Monday, August 14, 2017

kudzu cunning

There's a scourge in the South. It's clandestine and creepy. It's kudzu.

It works quietly among honest, moral folks. Unnoticed. Secretive.

Our friends north of the Mason-Dixon probably think it's much ado about nothing, after all, it's only a plant in the pea family. But it is wily.

Kudzu's threat is insidious, slowly blanketing acre upon acre, its goal is to turn everything into a monoculture, discouraging biodiversity and exclusion is never a good thing. All one color is not the way the natural world works. Nature thrives on diversity, even here in the South.


Friday, August 11, 2017


Whooping crane from "Ephemeral by Nature"

Often asked about the covers and illustrations in my books, I generally reply, "I'm the only illustrator I can afford."


But the fact is, I have been drawing since I was 8 or 9-years-old. Don't know why. Some kids dance. (I cannot.) Some kids tell jokes. (I cannot remember one to retell.) For me, the drawing just started and Mom would often buy me arty supplies for Christmas. One year, my parents gave me a Gilbert microscope set with prepared slides. (I still have it.) I clearly remember looking through the eyepiece sketching what I saw: a fly's wing, a bee's leg, a gnat. It was an early indicator of things to come. A budding naturalist recording the natural world.

Today I write books for UT Press and draw in my studio the things that interest me. I also work with a lot of junior naturalists at Ijams. We often look at newts, dragonflies and stinkbugs. Ergo, encourage you child's interests and someday they might draw you a bug.

Thursday, August 10, 2017



In my last post about Crawdad Willy the creek pirate, I casually mentioned hellgrammites. 

Also known as crawlers by local fishermen/women, these are the underwater larvae of dobsonflies. And they are in turn one of the largest non-lepidopteran found in our area. 

Hellgrammites are formable, hence the creepy name, but the male dobsonflies with their enlarged mandibles are pretty intense themselves. Like stag beetles, these enlarged horns are used to compete for the attention of the females. Another instance in which female-choice has driven the males of a species to an extreme look as in the bright red of a male cardinal. 

Adult dobsonflies are nocturnal carnivores found along local streams. They prey on other non-hellgrammite aquatic larva found in stream riffles and probably eat a few of their own as well. 

Both images are from WikiMedia


Friday, August 4, 2017

Toll-taker Willy

The last day of Ijams summer Adventure Camp is bittersweet, but they had one last character encounter to cheer them up! 

The adventurous kids found the hillbilly creek pirate Crawdad Willy guarding his lonely outpost on the eastern edge of the nature center

When they came upon him, he was passing his time reading the "poyotree" of Miss Emily Dickinson. "The past is such a curious creature, To look her in the face, A transport may reward us, or a disgrace."

After they helped him decipher her cryptic words, he taught them a bit about the critters that share his "crick." Things like damselflies, dragonflies, water snakes, hellgrammites, water striders and, of course, crawdads. But did he say, "sally-amander"? And notice the pickerel frog in a jar around his neck. That's his buddy. 

To pass through the gate, the campers were each marked with creek mud after giving Crawdad a gold is called Toll Creek, after all! 

And Willy be the toll-taker.

Ijams is the home of imaginative learning.

 - Jennifer Roder, guest scribe

Sunday, July 30, 2017

late cardinal brood

Cardinal nestlings  Photo by Rex McDaniel

I'm two weeks late with this post. Rex McDaniel sent me these photos July 16. By now the cardinal nestlings in the photo have fledged. But nevertheless, it is still late in the season for northern cardinals to be in a family way. Raising young ones is not easy. That's an understatement. It's exhausting. Perhaps this may even be a third brood. It is July. 

My thinking is that cardinals are under extra pressure to reproduce because they are so flamboyant, especially the males. Female choice drives the bright colors in male birds. An unmated female cardinal will choose the brightest male available. Dull guys get left out, so as a whole, the species evolves towards brighter and brighter males. The dull guy genes fall by the wayside. 

The problem is that if you and I can see the flashy males, so can Cooper's hawks. So lots of bright males fall by the wayside as well, but their genes survive in the nestlings pictured above. Thus, in order to keep the population stable, three broods may be necessary. There would not be the same pressure on dull gray catbirds, another species that likes to hide in dense shrubbery and is about the same size.

If this is all true and it reasonable to believe it is, then does a mated pair of cardinals produce more male offspring than female to replace the high number of flashy males killed by predators because they have no natural camouflage?

Let's hope the hungry nestlings survived to fly away from this nest Rex found at Ijams Nature Center.

As always, Rex thank you for your attentive eye.

I have written about my friend Rex before. He is something of a flâneur. Click: strolling about.

Mom cardinal being protective of her young. 

Photo be Rex McDaniel.


Friday, July 28, 2017

clearwing thingamabob

Hummingbird clearwing. Photo by Lynne Davis

"Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
The frumious Bandersnatch! Wrote the master of Wonderland, Lewis Carroll.

OK. Don't look them up in your field guides. Such wonderous creatures are probably not there. Carroll loved to cobble together curiosities out of various other creatures.  

But this frumious creature was real. It wasn't a jubjub bird, but it did hover over the blossoms of Lynne Davis' lantana and drank eagerly. She emailed a photo. Oddly, it favored the yellow flowers to the pink or orange.

Birds and insects have more types of color-sensitive cones at the backs of their eyes. (We have three. They have five.) They see a wider range of colors than we do. The colorful world we see, must be a true wonderland to them. But why did it favor yellow?

The wings of the mystery hovercraft 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.

The Jabberwocky thingamabob is a hummingbird in name only. It's a mimic, a hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). A moth!
Yet, unlike most moths, the curious 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, cherry and plums. The adult, small chunky moths resemble bumblebees but are often mistaken for hummingbirds because of their erratic flight patterns and nectar-sipping behavior.

Straight out of the cocoon, their forewings are covered with scales, but these are shed during their first flight, making the wings appear transparent. Why? 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. 

"O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” She chortled in her joy! 

A very odd, higgledy-piggledy little chimera straight out of Carroll’s fantasy wonderland had visited Lynne's lantana. Oh, joy!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

to the printer, you say

Coming in September

It's a big day. Confetti drop.

Just received word from Tom Post at the University of Tennessee Press that my third-born, Ephemeral by Nature, was shipped to finishing school today, i.e. to the printer. 

We did all we could for her—pampered, coddled, nurtured, paced the room late at night searching for the right word, even took long slow meditative strolls solvitur ambulando (Latin: it will be solved by walking) grappling with the flow of ideas. We nipped back the digressions. Six entire pages on the history of coffee, gone. Fascinating, yes. But germane to our topic, no.

The book has been an on again, off again project for me the past few years. Fifty-five thousands words laid down end to end. The oldest piece of writing was laid down in July 2000. That's seventeen years ago. No wonder she's ready to leave home and strike out on her on.

You can buy Ephemeral in September from that big online bookseller or from UT Press (a nonprofit) or the gift shop at Ijams Nature Center (another nonprofit) or from me, the author (certainly a nonprofit).

Thursday, July 20, 2017

spooner surprise

Rachael Eliot adding species number 150 to her Life List

A Life Bird.

The term is known by serious birdwatchers, a.k.a. birders. They keep a Life List noting the date and place they see a species of bird for the very first time. You also mentally store the moment on a synapse scrapbook buried deep inside your brain. I write about the avocation early in my upcoming UT Press book, Ephemeral by Nature. Forgive the shameless book promo.

Coming in September
"Birding is a lifetime pursuit, a sailing of the seven seas in search of treasure: a fleeting glimpse of something rare and exotic. So a Life List is precious. It requires a lot of planning and road trips. A good list is something that has to be cultivated and worked. Forget the subtlety; it’s an obsession." I write on page 2 of Ephemeral

Some species of birds float in and out of our sphere of awareness only briefly, so the sighting of a Life Bird can be extremely ephemeral.

Last Sunday, John O'Barr, a supreme local birder, stopped by the nature center while I was on duty. He told me of an oddly glamorous, rare and foreign Gulf Coast bird paying a visit to rural Blount County. A roseate spoonbill, a pink and white wading bird we almost lost to the plume hunters in the early 1900s, was on a holiday only a few miles away.

"This is only the third recorded sighting in East Tennessee in history," added O'Barr. A spoonbill in East Tennessee is about as predictable as a casino owner becoming president. Neither really should happen, what are the odds? Bazillion to one? But perhaps we have tumbled through a wormhole and entered Superman's Bizarro World, where the truly bizarre is commonplace. 

Early Monday morning, July 17, Rachael Eliot, a.k.a. Starbuck and I paid a visit to the Maryville address and found the spoonbill enjoying the company of two Canada geese by a pond only a short distance from the road. For Starbuck, it was number 150 on her Life List and a mental image was cemented into her hippocampus in her medial temporal lobe somewhere between her two ear channels. OK, that's a bit too anatomical. Let's just say she formed a lasting memory. 

Photo by John O'Barr
"A bizarre wading bird of the southern coasts, the roseate spoonbill uses its odd bill to strain small food items out of the water. Its bright pink coloring leads many Florida tourists to think they have seen a flamingo," reports the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. A white and pink bird with a bill that looks like a large mixing spoon is fairly easy to identity, even from a distance. 

Is the roseate (rosie-it) spoonbill's visit a freak occurrence? Another sign of climate change? Or the marking of a recovered species expansion of range? After all, 5o years ago it was virtually impossible to see a great blue heron or snowy egret in the Tennessee Valley. And today, they are both fairly common.

As in all things, time will tell. 

• Starbuck gets species number 149, click grosbeak.

Roseate spoonbill, pink dot on right, found a rural pond in Blount County to spend a few days. Cell phone photo. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Thank you to all who attended Ijams Sunrise & Sunflowers mute and meandering mindfulness walk this morning at 7 a.m.

We slowly serpentined in and around and through the sunflower and corn fields silently at Forks of the River WMA near Ijams, contemplating the momentno talking, no cell phones, no hassle, no Facebookeach stroller lost in their own thoughts in the early morning sun.

We were living in the moment.

Based on the Japanese stress reducing therapy called shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing," mindfulness walks are short, leisurely visits to nature that produce positive health benefits. NPR recently did a story about forest bathing, although since we were strolling through planted fields we should call it S
ōgen-yoku, or meadow bathing.

With the stress of the modern world, mindfulnessbeing lost in the moment of the real world, not the virtual world—has become all the rage lately but we have been doing mindfulness walks for the past three years at the nature center.

My next mindfulness walk will be a Saturday morning in August and we may wade through a stream. Watch for it on the Ijams Events calendar. 

And until then, go outside and sit under a tree quietly with absolutely NO electronics.

Mindfulness is all the rage across the country but we have been doing Mindfulness Walks at Ijams for three years.
Photo of our mellow strollers after we got back together as a group.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sad Vlad

This past week, the summer Adventure Camp kids got to visit Ijams' senior resident shut-in, old Sad Vlad, the vegetarian vampire who lives in the Homesite basement.

Time for breakfast. Is it dark yet?
Vlad is harmless to humans, he only drinks the blood of trees, a.k.a. sap, and the blood of fruit, a.k.a. juice. At night Vlad turns into a vampire fruit bat. This makes Vlad a frugivore not a carnivore.

Sad Vlad showed the young campers his leaf collection and gave them a copy of his nightly woodland café menu that has his favorite sipping trees: sugar maple, sweet gum, sassafras, tuliptree, wild cherry and red maple to name a few 
entrées. Or as he says, "Vlad eat ontrees.")

Ijams summer Adventure Camp specializes in outdoor adventure and imaginative learning, and, well, it's fun too. (And, yes, Vlad knows Count von Count from Sesame Street.)

Who will the kids meet this week?

- Supplied photos by Christie Collins and Jack Gress.

Monday, July 10, 2017

blue jean baby, L.A. lady

Purple martin condo at Seven Islands State Birding Park

A blue grosbeak she wanted. And a blue grosbeak she'd get. Rachael Eliot, a.k.a. Starbuck, needed one for her life list. It would be bird number 149 and I kinda, sorta knew where we might find one this morning. And with those new L.A. movie star sunglasses how could I not "make it so," Jean-Luc?

And being that I am a professional interpretive naturalist and connecting people to nature is my sworn-for-life duty, and Starbuck is my best bird nerd student ever, blessed with hearing geared for the nuance of passerine chatter, our mission was set. 

Beautifully bucolic Seven Islands State Birding Park was our destination, because I knew that the former farmland is where the chunky blue birds with cardinal-like bills and chestnut wing bars like to hang out. 

Blue grosbeaks are wide spread in the southeast but not in great numbers. Nope. Their favored breeding sites are shrubby, old-fields and that probably is a habitat type on the decline. Blue grosbeaks have a husky warbling song and appear to be overgrown indigo buntings. We found one surprisingly with minimal effort at eye level along the dirt road that has been pushed through the meadow.

For a birder, finding your target bird is like winning the lottery. No, not the million dollar kind, that would be like finding an ivory-billed woodpecker, but like buying a winning $20 ticket at the corner Weigels

We also found numerous field sparrows, indigo buntings, chats, yellow-throats, purple martins, tree swallows, perhaps a juvenile summer tanager, or at least, that was our consensus, and a lackadaisical kettle of black vultures just getting airborne.

The most curious sighting of the morning? A wackadoo mockingbird chasing a bald eagle up and down the river. Was that a metaphor for our current executive branch of government, or what?


Monday, June 19, 2017

thank you my friends

Wild Birds Unlimited
My late mother was especially proud that she was the one who taught me how to talk. So in addition to thanking her posthumously, I need to thank the following groups who have invited me to speak in the past few weeks. 

To my friends at Wild Birds Unlimited for inviting me to speak about fatherhood in the bird world. Thank you.

To the good folks of the Tellico Village Garden Club thank you for asking me to speak about hawks and other diurnal birds of prey.

To the Author's Guild of Tennessee for inviting me to chat a bit about the authoring of my three books published by the University of Tennessee Press.

To my friends at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, thank you Tiffany for asking me to speak about the "Secrets of Backyard Birds."

And finally to Dana and Marti with the Great Smoky Mountains Association for asking me to talk about local owls. I even tried to call in a northern saw-whet owl but with the overcast skies and rapidly approaching storm, they were rather taciturn that evening.  

Tellico Village Garden Club
Author's Guild of Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains Association members


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Wendy: rattlesnake whisperer

Traveling around the country, you meet a lot of interesting people, single-minded folks with convection. In April, I met Wendy Shaw, a passionate conservationist and self-confessed rattlesnake whisperer, i.e. protector and rescuer.

Yes, rattlesnakes. 

As her tagline states, "Rattlesnakes aren't really monsters. They just play monsters on TV." 

Wendy Shaw with night snake
This is the season in Washington state when snakes are on the move. Boy snakes looking for girl snakes, that sort of thing. 

Often at night they find themselves on darkened highways where their flattened scales do not find much traction and inevitably a car or truck comes barreling along. The thick, large scales on their bellies are called "scutes," and they are not particularly good at gripping asphalt. 

Western spadefoot toad
Let us hope that Wendy is behind the steering wheel of the oncoming car because she will kindly pull off the road and rescue the reptile (or even amphibians like spadefoots). Wendy will carry the herpetological creature out of harm's way, moving it as far from the thoroughfare as she is able. Wendy is not funded. Her mission is fueled by the goodness in her heart. She is just their sovereign protector like Wonder Woman.  


After a day's work, she is out until midnight or even into the wee hours, if it's a busy night, on snake patrol.

If there were a Nobel Prize for kindness, Wendy would get my nod.  

Click here and Wendy tells here own story, night patrol.  

For other posts on my trip to Yakima, click:

Friday, June 9, 2017


Feeling stressed and overwhelmed by your job? Or your life? Your place on the planet? Then turn off the news, the cell phone, the tablet, the kindle, the flatscreen. It's time to de-stress, slow down, relax and find inner peace. Time magazine just published an entire issue dedicated to the therapeutic benefits of Mindfulness. Ijams has been organizing Mindfulness Walks for two years. And they are so calming.  

If you have never been to an Ijams program
this may be the one for you.
I will be hosting two mindfulness activities in the next week.
Take some time to stop and smell the roses.
Sunday, June 11, 2 p.m. 
Mindfulness Nature Journaling  
(Ages 14 and up) Unplug from your cell phone and all electronics and join me for a no-talking nature journaling experience and record your inner peace. Bring a notebook or journal, pencil or pen and whether you draw, write prose or poetry, let nature be your inspiration. 

Saturday, June 17, 9 a.m. 
Mindfulness Walk
(Ages 14 and up) Mindfulness walks are calming strolls. Based on the therapeutic Japanese practice called Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing, it’s a meditative, calming stroll, exploring the forest using all five senses. By removing distractions such as cell phones, cameras and even talking, participants are able to truly engage with their surroundings and experience the restorative properties of nature. 

For both we meet at historic High Ground Park
1000 Cherokee Trail, Knoxville, TN 37920. 

For more information or to register go online 

High Ground Park