Thursday, November 20, 2014

coyote and I

Two days ago, a coyote (Canis latrans) trotted across Candora Avenue off Old Maryville Pike in front of my car, in broad daylight, mid-afternoon, within the city limits, three miles from downtown. Wow! Did I just write that? Twenty years of writing about nature and this is a first.

I stopped and just watched. What else could I do? But marvel at its beauty, its supple form. 

Warner Brothers' Wile E. Coyote
Wile E.? No. Wiley, well maybe, but I prefer skittish, shy, wary. And why shouldn't they be? We've been killing them for 200 years, yet still they thrive. So much so they've crossed the Mississippi River and moved into the East, exploiting a niche once occupied by wolves. 

"Oh, please stop," I muttered as it passed before me, wanting to savor the encounter. And it did, just before it disappeared into the bushes, it paused to look back. 

We were eye-to-eye, it and I. Oh, the wonder.

I wasn't alarmed, but feel fortunate to live in a city where coyotes feel free to trot across quiet streets in broad daylight. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

zombie bugs?

Run don't walk to the nearest newsstand. Or if this is still laying on your desk unopened, get out the scissors, but don't run with them.

This month's cover story in National Geographic is the creepiest, oddest, weirdest, strangest, most macabre, yet most fascinating—and you can arrange those descriptors in any order you like—I have ever read. It's a "Tales from the Crypt" kind of thing; and I have been reading the yellow-bordered Nat Geo for decades.

Real Zombies: The Strange Science of the Living Dead by Carl Zimmer is bizarre with a capital B.

I'm a naturalist, a fan/observer of all things in the natural world; how they interrelate, their connections. But somehow this goes beyond that. Parasite wasps that lay their eggs inside a host's body so that when hatched the young can eat their way out, but it goes one step further, the wasps infiltrate the host's brain to alter its behavior to do their bidding because they need to move their life cycle along. A to B to C, with B being an unwilling patsy. Otherwise the parasite does not successfully produce another generation of parasites. 

The host therefore becomes the living dead, a mindless zombie doing things to benefit the parasite and not itself.

Case history documented by Ben Hanelt: "The house cricket loses its will—and its life—to the horsehair worm. Larvae of the parasite infiltrate the cricket when it scavenges dead insects, then grow inside it. The cricket is terrestrial but the adult stage of the worm's life cycle is aquatic. [But somehow must get their larvae back on dry land to infest another cricket.] So when the mature worm is ready to emerge, it alters the brain of its host, driving the cricket to abandon the safety of land and take a suicidal leap into the nearest body of water. As the cricket drowns, an adult worm emerges, sometimes a foot long." 

Remember the scene in the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien when the young alien creature bursts from the chest of its host, John Hurt? So this sort of thing can happen to humans but only if they are in deep space.

Creepy, creepy, creepy and yet, somehow fascinating at the same time.

But there's more: The Sting of Doom.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

over sassed


Say the word in a whisper. It flows like a gentle breeze off the tongue.

It's a great moniker and a curious plant, one with a unique claim to fame.

The early English colonists in North America along the Atlantic coastline were eager to find gold and silver as the Spanish had done in South America. They found neither. They did find lots and lots of trees. Looking for something of value, the Elizabethans learned that the Native Americans drank sassafras tea as something of a “cure all.” (In the age before wonder drugs, everyone was desperate to find one.)

Hoping to make a little money, Sir Walter Raleigh took sassafras back to England from Virginia. The miracle elixir made from its roots became all the rage, spawning the “Great Sassafras Hunts.” Ships were dispatched from England in the early 1600s to collect the medicinal roots and bark that were brewed into the tonic. Billed as a proverbial Fountain of Youth, the golden brown tea smelled like root beer and supposedly kept its drinkers ageless and full of health. Sassafras teahouses became as fashionable in England as Starbucks are in Manhattan today.

The craze ended when drinkers realized they were indeed still aging, and perhaps not the picture of health they had hoped to be. As TV journalist Linda Ellerbee was prone to say, “And so it goes.”

On a neighborhood walk, I encountered a sassafras tree beginning to molt into its fall color. I left its roots intact and took only a photo, which in itself, will never age.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


I would be remiss this Veterans Day not to salute the serviceman nearest and dearest to my own heart: my late father Russell Bales, part of what journalist Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation." And who would argue with him?

Near the end of World War II, Dad served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific on the USS Yuma, an ocean-going tug.

The Yuma went to sea to tow damaged ships back to port that could not return under their own power. As my friend Guy Smoak points out, still a dangerous mission since Japanese submarines patrolled the Pacific as witnessed by the USS Indianapolis.

Dad was 16-years-old when this photo was taken; too young for service, too young for battle, too young to be so far from home. But wars are ignited by old men yet fought by the young. 

And for that, we salute all vets on this holiday that commemorates their courage and sacrifice.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Seventh visit to Panther Nation

Powell High School AP Environmental Science class spring 2014

Monday, 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 an annual tradition.

We talked about conservation, environmental studies, book writing and my ancestral link
to the Great Smokies. Each student had been assigned to read a portion of my two books: Natural Histories and Ghost Birds.

Chapters we discussed included freshwater mussels, pawpaws and freshwater jellyfish. Also of interest were hawks, Ijams and the new hiking and biking trails in the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South Loop adjacent to the nature center. Click here for: map.

One question came late, really after the bell. It concerned Sasquatch. I quickly had to answer that I viewed Big Foot as a metaphor for all that's still mysterious and unknown in nature. Is there anything hiding out there? 

For a more amplified answer, I would have had to look no farther than Powell's own mascot, the panther (Puma concolor). Adult males are up to 7.9 feet long nose-to-tail, up to 35 inches tall at the shoulders and weigh up to 220 pounds.

My Smoky Mountain grandfather called them "painters." But do they still exist in Southeastern forests? Some wildlife officials say no. We killed them all. But I have spoken to many people who have seen the big cats crossing roads in the park; and even one man who followed one on the shoreline of Norris Lake.

So, the panther is the Big Foot, or Big Paw of the Appalachians.  

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

Panther (Puma concolor) Wiki media

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Monday, November 3, 2014

Artist in the background

We all need lofty goals. They give our lives purpose.

In 1819, John James Audubon set a doozy of a goal for himself: to find and draw all of the bird species that lived in America...

At the time, no one knew how many avian species lived in this country. Audubon set out to find out but he didn’t stop with merely drawing them. He wanted to illustrate all the birds “life size.” That’s no problem with a diminutive hummingbird but whooping cranes are whoppers, roughly five feet tall...

Early in his travels Audubon asked his young protégé Joseph Mason to go along as his traveling companion. Precocious, “big for his age” and brimming with talent, for two years Mason was at Audubon’s side sketching plants and flowers that would ultimately become backgrounds to Audubon's birds...

For the rest of my article about Joseph Mason look the November/December issue of The Tennessee Conservationist

Special thanks to editor, Louise Zepp.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloweenie thanks

In the guise of arboreal pirate Red Squirrely, protector of ye hickories n' oaks n' beeches, I'd like to thank WBIR Channel 10's Live@5@4 for broadcasting one-hour of live TV today from Ijams to celebrate Halloweenie. Aaaargh!

Co-hosts Beth "Catwoman" Haynes and Russell "Captain America" Biven were on hand to greet kids in costume (and pirate squirrels) as well as were the creative staff of Ijams. 

Thank you also to reporter J.J. "Where's Waldo?" Jones, producer Lee Ann Bowman and all the other behind the scenes TV folks. And to weatherman Todd Howell for holding off he rain just a bit. 

For more photos go to: Ijams/Live@5@4 Halloween.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

B & B at Cove Lake

We had such a good time in late September at Look Rock watching for hawks, the Ijams Birding & Breakfast Club is meeting again, Saturday, December 13. This time we're going to Cove Lake to search for wintering ducks, coots and grebes. Oh my! Ijams provides the brunch and spotting scopes. You bring your cameras and binoculars. 

Fee: Ijams members, $15, non-members $20. Visit Ijams website for details or call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to sign up. 

Group photo by Jimmy Tucker.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

blending in

If form follows function, often so does color, it's so important as camouflage. Blending in is key like this yellow warbler pictured munching on American beautyberries. Where's Waldo?

Each and every day, small passerines have two overriding imperatives: 1) find enough food to survive another day, 2) stay hidden enough not to be eaten themselves, it's do or die as this wonderful photo so illustrates. 

Thank you, Jason Dykes for sending it to me.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

form follows function

The mole's front paws mirror my own hands.

In biology, form follows function. 

In the case of the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus), a medium-sized rodent-like mammal, its form is perfectly suited for life underground. Its front paws are enormous for digging tunnels in loose loamy soil. Its eyes are tiny, virtually nonexistent, because it senses its world in other ways, touch and scent. To that end, its nose is long and taped to sniff out earthworms and beetle grubs, the mole's plat préféré.

Linnaeus himself gave this species its scientific name: Scalopus, from two Greek words which mean "digging" and "foot," which is spot on but the specific name aquaticus misses the mark. There's a reason: The specimen Linnaeus reviewed was found floating dead in the water, so he assumed it was designed to swim, but a Michael Phelps it is not. 

We're captivated by mammals since we are one; so much like ourselves, yet so curiously different, especially the subterranean moles with eyes like Mr. Magoo and the hands of Van Cliburn. 

Ijams AmeriCorps educator Sammi Stoklosa recently found the dead one pictured above. It wasn't floating, just dead, perhaps killed and dropped by a great horned owl.

If so, did it die from natural causes?

Photo by Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

Sunday, October 12, 2014

soft like an owl

The thing is, owls are soft. There's really no other way to describe them, especially great horned owls. 

Hawks are alert and intense, taunt as coiled springs waiting to snap. The faster they drop from the sky, the greater their kinetic energy. POW!

But owls are soft, silent fliers that pluck their prey. Big fluffy puff balls with feet and talons like bear traps. The shock is how hard they grasp, how sharp their talons, how much it hurts. Owls are wide-eyed and stoic, watchful. if that equates to wisdom, perhaps they are wise. Wisdom alone denotes a kind of softness.

When you hold a hawk you feel powerful like a Viking king; with an owl you feel calm like a Jedi knight cloaked in darkness, lightsabers tucked. 

If you are a mouse—and if you are one I must congratulate you for reading to the end of this post. Good job! Bravo! But, if you ARE a small furry rodent, don't stress. Either way, your death will be swift.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Hawks of the Smokies

The native Cherokee have a legend of a great mythic hawk: the Tl’nuw’, a blue-gray bird of prey as large as a wild turkey. It flew high above a flock of passenger pigeons in flight, eyeing them. The lordly bird would swoop down from overhead and snatch a victim from the flock, a quick strike, instant death with a puff of scattered feathers that would slowly pirouette to the ground like falling maple samara, its seeds.

The Cherokee’s great hawk would then eat its meal on the wing without having to land. Such agility and power had to be eulogized. Although rarely seen this far south, the story loosely fits today’s northern goshawk, from the Old English gsheafoc or "goose-hawk." If I could time-travel, and go back to the late 1800s to visit my great grandfather Jim Bales, whose home site is today preserved upstream from his brother Ephraim’s on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail...

For the rest of my article "Free and Easy: Hawks of the Great Smoky Mountains" check out Smokies Life magazine, Volume 8, Number 2. 

Special thanks to The Great Smoky Mountains Association, Contributing Editor Steve Kemp and the others that put together this wonderful, wonderful magazine of my ancestral homeland.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

poo beetle dances


Humpback dung beetle. Photo by Sammi Stoklosa

"The richness of the biological world is the most wonderful feature of the biosphere, and every story is worth telling, no matter how humble, or indeed insular, is the organism concerned," writes author Richard Fortey.

Dr. Louise discovered this curious large black beetle with extra long back legs in the vulture enclosure at the nature center. AmeriCorps member Sammi Stoklosa pulled out the beetle book and quickly IDed the odd thing which brought to mind the importance of dung beetles. They help clean up the environment, carrying away the mess left behind by all sorts of creatures.

Does a bear poo in the woods?

Well, sure it does. So who cleans it up?

Ambling about in search of poo, a dung beetle finds its fecal treasure at night while we are asleep. The droppings are used as brood chambers and food for the beetle's developing young. To each its own, we all have a role to play. 

Mine is just a bit more refined.

Dung beetles eat poo, a good thing, because it keeps us from stepping in it. (One report states they prefer herbivore excrement to omnivore.)

Some dung beetles are known as tunnelers (they bury it on the spot), others are rollers. A third group actually live inside the scat, but we won't go there for now.

The rollers are interesting navigators. They roll the dung into a ball for the trip back to their homes, but how do they find their way? It's hard enough to push the lump, little on navigate, just how do they move it along on a true and proper course?

Well, it seems, it does a little orientation dance and consults the stars or position of the sun. What else can they do? There's no road maps that small. Video: beetle gets its bearings.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hawk Watch Brunch

Look Rock in the Smokies. Photo by Jimmy Tucker

A special thank you to all who attended the Ijams Birding & Breakfast Club: Hawk Watch Brunch yesterday morning at Look Rock on Chilhowee Mountain. Beautiful day, excellent view, warm camaraderie, yet, more vultures than hawks, although we were serenaded by a sprightly pine warbler.

"If you could have been lucky enough to be at Look Rock with Barbara Stedman on September 19, 1981 you would have seen a tsunami of broad-wingeds riding the cold front winds southeast. Stedman tallied 5,632 in nine and a half hours. Her big day firmly set a record and established the Tennessee location as a go-to site to watch for hawks in late September." * 

Funny how nature has a mind of its own. 

* From my article "Free and Easy: Hawks of the Great Smoky Mountains" in Smokies Life magazine: Vol. 8, No. 2.

Hawk's eye view

Thursday, September 25, 2014

hummer of a moth

Larry Hendrix sent me some nice photos he took in his yard of a mysterious flying thing. Although it flew like a small hummingbird it more closely resembled a large bumblebee.

Larry had been watching the insect in his yard he had never seen before. It bewildered him, so he grabbed his camera.

“It hovered at the blossoms of my lantana bush and drank eagerly,” he e-mailed. “It has repeated these visits three or four times. I am attaching several pictures. Can you tell what it is?”

The wings of the mystery hoverer moved so fast, they were hard to see, and its behavior was much like a hummingbird, bobbing and weaving from flower to flower, but it was much too small to be a nectar-sipping bird.

Larry’s insect was a hummingbird in name only. There are roughly 17 species of hummingbird moths found around the world, but only four in the Americas. Larry’s is known as a snowberry clearwing, a pretty name for a very unusual creature. As Alice in Wonderland cried, it’s “curiouser and curiouser!”

Unlike most moths, the curiouser clearwings are active during the day but may also continue to fly into the evening, particularly if there’s a good source of nectar.

But like all moths, clearwings go through metamorphosis: egg to caterpillar to cocoon to adult. The caterpillars feed on plants that include honeysuckle, viburnum, hawthorn, snowberry (hence the name), cherry and plums. The adult, small chunky moths resemble bumblebees but are often mistaken for hummingbirds because of their erratic flight patterns.

Straight out of the cocoon, their forewings are covered with scales, but these are shed during their first flight, making the wings appear transparent. The moth’s antennae are strongly clubbed, with small, re-curved hooks at the end, and their abdomens have yellow and black segments much like those of a bumblebee, while their bristly caboose ends resemble lobsters’ tails. Yes, curiouser and curiouser!

Larry was correct to be bewildered. We are talking about one very odd, higgledy-piggledy little creature that seems to be straight out of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy wonderland. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

a hard mast's a-gonna fall

I am sitting outside enjoying my morning coffee—somehow I made it just right today—reading a wonderful book about living fossils by British paleontologist Richard Fortey. As he writes in the prologue, "Evolution has not obliterated its tracks as more advanced animals and plants have appeared through geological time. There are, scattered over the globe, organisms and ecologies which still survive from earlier times." Fortey then travels around the world to find living examples of ancient creatures that still survive today.

So my mind is pondering deep time as I tempt my own time, i.e. fate.

The early morning sun is peeking in from the east, skies are clear but a hard rain is falling. So heavy, in fact, I hear each and every single raindrop crash and rip its way through the canopy as it drops to the ground with a thud. Occasionally, one hits nearby to ricochet "POW" off the wooden deck around me. The slightest breeze triggers a loud barrage like cannon fire at Shiloh. 

If I stop in only means that I have been ka-bonked on the head by one of these hefty raindrops. I should go inside to find my hardhat but I choose to toss caution to the morning wind like those base jumpers. We all have to push the envelope every now and then, besides a headline in the Knoxville News Sentinel that read Local naturalist KO'd by falling acorn might be amusing to some. 

This is going to be a good fall to be a squirrel. Bellies will be fat. Larders stuffed. Globular treasures hidden.

What did Dylan sing? "It's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard mast's a-gonna fall."

Indeed. Like the Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) Fortey writes about, this advanced boney head, squashy bodied animal has somehow survived another morning. 

I made it to the end of this post with my noggin intact.

Friday, September 19, 2014

yellow fuzzy

Looking at this fuzzy thing, you'd never suspect it would grow up to be called a dagger moth, so called because the adult moths have markings on their wings that look like tiny stilettos.

The caterpillars look more like one of those plush stuffed animals you win at the county fair ring-toss game, or try to win to impress a girl. (Yes, I've done it and never won or impressed.)

There are well over 100 species worldwide in this group. This fuzzy-wuzzy will spin a cocoon and emerge next spring as an American dagger moth, Acronicta americana.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

little shadow

What is life?

It is the flash of a firefly in the night,

It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.

It is the little shadow which runs across the grass

and loses itself in the sunset.

- Crowfoot, or Issapóómahksika, Native American, 
chief of the Siksika Nation

Thursday, September 11, 2014

bath time for screech

Truly, no one likes to be photographed as soon as they step out of the shower. Uncurried. Unfluffed. Unpreened.

The education birds at Ijams have places to perch to avoid getting wet when it rains but they often prefer to enjoy a refreshing shower. 

Also, the little red phase eastern screech-owl at the nature center has been a bit sickly, we've been giving her oral antibiotics for a few weeks, so she wasn't at her best.

She's improving. Thank you for asking. 

So, why did I whip out my cell phone and snap her photo? I couldn't help myself. She was so adorable like one of Jim Henson's creations.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

but one tree

If you could have but one tree in your yard near your home, but one tree to look at through the window when you were ill, but one tree to sit beside when your life is grand or not so, what would that one tree be?

Speak now. What would your tree be?

For me, it would be a Southern magnolia, green and beautiful 365 days, season to season to season. Voluptuous fecund blossoms in the spring. Crimson seeds in the fall. And at this of the year, the leaves develop the most lovely cinnamon-colored patina.

Goodness. But one tree.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Next Tuesday was today

OK. I read this last Tuesday on the NPR website: Has Next Tuesday Already Happened?

And wondered, is my life that predetermined? Birth, death and all the points in between. So I decided to mix things up and do something totally unexpected, unplanned, unscripted, unorganized, un-me. I was searching for spontaneity. Lightning in a bottle, once-in-a-lifetime-kind-of-things like a spectacular sunset or a regal mating in the woods, rare moments in nature, recherché and exquisite

But now I have to ask, Is this what I was predetermined to do all along on September 2, 2014?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

grin and tonic

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge hit home this week, 
except with a twist of lime and Tanqueray, a jaunty blend 
of grain, juniper, coriander, angelica root and liquorice;
and then there's the tonic, H2O with a splash of quinine, 
to ward off malaria.
After all, no one said you have to use water.