Wednesday, April 19, 2017

silken birdfeeders

The Eastern tent caterpillar is the larva stage of a rather nondescript small brown moth. (Trust me. It’s small and brown. You’d hardly notice it, would have difficulty describing it to anyone. That's nondescript.)

Early last summer, the female adult moths laid her varnish-coated egg masses—hundreds of eggs—in the crotches of trees. The females were very particular. They only laid their eggs on the trees with leaves her young would eat. Cherries, apples and crab apples are their most common host plants.

The eggs remain there for over nine months. In early spring the tiny larvae hatch and begin spinning a small silken tent where they live protected during the day. At night the caterpillars venture out to eat leaves; their sole purpose in life is to eat a lot and grow.

The caterpillars return to their nests each morning and because they've grown—which tends to happen if you eat all night—they add to their nest to accommodate their new bulk.

People often panic when they see these tents in their trees. They want to attack them with kerosene and fire. Napalm is no longer available for household use. But relax. These silken tents are really just natural birdfeeders. Only a small percentage of the caterpillars survive, the birds eat most of them. The other day I watched a blue jay standing on top of one of the nests tossing down caterpillars as fast as it could like they were shrimp from an Aussie's barbie. Ga-day mate.

I wonder what they taste like? A bit hairy, I would imagine.

Eastern tent caterpillars, a.k.a. bird food

Friday, April 14, 2017

sharp's morning

Black-throated green warbler from Wiki media

Visited Sharp's Ridge this morning looking for migrants with Starbuck, a.k.a. Rachael—I have the day off from UT and let's go birding—Eliot.

The "winter" birds were still present: yellow-rumped warblers now in breeding plumage and a pair of ruby-crowned kinglets jousting. Pine warblers, an early migrator were also there. But with keen ears and due diligence, Starbuck located multiple black-throated green warblers by their persistent "zoo-zee, zoo-zoo-zees." And I spotted a lone worm-eating warbler moving through the canopy. Ergo: still early in the spring migration.

There are a total of 53 species of wood warbler that migrate to North America from Central and South America, well 52 if you leave out Bachman's warbler, which is probably extinct. Of the 52, 14 are western species and 38 are eastern that fly in and out of our sphere of awareness with the seasons. Starbuck and I had a fleeting few seconds, mere glimpses of four species this morning. Fleeting. But oh the rapture therein. I write about their ephemerality in my new book to be published by the University of Tennessee Press this summer.  

View from Sharp's Ridge this morning

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

big spotted

It's amphibian season at Ijams. Late last month I hosted three classes of EdVenture@Ijams for homeschool students and their parent/teachers.

One student named Jacob, who can catch anything, caught the biggest amphibians we found all month, a pair of spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum). 

These large amphibians are black with yellow spots. They are one of the mole salamanders that spend most of their lives burrowing through the top layer of soil searching for earthworms and beetle grubs. 

For more photos go to: EdVentures@Ijams.

- Supplied photos by teacher/mom Cheri Hall

Friday, April 7, 2017

froggy-ology is Sunday

Sunday, April 9, 2 p.m.
Froggy-ology 101 at Ijams

(Youthful) Our “ology” classes are for kids, young families and the young-at-heart. 

Next up? The ectothermic vertebrate animals that are born in water but generally grow up to leave it—the amphibians (from the Greek amphibios, meaning living a double life). 

We’ll have a short class indoors, enjoy some froggy snacks and then go outside exploring with dip nets. The ponds at Ijams Nature Center will be full of frogs, tadpoles and newts...yes, newts. 

Join me for some great family fun on a Sunday afternoon. The forecast looks great for both weather and newts.

Preregistration is required. Go online to

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Will we find a toad?

My first book, Natural Histories: Stories of Nature from the Tennessee Valley, published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2007 has a chapter about my long affection with frogs and toads—the anurans. And oh...the call of the American toad (Anaxyrus americanus), is such a sweet song crooned by remarkably bumpy, lumpy, Jabba the Hutt like creature. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

the hum is back

Saturday, April 8, 10:30 a.m.

Birding & Brunch at Ijams

Where are the hummingbirds? 

Well, my first two of the season appeared at my feeder on the back deck last evening just ahead of the thunderstorm.

(All Ages) Join me for this fun and lighthearted look into the world of everyone’s favorite avian pixie: the ruby-throated hummingbird. (They are about the size as the end of my thumb. See above.) We’ll also enjoy a light brunch and learn about the avian pixie’s biology and ways to make your yard hummingbird friendly. Preregistration is required. Go online to

My new book, Ephemeral by Nature, will be published this summer by the University of Tennessee Press. There's an entire chapter about the ephemerality—here one minute, gone the next—nature of hummingbirds. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

tigers appear

I first posted this, nine years ago on April 2. Today I watched the same.

"After overwintering inside chrysalids, the first generation of adult tiger swallowtails was seen fluttering through the treetops today. And after the males and females find each other and mate, the she-tigers spend the rest of their lives laying spherical green eggs on the top of leaves of certain host plants: cottonwood, tulip tree (a.k.a. tulip poplar), sweet bay, spicebush, ash and wild cherry.

[Today it was a wild cherry just beginning to leaf out.]

The adults live only a matter of days, after which, all the tiger swallowtails in our area will exist as eggs that hatch into larvae that eat, grow, molt; eat, grow, molt; eat, grow, molt until they molt one last time and form chrysalises that in time metamorphose into a new wave of adults that we will see fluttering about in several weeks.

In the South, tiger swallowtails go though two or three broods between early spring and winter. The arrival of each new generation produces a natural pulse of the spectacular yellow and black adults.

In memory of Rikki Hall who took so much joy in noticing such as this.

Monday, April 3, 2017

hummers here?

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Like most early spring bloomers, the red buckeye, a.k.a. firecracker plant in my yard is beginning to flower.

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.

In an example of co-evolution, 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.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

new year for naturalists

The 2017 edition of TN Naturalists@Ijams held their introductory meeting last Saturday. This is the fifth year the statewide program has been taught at Ijams and the fifth year for me to be apart of it as well. 

In all, it's 12 classes held once or twice a month until November. The natural science topics cover such subjects as geology, reptiles, amphibians, birds, trees, fungi, mammals and ferns.

After students finish the 40 hours of classes and the required 40 hours of volunteer work, they become certified Tennessee Naturalists.

My book Natural Histories: Stories of Nature from the Tennessee Valley published by the University of Tennessee Press is one of the outside-of-class readings recommended by some of the other state chapters, although I, blush blush, can't bring myself to do that. Would Aldo Leopold recommend A Sand County Almanac to a class he was teaching? .

Last Saturday, this class discovered that Virginia bluebells, bloodroot and trout lily were blooming and all the ponds were newt friendly, or filled with newts being friendly. We also found chorus frog eggs and learned that both redbud and red buckeye were beginning to bloom. The latter is an indication that hummingbirds are almost back into the valley.

Welcome new naturalists! If you make nature a lifelong passion, you'll never be bored.

April's class will be on Ferns & Flowers.

- Supplied photos by naturalist student and commercial photographer Kristy Keel-Blackmon.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

talkin' owls

with great horned owl

Special thanks to the Norris Woman's Club for inviting me to talk about one of my favorite topics in our universe, and maybe any other universe. But like my hero Carl Sagan, this is the only one I know.

with barred owl
I love owls! We have four species that live in my portion of the Pale Blue Dot, the Tennessee Valley: screech, barred, great horned, barn; and one that nests on the top of Old Smoky: northern saw-whet; plus two species that sometimes visit us during the winter: short-eared and long-eared. Once you know these, their preferred habitats (the short-eared is a grassland hunter, the barred likes woods near water) and their unique hooting calls you know your local owls.

with eastern screech-owl, gray phase
With proper habitat around your home, you can maybe attract two of the species—screech or barred—by simply putting up an appropriate size nest box in the woods behind your house. And, if you live in a more bucolic area and have a barn, good for you! Look for barn owls in the rafters.

My new book Ephemeral by Nature: Exploring the Exceptional with a Tennessee Naturalist, due to be published this summer by the University of Tennessee Press, begins with a chapter that might as well be titled "My life with owls." 

I have been working with the injured non-releasable nocturnal hunters at Ijams Nature Center for 19 years. And somewhere over the past two decades, I became a gray-phase human.

- Owl photos by Chuck Cooper, Shelley Conklin and Pam Petko-Seus

- Thank you Loretta for arranging the details of my visit to Norris

Norris Woman's Club (and a few guys) 

Thursday, March 16, 2017


My "ology" classes at Ijams are for kids, young families and the young-at-heart. Last Sunday it was Cloud-ology 101. We learned ten different cloud types and how they got their names, created a cloudy rainstorm in a jar and on a perfectly cloudless day assumed the guise of a cloud and went outside to fly balsa airplanes.

Old School fun? You bet, and we have been doing it since the 1920s. At Ijams kids get to unplug and be kids. We even give adults license to be 8-year-olds again.

We specialize in empowering young girls (and boys), encouraging their science-loving minds. H.P. and Alice Ijams raised four daughters on the site in the 1920s - '40s long before we were a nature center. And they taught Elizabeth, Jo, Mary and Martha to love nature.

My next ology is Froggy-ology 101 on Sunday, April 9 at 2 o'clock. And our ponds should be full of frogs, tadpoles and newts. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110.

Cumulus cloud roots on her old-school airplane
Did funnel cloud's plane do a loop-the-loop?
It's beginning to rain in my jar

Sunday, March 12, 2017

kestrel visits WBU

Spitfire, the Ijams adopted American kestrel with the very injured left wing, made a special guest appearance yesterday afternoon at Wild Birds Unlimited

She was accompanied by the nature center's senior naturalist she kept tethered to her leg so that he would behave. The smallest bird of prey found in the Tennessee Valley was part of a program about secondary cavity nesters, or birds that will use a nest box.

Only weighing roughly four ounces, kestrels are petite falcons that prey on mice in the winter and large meadow insects like grasshoppers in the summer.

Ijams has been doing outreach programs about nature and the environment since at least the 1970s. The senior naturalist has been with Ijams for 17 years, the longest period of time that he has been able to hold a job.

Wild Birds Unlimited, located in the Gallery Shopping Center at 7240 Kingston Pike, is the primary sponsor of the nature center's Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival.

Thank you to Liz, Tony, Tiffiny and Warren of Wild Birds. 

Supplied photos by Warren Hamlin.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thank you ZooKnoxville

Thank you to John Buchanan, coordinator and host of the Animal Talk series of lectures at ZooKnoxville for inviting me to speak tonight. The talks are held monthly for the zoo's volunteers. 

My topic was UT's own Dr. James T. Tanner (Jim) and his research into the then vanishing ivory-billed woodpecker in the late 1930s.

With the funding and support of the National Audubon Society and Arthur Allen's Cornell Lab of Ornithology, doctoral candidate Jim Tanner spent six years tracking down the Ghost Bird of the South. Jim's adventures were the topic of my second published book for the University of Tennessee Press: Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941. 

The book is available at Ijams Nature Center, from UT Press, Amazon or from the author: c'est moi.   

- And thank you John Mayer for suggesting me.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Rose Glen 2017

The eighth 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. The fest also features lectures, workshops and book signings by authors from the Smoky Mountains and Appalachian region. I've been a part of Rose Glen since the beginning, even serving as the initial keynote speaker at the luncheon. 

This year’s featured authors were Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, June Hall McCash and Jim Stokely who discovered an unpublished manuscript after the death of his mother, author Wilma Dykeman, entitled Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood which has since been published. 

Ben Montgomery who wrote Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, which won the 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography served as the keynote speaker.

After the luncheon, Dr. Lin Stepp, Bill Landry, Sam Venable and I took part in a panel discussion on the topic "The Ups and Downs of an East Tennessee Author." Knoxville native and WVLT-TV news anchor Alan Williams served as moderator. 

For me, Rose Glen is a homecoming. I was born in Sevierville about four miles from the convention center and grew up in Gatlinburg. I enjoy seeing all my friends—both young and older—every year at Rose Glen. 

Special thanks to Carroll McMahan, Amanda Marr, Chad Branton, director Brenda McCroskey and the rest of the staff of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce for organizing Rose Glen.

Excellent job!

J.L. and Dr. Lin Stepp
Author Shawne Cline
Three of my newer friends: Luke Copas, the youngest author at Rose Glen, and his sisters, 2014 and 2017
Author and publishing guru Betty Shreffler
Artist and now biology major in college Jordan Roberts, 2014 and 2017
Photo by Betty Powell
Alan Williams, Dr. Lin Stepp, moi, Bill Landry and Sam Venable. 

I wonder how many words these four local authors and WVLT anchor Williams (who is also a Knoxville native and writes his broadcast stories) have put to paper? Is a zillion a real number? 

And perhaps the real surprise, surprise: three of these notables went to Mooreland Heights Elementary and another one only lives 3.1 road miles from the same 
South Knoxville school. 
Can you guess which have the Mooreland connections?