Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rose Glen is Saturday

I'll be speaking at 
Rose Glen Literary Festival this Saturday. 
Stop by and say hello.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

snow monkeys?

Heated Birdbath

When the weather turns wintry, a must for your yard is a heated birdbath. It can be harder for your backyard birds to find water than food when the temperature doesn't climb above freezing for days. The water is only warmed enough not to freeze so it's not like Myrtle Beach. 

Perhaps, it's cabin fever but I keep looking out expecting to see Japanese macaque. The famous ones that bath in the hot springs near Nagano. The so called snow monkeys "live in areas where snow covers the ground for months each year – no other non-human primate is more northern-living, nor lives in a colder climate."

If our new Ice Age continues, I also expect to see a wholly mammoth pass the house on its way to Florida.

If I see either, it would be a lifer. I'll keep you posted.

Cabin fever is a funny thing.

You got any salsa in there?

Monday, February 23, 2015

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.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

a beech's toffee

If you could be any tree, which would it be?

I've asked this question before, mostly of myself. Today, after six days of below freezing temperatures and alternating ice, snow, ice, snow, ice over that time frame, I ask it again. 

Cabin fever has me feeling fanciful. 

So my answer is the American beech because of its resilience, its tenacity. Fagus grandifolia, from the Latin Fagus for "beech," grandi meaning "great" and folia for "leaves." And there they stand still clinging on to those dead dried leaves long after others have dropped theirs. But why? I simply cannot fathom. But assuredly there has to be a practical reason. Somehow it benefits the tree.

The beeches behind my house stand stoic, sober in the snow. Still decked out. 

The soft brown leaves, the color of toffee, are beautiful today. Simply beautiful on a day I'm craving a little color and perhaps a little toffee. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

can't beat a redhead

Call me old-fashioned, call me old-school, but you really can't beat a redhead. They're just so striking, real head-turners. 

Ooh là là! (In French, it actually means, "oh dear, oh my, oh no.")

Floating out in the middle of a pond, you cannot help but notice. Jason Dykes recently visited the Alcoa Duck Pond at Springbrook, and boom, there they were.

Redheads are diving ducks, not dabblers, that only migrate through East Tennessee, generally they do not stay long. Their breeding grounds are north and northwest. Not here.

When it comes to ducks, you really can't beat a redhead (Aythya americana). Although somewhat troubling, many (but not all) of the females have the tawdry habit of not building their own nests, choosing rather to lay their eggs in other ducks' nests forcing some to cry fowl. (Sorry. Been waiting 20 years to use that line.) I must assume that the redheads raised by non-redheads soon depart to seek out the company of other true redheads or how else would they know how to be redheads? I must assume. 

Redheads. They're not gadwalls, you simply cannot misidentify one, at least the males. Female redheads are trickier, more complicated. But isn't it always the way? 

Thanks, Jason.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

maryville's twice rescued owlet

Orphaned owlet alone back in nest.
Photo: Janet McKnight
Perhaps all great horned owlets look like they need rescuing. They do resemble stuffed animals at a county fair. This owlet was saved twice. 

After the first premature rescue, wildlife officials returned the owlet to its nest in the hopes its parents would return. 

After all, the best parents for a baby bird is its real parents.

By law it had to sit there 36 hours with no sign of either parent attending it before it could be truly rescued. It was a tense 36 hours. I kept in touch with people on the scene. A wildlife official watched from a truck parked nearby.

The tension ramped up when the temperature dipped into the mid-20s last Thursday evening—its last night on the nest. Would it survive until Friday the 13th, traditionally feared as an unlucky day? Many worried it would freeze to death or starve even though the same wildlife officials had placed proper food in the nest for it. 

I feared the worst, my thoughts were with it. I felt the shiver. Janet McKnight sent me a photo oozing with pathos. Stoic little thing. Now all alone on the nest braving the cold. Three weeks old and all alone.   

Did its parents stay in the area, even though their nest had been emptied two days earlier? Would they come back one last time to check?

In the end, 36 hours passed and no parent returned. The wildlife official climbed back up the tree and, this time, rescued the owlet for real. 

It was taken to a local rehabber to care for. They will keep human contact to a minimum. But can it be habituated to return to the wild? Maybe, but it is not easy with no real avian parents to tutor it on the ways of the world. More than likely it will spend the rest of its healthy life in a cage. Perhaps we should name it "Pathos." 

Thanks to all who kept me informed. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Follow-up: great horned owlet

Wiki: "The eyes of great horned owls are amongst the largest and most
powerfully acute in the animal kingdom." They see everything moving
around them. 
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife.

Folks that know me know that I am very easy-going, amiable. But this story has really piqued my ire. And I understand that everyone involved is big-hearted including me.

I have been in the “bird” business a long time. I’m so lucky to work at Ijams Nature Center and not only conduct classes in birds of all kinds but help care for six injured birds of prey. We do not do rehab, but we are licensed by TWRA to accept birds that have gone through rehab and deemed unreleasable back into the wild.

Lucky me. Best job in Knoxville.

Since I am an interpretive naturalist (and by creed have to interpret) here are a few additional thoughts on the topic of the Maryville great horned owl nest:

Around the world animal populations are in trouble especially many species of birds.

But not in this country. Yes, populations of bobwhites, whip-poor-wills, cerulean warblers and a modest list of others are on the decline. And if I were to go outside today and see a flock of evening grosbeaks in my woods, I’d have a coronary, but not before I’d send out an alarm to come see them.

While, Bachman’s warbler, Eskimo curlew and maybe even my beloved ivory-billed woodpecker may all be now extinct.

But as a whole, in America, our birds are doing well. Why? Because we have a 100 plus year history of conservation and strong laws to protect birds.

The law: Nesting birds are federally protected. It is illegal to take any baby bird from its nest, away from its parents unless you are 100 percent sure the parents are gone for at least 36 hours. Then that bird has to go to a licensed rehabber. To my knowledge, the only species not covered by this edict is the European starling, so if you want a pet captive bird there you go. The composer Mozart reportedly had a pet starling and loved it.

Abandonment: It is my experience that very, very few parent birds abandon their nestlings. Other than cowbirds, bird parents are great parents. They may grow to hate their choice of a nest site, but they hang in there until the entire family can fly away. I’m not saying it never happens, but I’m saying it rarely happens.

Mated pairs: In a few species, ruby-throated hummingbirds to name one, the female does all the work but in most species the male and female work together to feed the young. Sometimes one is killed, but the sole remaining parent raises the young alone.

Neglect: First-time parents may be a bit inexperienced at raising babies, they may choose a poor nest site but they somehow muddle through. They get better as time goes on. My Mom says she was better with my younger sister because she made all the mistakes on me.

Sitting on the nest: When nestlings get older, the parents/parent does not always sit on the nest with them. It can get crowded, plus Mom needs a break. She’s nearby watching.

Nest failure: It happens. Not all nests survive; a lot do not. I recently read that up to 40 percent of all robins’ nests fail, yet robins have one of the fastest growing populations in the country. Why? The increase in suburban lawns.

Habitat: Great horned owl (From the Cornell website) “The broad range of habitats they use includes deciduous and evergreen forests, swamps, desert, tundra edges, and tropical rainforest, as well as cities, orchards, suburbs and parks.” Notice three of the last four and those are full of people.

The Maryville great horned pair chose that site perhaps because all other suitable habitat was taken. It tells me that the great horned owl population around Maryville is thriving or why else would it choose there? If the nest is successful, in the future, there may be other great horned owl nests up and down the greenway. Wouldn’t that be grand?

As a general rule, many species of animals and birds are moving into the cities because the country is crowded because we have great conservation laws in this country.

Diet: Owls are nocturnal; they hunt primarily at night, that’s also when the small mammals are out foraging. Great horned owls are noted for killing skunks at night. (They have a poor sense of smell.) They doze during the day and may look “neglectful.”

But, “Scarcely anything that moves is safe from this owl. It will eat prey as small as insects and scorpions or as large as domestic cats, woodchucks, geese and great blue herons. This owl's diverse diet may include small mammals to rabbits, birds and reptiles to fish and amphibians. It will take carrion when the weather is bad. It regularly preys on smaller owls and has been reported to attack and kill even red-tailed hawks. It has no predators and will eat anything from crayfish to young foxes.” Great horned owls rarely starve.

People: Will the many on-lookers cause a nest to fail? Maybe, but I doubt it. People have been respectful and kept a safe distance. Read my last post about Pale Male in New York City. And it’s the “City that never sleeps.” Everyone I have spoken to says the parent looks pretty nonchalant about the folks watching.

The Rescue: You simply do not rescue a baby bird with its parent/parents watching. That's kidnapping. The dad was probably dozing somewhere waiting for nightfall and the hunt to begin. 

The Maryville owlet: Eye witnesses tell me that the owlet was fat and chunky, appeared healthy and cared for and even was still clutching the remains of its last meal in its talons. (It appeared to be a towhee.) As I understand it, US Fish & Wildlife officials have placed it back on the nest. Pray for it. Let’s hope its parents have not fled the area because someone kidnapped their baby. Would you hang around a crime scene?

But make no mistake, the best parent for a baby bird is its parent.

As I understand it, if the parents do not reappear in 36 hours, the owlet will be rescued for real, and have to spend the rest of its life in a cage. And that’s a shame considering it’s totally healthy. A rescued baby would have a very low survival rate in the wild as an adult. It did not have its parents to teach it the necessary survival skills.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

urban birds of prey

Maryville great horned owl. Photo by Jason Dykes.

A few thoughts on the great horned owls nesting in downtown Maryville and birds of prey that choose to live in the city.

Sometimes parent birds choose poor nest sites because there's no more suitable nesting territories available, or, perhaps, they are young parents that make a poor choice. If so, they learn their lesson. 

Predators like coyotes, foxes and raccoons have become very common in our cities. Why? There's food available: mice, rats, pigeons, chunky sweet starlings, to name a few.

And, with greater frequency, birds of prey are choosing to live in cities also. Peregrine falcons can be found in several large U.S. cities, many also have very popular peregrine cams watching their nesting activities. 

New York City's Pale Male
The most famous urban-dwelling bird of prey in the world is Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk hatched in 1990, that took up residence on ritzy Fifth Avenue across from Central Park in New York City in 1991. The next year, he found a mate and they successfully raised a clutch, feeding the young nestlings city pigeons and rats, with hundreds of people watching from the park.

Pale Male became famous, raising the awareness of raptors and their role in the environment. He became a goodwill ambassador for all hawkdom. A fan club grew around him. There was a book written about him: "Red-tails in Love" (1998) by Marie Winn, which I have read. There was also a PBS Nature documentary, "Pale Male" (2004) which I have seen multiple times.

Guess what? Pale Male is still there at 927 Fifth Avenue, in the heart of one of the world's largest cities, with hundreds of people watching and taking photos for over two decades. He is the most documented red-tailed hawk in history with oodles of photos online. The most recent photo I could find was taken eight days ago: click February 2, 2015

Audubon magazine: March-April 2005
Since 1992, he and his mates have raised dozens of young redtails with hundreds of people watching his activities every day. Although he has had several mates over the years, 25-year-old Pale Male thrives in "The city that never sleeps." Perhaps he knows that a Fifth Avenue aerie is pretty posh digs, apartments there rent for millions. 

Who, could have predicted his success? No one. But it's not for us to prophesy the future. Nature itself makes these choices.

Today there are several redtails living in and around Central Park in the Big Apple. Pale Male was a pioneer.  

Perhaps I am comparing apples to oranges, but I don't think so; more like Winesaps to Granny Smiths. Great horned owls are not red-tailed hawks, but Maryville is not New York City.

If you truly, truly, truly know the nest has been abandoned, then you attempt a rescue. But you simply cannot under any circumstances assume the nest will fail and do a rescue. That is kidnapping. It's cruel and illegal even if it is done with some witnesses applauding.  

Can birds of prey survive in cities with people watching? Yes. Should people tamper with their nests, i.e. Mother Nature? No. 

Besides, their nests are federally protected. It's against the law to tamper.

Thank you, Janet Lee.

For more recent photos click Pale Male


Monday, February 9, 2015

specialized shovels

Northern shoveler. Photos by Jason Dykes

The great thing about local duck ponds in winter is that you never know what you are apt to find.

I visited the Alcoa Duck Pond at Springbrook last week and saw mallards, coots and ring-billed gulls. But Jason and Charlotte Dykes visited over the weekend and found Northern Shovelers.

And a Northern Shoveler is one handsome duck, just take a look at that
 bill. As Sibley says, "strikingly long spatulate bill." 

"Their wide-flat bill is equipped with well-developed lamellae—small, comb-like structures on the edge of the bill that act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water's surface," notes wiki. So even though they can be found with other dabbling ducks like mallards, their specialized bills allow them to find food the others miss. That's their niche. 

Shovelers are widespread, nesting in the northern climes of North America, Europe and Asia and wintering farther south, in this case, Tennessee.

Thanks, Jason.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

blessed event

Spring is the time of renewal. But some do not wait until March to get started.

Great horned owls are the first bird to nest during a calendar year in East Tennessee usually in early January. Burrrr.

Perhaps they start early because there is less competition for the available food. And raising young, vulnerable owls this size would take a lot of prey, and pray.

This year there's a very public nest in downtown Maryville that's been getting a lot of attention. Jason Dykes visited the location several times over the weekend and was finally rewarded with a glimpse of a nestling. First of 2015!

Congratulations, Mom and Dad, it's a girl! Or boy! Hard to say. At least it's a fluffy white thing sitting in its lofty perch surveying the seat of government in Blount County.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states,"The development of young Great Horned Owls is prolonged over many months... Although the nestlings are unable to fly for ten to twelve weeks, they begin venturing out onto nearby branches after about six weeks. Because fledglings remain dependent on their parents for food until fall, their harsh begging calls may be heard throughout the summer."

 Thanks, Jason!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

magnificent finch

Good birding at Ijams. And you really do not have to walk that far. In addition to the juvenile red-headed woodpecker that's been hanging around the parking lot, this morning in front of the Visitor Center we had a purple finch and a pine siskin. (There's got to be more. They never travel alone.)

Photographer Chuck Cooper got the magnificent finch listed as an irregular winter visitor throughout the east but their population numbers have been dropping for years.

As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website states, "Purple Finches seem to be losing numbers in eastern North America as House Finches have moved in after being brought to New York City in the 1950s. One study of finch behavior found that Purple Finches lost out to House Finches more than 95 percent of the times the two birds encountered each other."

The lookalike house finches are in our area year round but the declining purple finches—really more raspberry colored than purple—are much harder to locate. But doing so is a memorable moment. 

Thank you, Chuck! For sharing your find. 

Friday, January 30, 2015


“I wished to acquire the simplicity, native feelings, and virtues of savage life; to divest myself of the factitious habits, prejudices and imperfections of civilization; to become a citizen of the world; and to find, amidst the solitude and grandeur of the western wilds, more correct views of human nature and of the true interests of man.”

– Estwick Evans (1787-1866) An attorney who walked, in the dead of an extreme winter, from his home in New Hampshire to Detroit dressed in buffalo skins. He wanted to experience the wilderness first hand.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

visiting redhead

Notice the white secondary feathers 
beginning to come in
to form the triangle on the back.

The juvenile red-headed woodpecker first reported by John O'Barr, Jay Sturner and Jimmy Tucker in the parking lot at the Ijams Visitor Center is still hanging around. The initial report was posted on the Ijams blog: redheaded.

It's been seen everyday since.

The species is common on the Cumberland Plateau, but only rarely seen in the valley

John managed to get a photo. "Not a great pic, the lighting was terrible, and he didn't show himself too well before he flew away," he emailed. 

But, any photo that documents this species at the nature center is a memorable.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Wilderness Wildlife Week 2015

LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge

The 25th Annual Wilderness Wildlife Week starts tomorrow at the beautiful LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge. The yearly gathering features oodles of free activities and programs designed to connect visitors to nature.

This is my tenth year as a presenter 
with five presentations scheduled:

Sun. Jan 25, 12 Noon
Hawks of the Smokies
Greenbrier Hall A

Tue. Jan 27, 12:15 PM
IDing Local Birds of Prey
Greenbrier Hall C

Wed. Jan 28, 12 Noon
Audubon's "Birds of America"
Greenbrier Hall C

Thurs, Jan. 29, 2 PM
Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner & the Ivorybill
Greenbrier Hall C

Thurs. Jan 29, 4:30 PM 
Secrets of Backyard Birds
North Room 2


Thursday, January 22, 2015

the wanderers

Photos by Jason Dykes.

peregrine [per-i-grin] adj. wandering, traveling, or migrating.

And at speeds of well over 200 MPH, they are the fastest animal on Earth. 

Peregrine falcons are wanderers. Ode to be so. As the map shows, they can be found virtually all over the globe except the polar regions, yet the map is somewhat dated. The dark blue indicates winter resident, the dark green means breeding resident and that range is expanding as the species slowly recovers from the affects of DDT. Historically, peregrines were once in the Great Smokies, then they were all gone. In the late 1980s, the fierce falcons were reintroduced into the national park, and they're back. The most reliable place I know to find them is Alum Cave Bluff on the trail to Mt. LeConte, April into June where they nest once again. 

Or, if you cannot wait, go to downtown Maryville now. One has been hanging out in the foothills city the past several days where it's probably eating pigeons, its plat préféré. Jason Dykes found it and sent me these photos.

Magnificent creature. Such a gift to see.

Thanks, Jason.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

sunset today

Sunset over downtown Knoxville today

“There's a sunrise and a sunset every single day, 
and they're absolutely free. Don't miss so many of them.” 

- Jo Walton, Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction writer and poet.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


"It became clearer to me, as life progressed, that finding natural places within the city was not just a matter of recreation but of emotional and spiritual survival. In the woods, finding nature meant stepping out of my door. But in the city, I needed to seek out these places and the wildlife that lived there."

-From Sacred Paths and Muddy Places, By Stephen Altschuler

Saturday, January 17, 2015

craning for cranes

Sandhill cranes. Photo by Bob Davis.

"During migration and winter, non-related sandhill cranes come together to form 'survival groups' which forage and roost together. Such groups often congregate at migration and winter sites, sometimes in the thousands," notes Wiki.

Bob Davis took the above photo this week of sandhills flying just east of Washington Ferry bridge on TN Hwy 30.

We'll be making our annual Ijams Birding & Breakfast Club trip to Hiwassee to see the sandhills on Saturday, February 14.

Thanks, Bob.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

just visiting Pellissippi

Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) with Canada goose (Branta canadensis). Photo by Jason Dykes

Pellissippi State Community College has had its share of attention the past two months. Last week it was President Obama and Vice President Biden and his education-minded wife Jill. That's a big deal for the Hardin Valley campus.

In December, the visitors were avian. Two geese, or two northerners, spent some time at the campus pond and local environs. First, there appeared a lone snow goose that spent a short amount of time hanging out with the resident gaggle of Canada geese. The snowy white birds nest so far north they probably know where Santa's workshop is located. They do make forays into the US in the winter but not that often to Tennessee.

After that it was a lone greater white-fronted goose hanging out with the Canadas. They are somewhat rare here as well being that they breed in the tundra from Nunavut to Siberia, across Russia, and in Greenland and spend their winters primarily in Central America and along the west coast.  

I went twice, but saw neither. I didn't get to see the president or vice president or Jill Biden either, so I can't check that off my life list. Bummer. I did see President Nixon once but that was a long time ago, pre-Watergate and pre-life list and pre-notion-of-such.  

So is it geese or gooses? According to my online dictionary: goose, noun, plural geese for 1, 2, 4, 8; or gooses for 5—7. So six geese are called gooses? Isn't that the oddest thing? Is it real? Or is some bored Internet lexicographer messing with us?
Jason Dykes saw both special geese and sent me photos to document it. The top photo of the snow goose has two total geese, the top one below has three total geese. So they are not gooses. But collectively they show five geese, so then they are gooses? Go figure.

For fans of binomials, the bird family Anatidae contains the tribe Anserini. There are three genera in that tribe: Anser, Branta and Chen. All three are represented in these photos.  

Thanks, Jason! 

Greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) in foreground with Canada geese. Photo by Jason Dykes.

Friday, January 9, 2015

2015 then some

Being that it's nine days into the New Year, it was time I hung a new wall calendar in my office. 

This year it's The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offering with a cover photo by Linda Petersen. And look at that blithe thing, could it be that yellow? Oh yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia), you're like a winged sunbeam with a song so sweet (mnemonic: sweet sweet sweet I’m so sweet.) Could there be anything more perfect on this sub-freezing day?

All the yellow warblers on the planet are not freezing their little saffron cheeks off. They're wintering in the Yucatán Peninsula south through Central America to Columbia and Venezuela. Oh, to be so blithe; flash such élan on a distant wooded mountain. But in three months they'll pass through our valley, most on their way to breeding grounds farther north.

Sweet sweet sweet I’m so sweet.  

Thursday, January 8, 2015

5 is not enough degrees

5 is not a respectable degree. It's the number of cold fingers I had on my right hand as I started the car this morning and later the same 5 fingers picked up a can of frozen, bruised Pepsi I found in the bank parking lot.


The thermometer read 5. 

5 is the number of easy pieces Jack Nicholson played,

5 is the number Joe DiMaggio wore when he hit safely in 56 straight ball games,

5 is the number of the slaughterhouse, Schlachthof-fünf, in the Vonnegut novel,

5 is the number of Beach Boys or Fleetwood Macs,

5 is the number of cards in a poker hand,

5 the number of heads Borglum wanted on Rushmore 
   but he ran out of room, 

5 is the number of limbs on a starfish,

5 is half of a ten dollar bill, 

5 is the dimension Serling called the Twilight Zone,

5 is the number of letters in the word Pepsi that was frozen,

5 is the number of Supreme Court Justices if four phone in sick,

5 is the number of sides on the Pentagon,

5 is the number of rings in the Olympic symbol,

5 is the number of toes on Lincoln's left foot,

but, 5 is not a respectable number of degrees, 
although it makes a fairly respectable left foot.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

great owl interview

Yesterday, the Ijams great horned owl granted its first TV interview of the New Year to WBIR Channel 10's Live@5@4 effervescent reporter Emily Stroud.

The two talked about upcoming birding programs at the nature center. The first is a Birding & Breakfast Club chat about "IDing Winter Birds" this Saturday morning at 9 a.m. (Luckily, the breakfast will be prepared by Peg, not me.)