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.


Monday, August 25, 2014

passenger pigeon guy meets ivorybill guy

It was my great pleasure to meet naturalist and author Joel Greenberg this past weekend. He spoke at the fourth annual The Wonder of Hummingbird Festival held at Ijams Nature Center.

Greenberg, an engaging speaker and conversationalist, is the author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction published this year by Bloomsbury. 

And, of course, I am the author of Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 published by UT Press, just one of several books on the topic of the storied ghost bird of the South. 

So it was the author of a book about the extinct passenger pigeon chatting with the author of a book about a species that may or may not be extinct, a virtual feathered phantom of the Southern swamps. 

We swapped stories, books and thoughts on the perils of birds and of authoring, or was it the angst of authoritis?

Greenberg also spoke at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my friend Paul James and visited the restored home of my great-granddad, Jim Bales.  

Author Greenberg visits my ancestral homeland: the
Jim Bales cabin in the Great Smokies. Photo by Paul James.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

a voluptuous languor

Downtown Knoxville. 15 August 2014

"But when there comes a voluptuous languor,
Soft the sunshine, silent the air..."

- Walt Whitman

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

opening pandora's box?

As the Ancient Greeks would have us believe, out of simple curiosity Pandora opened a box and all the evils of humanity spilled out. Must have made quite a mess. That's a lot to lump on poor Pandora. I've perhaps opened thousands of boxes in my life and other than a few gasped expletives at odd Christmas presents I've not wreaked havoc on anyone.

Recently, Charlie Morgan found the above moth, dead, splayed out, a perfect specimen of a Pandora or Pandorus Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha pandorus).

A few days later, Ed and Luke were cutting back some Virginia creeper at the nature center and found an unknown chunky brown caterpillar with sizable spots that turned out to be the other end of this lovely Pandora's life cycle. No evils connected to this one.

When resting, sphinx moth caterpillars fold their front legs and head underneath giving themselves rather sizable front ends which reminded someone long ago of the Egyptian Sphinx, hence the name.

And if you know the Greek myth, once the evils were spilled upon the world the only thing left in Pandora's Box was hope. 


Something for your curiosity to ponder while the evils of the world grab all the international headlines. And curious camo green miracles wrapped in ponderous mythology are relegated to the fringes of the information age—obscure blogs.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

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”?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

royal encounter


It's been awhile since we visited with this wondrous thing.

We were exploring the Serendipity and Discovery Trails at Ijams with the camp kids two weeks ago. Both trails are aptly named; you almost always find something interesting. The forest at the Homesite is much older than the woods that surround the Visitor Center.

As we climbed the hill we spotted a regal moth, a.k.a. royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis) clinging to a low stem, eye-level for the campers to study. Either name works, the colorful lepidopteran is rather regal. Yet, upon closer inspection, I realized it was two members of royalty, a prince and princess. Katie took a couple of photos and we moved on, telling the kids that "they were on a date and needed their privacy."

There's a general rule: if the moth is beautiful then the caterpillar is rather plain, or vice versa. Yet, the royal walnut is an exception, both ends of the life cycle are clad in spectacular attire. 

Once mated the female will spend the rest of her short life laying eggs that will soon hatch into the big-boys of the larval moth world. Host plants include hickories, pecan, butternut, black walnut, sweet gum, persimmon and sumacs, all are found at Ijams.

The last time we visited the caterpillar stage was a few years ago. Click: hickory horned devil.

- Photos by Katie Plank 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

pirate grants safe passage

The story comes down like this.

Along the eastern border of Ijams proper there's a "crick." Most folks call it Toll Crick. But how did it get that name?

AS legend tells it, the stream is under the control of a crick pirate named Crawdad Willie, who one day found himself literally up the crick without a paddle. Now, he guards it. It's his muddy, wet home. Blimey! And to insure safe passage up or down Willie's crick, you have to pay the toll.

The toll for Toll is not huge. All you have to do is show Crawdad Willie proper respect and ask him politely if you can explore his crick. "Proper manners," sez Willie, "It be O-key to drown a few ants in your neighbor's bucket, sendin' 'em to Davy Jones' Locker, they be scurvy critters. 'N ye can look for crawdaddies and little fishy folks, but ye kent snack 'em. They belong to me, they be me bilge mates." 

Last week the camp kids — the second, third and fourth graders — attending the Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp got to meet Willie to query him and ask for safe passage. And as the story goes, one first mate asked Willie why he wasn't on the high seas like the other pirates?

It's simple. You see, Willie be "afeared of the oshin," too many sharks and barracudii and electrified eels for him. Scary stuff out to sea, me bucko. 

But Toll Creek be safe. Go explore 'er. Arrrr! 

- Photos by Jill Sublett and Katie Plank.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

in search of lost time

GNI SPECIAL REPORT: Dateline Knoxville: Barcus, world renowned archaeologist and suspected tomb raider, i.e. dealer of lost artifacts, paid a visit to Ijams last week. 

The international bon vivant Barcus is secretive, little is known about him. It is believed he has a penchant for 10,000-page French novels about the utter meaninglessness of modern existence, thus his interest in the remembrance of things past, antiquities. At Ijams, Barcus quickly called for a closed door meeting with the second, third and fourth graders attending the Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp at the South Knox nature center. 

Barcus shared a secret and none of the campers are talking. It's all very hush, hush.

Afterwards, the group slipped out of the building and quietly explored one of the iron-gated caves nearby in search of lost time. The hidden cavern is sealed-tight to protect the wildlife that lives inside: bats, salamanders and various cave-dwelling squiggles. 

The campers were surrounded by a sandy limestone formed during the Ordovician Period of geologic time, meaning that the young cave explorers were going back in time over 440 million years. The cave itself is thousands of years old, steeped in mystery but does it really hold a shadowy secret? The rusted heavy gate had not been opened in years. And we hear that another shrouded-in-intrigue conclave was held inside in the dark. Lips are sealed. Everything on the QT.

We're also in the dark on what to report, other than not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, cave bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. These animals are not pernicious, they have their role in the natural world. Ijams' Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction and to have a little fun doing it.

- Photos by Jill Sublett and Katie Plank.

In search of lost time

Upon leaving the cave, everyone knew the secret

But they're not talking.

Monday, July 21, 2014

a sheep in wolf's clothing

Unmasking the truth about nature's monsters.

Last week's Super Full Moon brought out Max, the Southside Where?Wolf. He made a guest appearance at the Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp at Ijams to kickoff the week.

For the first time ever, the second, third and fourth graders, got to interview a werewolf, an unfortunate monster. For 28 days, Max is a normal man, a mechanic who specializes in vintage MG repair. Then on the night of the 29th day — every full moon — he becomes a werewolf, which he likened to having a super bad temper tantrum. 

Max warned all the campers that learning to control their tempers was hard but they could do it, because you often hurt someone you love with your emotional outbursts. 

They also learned that Max's normal everyday life changed when he was bitten by another werewolf. There's a warning there as well. All wild animals can bite and you should never try to pick one up, especially RACCOONS even if they were very young. Always watch wild animals from a distance, give them their proper respect.

One of the young campers decided that Max must be lonely and that she could tame him, which she eventually did. 

Not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. But these animals are not pernicious, they have their role in the natural world. Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction and to have a little fun doing it.

- Photos by Jill Sublett and Katie Plank. Monster wrangler, Cam Basden 

And beauty tames the beast. The wolf man's tantrum is quailed with a soothing voice and calm demeanor. And the inner Max returns. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Misunderstood monsters

Afraid of snakes? Who knew?

Frankenstein's monster, created by Mary Shelley on a dark and stormy night in 1818, is afraid of fire, but rumor has it that he is also terrified of snakes? 

Who knew?

He stopped by Ijams' Monsters! Monsters! Nature Day Camp this week to learn more about our scaly friends and to seek some advice about dealing with his ophidiophobia (an abnormal fear of snakes).

It's a good thing our nature campers are snake experts! They taught him all about the habits of our local snakes and the important role they play in various ecosystems. 

After the campers interviewed Frankenstein learning of his phobias, they went to the Ijams' Homesite to look for reptiles and amphibians. The second, third and fourth graders found three water snakes, plus oodles of frogs. 

Like Frankenstein, northern water snakes are often persecuted. People bludgeon them thinking they are killing water moccasins but the venomous cottonmouths are not found in the Tennessee Valley. Northern water snakes are not monsters, they're harmless unless you are a frog.

Not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction.
FYI: The original movie Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff was the number one box office hit of 1931. 

- Jenny Newby, Guest blogger. Frankie photos by Jill Sublett. Other photos by Katie Plank. Monster wrangler, Cam Basden 

Yes. I'm afraid of snakes. Can you help me?

Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon)