trips to the seashore; except the medusae of freshwater jellyfish remain small, coin sized.
These milky-clear jellies swim towards the overhead sunlight and drift back down into the depths hunting for food, creating a shimmering effect just below the surface. Often the medusae are seen floating or swimming in clusters of dozens, hundreds or even thousands. These clusters are called “blooms.” It’s during these medusa outbursts that they become see-able, but predicting when and where they’ll appear borders on the impossible. 

For the rest of the story, read my article in the May/June 2016 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist. 


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Hawk at 3 o'clock

Photo by Chuck Cooper

Today at 3 o'clock at Ijams, meet and greet the Ijams' adopted red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) named Tiger. She has an injured wing (her left, but to your right), so she is only partial flighted. 

Redtails are the largest species of hawk found in the Tennessee Valley. They hunt over open grassland, meadows and, oddly, along the medians of interstates. Known incorrectly as "chicken hawks," they rarely go after such prey since redtails only weight three pounds. They much prefer a three or four ounce mouse.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

FNC aquatic workshop

2016 edition of the Ijams Family Nature Club

I grew up in Gatlinburg on Baskins Creek. Every summer the neighborhood kids would explore the cold water that drains off Mt. LeConte looking for crawdads, caddisfly larva and other creepy crawly creatures. 

Who would have guessed that all these years later, I'd be passing along that "old school" tradition to the Family Nature Club kids with their parents and/or grandparents at Ijams.

For the complete story, click: Aquatics Workshop

Tool Creek. Photo by Rex McDaniel


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wild Birds June visit

Where's Mom and Dad?
Thank you to all who came out on such a hot day in June to learn all about the feathered Black & Decker drilling machines we call woodpeckers. We also saluted male woodpeckers for being excellent fathers in accord with upcoming Father's Day.

Along with their mated partners, they knock out a nesthole or roost hole in a dead tree in a few days. You might say they each have a real deal drill bill for home-building. They peck, they chisel, they drill, master excavators each one.  

Also thanks to my friends— Liz, Tony, Tiffiny and Warrenat Wild Birds Unlimited, (7240 Kingston Pike #164) for inviting me to speak.

Wild birds is also where you can buy all kinds of bird related items to attract more to your yard including Jim's Birdacious Bark Butter, a food that's irresistible to woodpeckers and other insect-eating birds.

Here's a look back at my Owl-ology visit in March, click: Wild Birds Unlimited.

Photo by Warren Hamlin
Photo by Warren Hamlin

Thursday, June 9, 2016

woodpeckers make great fathers

Saturday, June 11, 1 p.m.
Woodpeckers Make Great Fathers

Just in time for Father's Day, let's salute some good fathers in our local bird world. Along with their mated partners, you might say they have a real schnoz for home-building. Join me at Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike #164 for Woody-ology 101, a program about local woodpeckers and their commitment to fatherhood. 

Call (865) 337-5990 for information.

Here's a look back at my last visit, click: Wild Birds Unlimited.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

13th visit to Tellico

The Ijams red-phase Eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio) was the special guest at the Tellico Village Garden Club luncheon on Thursday. 

I went along as Miss Screech's chauffeur, personal assistant and spokesperson. We presented a concise talk: Owl-ology 101 to the good garden clubbers about screech-owls in general and the other owl species found in East Tennessee. 

Screech-owls are native to most wooded environs in the United States east of the Rockies, more so than any other owl. As a group they have adapted well to man-made development, wooded neighborhoods and parks, although they frequently avoid detection due to their petite size and nocturnal work habits. Where humans go, mice follow. Screeches eat the small rodents, and in the summer, large arboreal insects like cicadas.

Their vocal call is a mournful descending whinny, that is frankly a bit spooky and, oddly, they come in two colors, or morphologies. Like being blonde or brunette, it has nothing to do with gender, but they can be either a rusty red or a gray. 

The screech-owl seemed to enjoy her visit, sleeping in the car on the drive to Loudon County and back. Her supper, a mouse, was waiting for her upon return to the nature center.

Thank you, Tim Pyles and the rest of the villagers for inviting us. I made my first presentation to the Tellico Village Garden Club on Thursday, January 8, 2004 and have visited the hospitable group for a chat every year since.

Afterwards, Tim wrote, "Another winner at Tellico Village. Your presentation in familiarizing us with the Owls in our neighborhoods was  excellent. Your constant humor and little quips add some much to your presentation. You are quite knowledgeable with nature and our feathered friends and you do a excellent job of sharing and educating your audience. 
We will look forward to another visit from you next year."

Tellico Village Garden Club luncheon
Saturday, June 11, 1 PM, I'll be at Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike #164, Knoxville, (phone 337-5990) for Woody-ology 101, a concise talk about the local species of woodpeckers and what you can do to help them. It's great fun. Please join us.

Here's a look back at my last visit, click: Wild Birds Unlimited.

Monday, May 30, 2016

going home again

It was Asheville novelist Thomas Wolfe who said, "You can't go home again." He meant that as soon as you leave, it begins to change. Because change is the natural order.

Last Saturday, I led a Memorial Day Weekend hike for 19 people back into my ancestral fountainhead: Baskins Creek and a waterfall that is located only a few miles upstream from my boyhood home. The trip was hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Association and GSMA Executive Director Laurel Rematore and Marketing and Membership Associate Marti Smith went along on the adventure. Lynne Davis, Ijams volunteer and wildflower aficionado, i.e. ardent devotee, was a surprise guest but her expert knowledge is always welcomed.

Great Smoky Mountains Association supports the perpetual preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the national park system by promoting greater public interest and appreciation through education, interpretation and research. 

Baskins Creek Falls is a two-tiered, 40 foot waterfall that often goes overlooked. It was only 1.7 miles into the site but mountain miles can be deceiving. The trail is rated "Easy," but I'd rate it "Easy, f.a.b.g." Or, easy for a billy goat. Oddly, it's mostly downhill going in, dropping approximately 335 feet in elevation (2580 to 2245 feet) from the Roaring Fork Trailhead. But what goes down the mountain has to climb back up. So we did. 

Ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora)
But, we were in no real hurry. It was a beautiful day, a "stop and smell the roses" kind of day, meaning it was leisurely. Mountain laurel was in bloom at the top of the ridge we had to go up and over, and the Catawba rhododendron (purple) was just beginning to flower. Most of the ephemeral spring wildflowers had come and gone, but we found two of the park's oddest plants: ghost plant, a.k.a. Indian pipe and bear corn.

Ghost plant is pale white, like a corpse. Unlike most plants it is not green, it also does not produce its own food through photosynthesis, but rather it's a parasite that steals its food from the roots of trees, most often beeches. Bear corn is another non-photosynthesizing, parasitic plant that surreptitiously siphons its food as well, usually from the roots of oaks or beeches. Both are not dependent on sunlight and can grow in very dark environments, shaded by their host trees. 

Here's my ancestral connection: Just about everywhere you look in the Roaring Fork or Baskins Creek watersheds there are ghosts: old rock walls, wagon roads, remains of stone chimneys, cemeteries. Lives were lived there, scratching an existence out of steep mountain slopes with little flat land for gardens. Granddad Homer Bales told the story of a cow that once fell out of its pasture and broke its neck. On the way into our destination, we walked past the Bales Cemetery, where several of my ancestors are laid to rest. And since a mountaineer's life was a hard-scrabble life, they were indeed at peace in the quiet setting. We stopped for awhile to pay our respects. 

The Baskins Waterfall was where my grandmother Pearl Mae Ogle Bales took showers when she was a barefoot girl, as did all of the rest of the large family.

Preston Columbus Ogle family. Circa. 1918. Front: Clifford, Elizabeth, Luther, Homer, Preston, Stella, Fred. Back: Walter, Russell, Pearl (Bales), Arlie.

In the late 1920s, great grandfather Preston Columbus Ogle sold 124.6 acres along Baskins Creek that included: a 3-room frame house, 4 tenant houses, 2 barns, a mill, 200 apple trees and a waterfall for $3,500. P.C. sold the family property, as did all of his neighbors, to become part of  a greater good: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

And a greater good it is.

Last September, I led a driving tour of the cabins along the park's Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail for the GSMA. For a look back: Click: Heritage Tour. 

Thank you, GSMA's Judy Collins for inviting me to lead both. And thank you, GSMA's Laurel and Marti.   

Baskins Creek Falls
Photographing ghost plant before it disappears
Paying respects at the Bales Cemetery
Bear corn (Conopholis americana)
Galax (Galax urceolata)
Hiking group, left and right beyond the creek
Best guess: Silvery glade fern (Deparia acrostichoides)
The hike out
Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Thank you to all! It was great fun. Photo by Linda Hintze.